The Gophers softball team was flying to the Tampa Bay area on Feb. 7, with two games scheduled the next day to start the Division I Leadoff Classic in Clearwater, Fla.
The Delta flight ran into major turbulence as it neared the Florida border, the passengers rocked and rolled for a time, and the plane eventually was diverted to Melbourne, Fla. The Gophers spent the night in a hotel there, had a noon game moved to 6 p.m. and the adventure was started:
Twenty-nine nonconference games scheduled in Florida (two Clearwater tournaments), Alabama, Texas, California and Hawaii, capped by a return flight from Honolulu that reached home last Saturday.
It was an amazing bookend of travel:
The first flight of the season brought tears to several collegians who had never experienced such uncertainty in the air, and the last flight brought them home from waves splashing on Waikiki Beach to an uncertainty that not even us septuagenarians have experienced.
“We got to Honolulu on Sunday night, had a beach day on Monday, visited Pearl Harbor — which was very meaningful — on Tuesday,’’ pitcher Amber Fiser said. “Our first game was against Hawaii on Wednesday night, which was after midnight in Minnesota.
“[Coach Jamie Trachsel] was keeping us up to date on the way things were changing back home, but you’re out there in paradise, playing a game, and it’s hard to imagine your season is going to be stopped.’’
The last pitch Fiser threw as a senior was bounced to shortstop Carlie Brandt, another senior, for an out, and a 3-2 victory for the Gophers.
The Gophers were getting ready for an afternoon game with Texas Tech when Trachsel came with the news that spring sports were being canceled by the NCAA. The last flight for the 2020 Gophers was a red-eye out of Honolulu late on Friday night.
A year ago, the Gophers made a surprise run to the eight-team Women’s College World Series, behind the tremendous pitching of Fiser. Now they were finished with a 15-9-1 record, shut down a week before their Big Ten schedule would start in Columbus, Ohio.
“There are so many thoughts … for friends, for family, really for everyone, as we face this virus,’’ Fiser said. “I’m also thinking of teammates. The seniors I’ve been with for four years. The season is done before we had a chance to play a home game in front of our fans.
“I was very excited that in a few weeks a group of young girls that I’ve coached in Iowa in the summer were coming in a bus with their parents to a game.’’
Fiser, Brandt, MaKenna Partain, Katelyn Kemmetmueller and Kaylen Krueger have been together since their freshman season. All will be graduating in May. Brooke Vander Heide, a transfer from Brigham Young, is also a senior.
The NCAA was quick to announce that spring sports athletes could reclaim a year of eligibility based on their much-shortened seasons.
“I don’t know the details, or what it would mean for players that have been recruited for next season,’’ Fiser said. “I don’t have any idea yet on playing another year.’’
Fiser’s degree will be in business and marketing, with a minor in sports management. Graduate school is possible. So is pro softball overseas, although the pandemic could take care of that option.
If that ground-ball out in Hawaii was the end for Fiser, a career that started as a freshman backup to the great Sara Groenewegen has been off the charts.
There is no position in sports — not quarterback, not hockey goaltender, not starting pitcher in baseball — that determines the outcome of a game and a team’s season to a higher degree than fast-pitch pitcher.
Fiser was among three named as first-team All-Americas in 2019, as well as UCLA’s magnificent Rachel Garcia being named as a pitcher, hitter and Player of the Year.
And to support the statement that pitchers in fast-pitch are the most vital in any sport, get this:
Fiser started 40 and pitched in 46 of the Gophers’ 60 games last season. Over her three seasons as the ace, she started 98 of the Gophers’ 143 games and pitched in 113 (79%). The Gophers have been in the field for 947 innings, and she has pitched 604 (63.7% of them.
By comparison, Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole, the two best starters in the American League, pitched a combined 29.8% of the Astros’ innings in 2019.
Much longer season, nine-inning games and not seven, but for impact — a fast-pitch ace wins.
Amber Fiser has been all of that, plus an academic standout soon to graduate, and eventually with a decision to make about returning in 2021.
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