The Gophers softball team, which opens its season Friday with a doubleheader against Maryland in Leesburg, Fla., has two returning starting pitchers and starters at seven of the eight other positions.
First-year coach Piper Ritter will likely lean on her veterans a lot early, but that doesn't mean she doesn't have a lot of talented options if some of her veterans struggle to hit like they did last season when only three regulars had batting averages over .250.
A position-by-position look at the team:
Pitchers: Super senior Amber Fiser is the ace. She was Big Ten Pitcher of the Year and a first team All-America in 2019 when she was 31-9 with a 1.27 ERA and helped the team reach its first Women's College World Series. She slipped a bit last season, when she was 10-7 with a 2.17 ERA. She is fifth all-time in program history in wins with 82 and strikeouts with 811. Can she regain her 2019 form?If she does, Fiser will give her team a good chance to win every game she pitches.
But Fiser has some proven help. Junior Autumn Pease was impressive last season, going 4-2 with a 2.12 ERA after transferring from Idaho State. She is not the strikeout pitcher Fiser is, but she still averaged a strikeout an inning, 62 Ks in 59.1 innings.
The biggest pitching question is, who else can be dependable in the circle? The Gophers saw in the 2019 World Series that the nation's best teams all seemed to have at least three topnotch pitchers.
The Gophers have at least three candidates to ponder for that third spot:
Sophomore Kianna Jones, regarded as one of the top young pitchers in Canada who only threw in one game last season. She started a lot in right field.
Sophomore Ava Dueck, who transferred from Augustana in mid-school year, and made two appearances.She was a star at Maple Grove High School.
Freshman Ansleigh Hollifield, a Georgia all-state pick who averaged 11.9 strikeouts per game.
"Super" senior Carlie Brandt can pitch, too, but she probably won't be needed. She pitched in one game last season.
With 13 doubleheaders scheduled, the Gophers will need to develop some pitching depth. All six pitchers on the staff are right-handed. Not ideal.
Catchers: Sophomore Sydney Strelow started almost every game last season and had respectable hitting stats — .261, four doubles, one homer, 16 RBI. She threw out five baserunners.
Junior Megan Dray, a graduate transfer from North Carolina, could challenge Strelow for her spot. Dray was the Tar Heels' regularcatcher last season, starting all 24 games, and hit .301 with 12 extra-base hits.
And then there is sophomore Olivia Peterson, whom Strelow beat out for the job last season; she started in four games.
Add to the mix behind the plate are three freshmen catchers, one or two of whom might be tried at other spots: Chloe Evans and Sara Kinch, two players from California, and Clare Ceynowa of Brainerd.
Evans hit .667 with 14 homers and 37 RBI in 2019; Ceynowa had 58 RBI in 2018, 35 in 2019. So two big bats there to plug in at times.
First base: Sophomore Emily Hansen was the starter last year. She hit .250 with four doubles, two homers and 17 RBI in 25 games. But she made a team-high six errors.
Freshman Maddy Ehlke of Green Bay, a left-handed hitter, could push Hanson for playing time. In 2019, Ehlke was all-state in Wisconsin and hit .491 with 16 doubles, three triples and 11 homers.
Second base: This is "super" senior MaKenna Partain's position. The two-time, All-Big Ten pick hit lead-off last season and batted .349, second highest on the team. She had seven doubles, four homers and six steals and made only one error.
Shortstop: "Super" senior Carlie Brandt is the most versatile player on the team. She can and has played every position but catcher. She played shortstop mostly last season. She struggled at the plate: .177, five doubles, one triple, eight RBI.
Freshman Jenna Beckstrom of Lakeville North could challenge Brandt for playing time as the season progresses. In 2019, she hit .552, with three doubles, seven homers and 24 RBI and was named all-state. She started playing for the Panthers' varsity as an eighth-grader and became one of the team captains as a sophomore. A leader.
Third base: "Super" senior Katelyn Kemmetmueller returns to the hot corner. She made the Big Ten all-defensive team as a junior but, like Brandt, struggled at the plate last season when she hit .203 with three doubles, three homer and 10 RBI.
Freshman Rylie Costa, another player from California, could push Kemmetmueller for playing time. A four-time all-conference player in high school, Costa had a .539 career batting average.
Left field:Junior Natalie DenHartog made herself into a better fielder from her freshman to sophomore years and manned this spot. She's Gophers best hitter. Hit .429 last season with seven homers and 28 RBI – all team bests. She hit 17 homers and had 64 RBI as a freshman. See her batting third or fourth in lineup.
Ellee Jensen has a good shot at playing one of the other two outfield spots. She hit .400 as a freshman three seasons ago, missed one season altogether with injuries and was just starting to play last season when it abruptly ended. She's a fast, lefthanded hitter who puts the ball in play.
Aside from those two, the other outfield spot seem wide open. Senior Brooke Vander Heide, the center fielder last season, decided not to return.
Kianna Jones played a lot in right field, but she came to Minnesota to pitch. Her offensive numbers were average: .250, two homers, three RBI.
Ali Linder started 14 games but hit only .182 with three doubles.
One of the most intriguing freshman is Mackenzie "Wheels" Denson from Texas. She had 57 steals one season in high school and hit .542 in 2018-19. She has range and a strong arm.
Wheels could give the Gophers a legitimate base-stealing threat which they haven't had. Last season, in 25 games, the Gophers had only 19 steals.
Finally, two little-used players from last season also return: Macy Gill and Delanie Cox, both listed as UT or utility players. Gill played in 12 games, mostly as a pinch runner. Hard to assess what their roles will be.
Of course, Ritter can move players around a lot if she wants. She lists 11 players as utility on her roster, five as pitchers, four as infielders, three as catchers, three as outfielders and one as a first baseman. Several players have multiple designations.