CLEARWATER, FLA. – The Gophers softball team departed the Twin Cities at 6 p.m. Thursday heading for the Tampa airport. It was after midnight in the East on Friday when the traveling party of 30 was checking into a Marriott Courtyard, near the Atlantic Ocean in Melbourne, Fla., rather than the Gulf of Mexico.
The Gophers and the rest of Delta passengers did some serious bouncing as the flight approached stormy weather as the plane entered Florida, circled the Tampa airport for as long as fuel permitted, and then found a landing spot in Melbourne.
One report from inside the plane said: “The Gophers handled it well.’’ Another report said: “There were a few tears when the turbulence was at its worst.’’
The Gophers were scheduled to start the season Friday at 1:30 p.m. Eastern vs. N.C. State, followed by Missouri State, in this weekend’s Leadoff Classic at the Moore Softball Complex.
Instead, they bused over from Melbourne late in the morning, played Missouri State at 5 p.m., and then played N.C. State in a late game.
The Gophers experienced more nervous moments against Missouri State, a middle-of-the-pack team from the Missouri Valley Conference, before escaping with a 1-0 victory in their 2020 opener.
The only run came in the third, when MaKenna Partain singled home freshman Olivia Peterson. The Gophers managed four hits and five total bases off a pair of Missouri State pitchers.
Autumn Pease, a sophomore transfer from Idaho State, went five scoreless innings for the Gophers. Coach Jamie Trachsel went to Amber Fiser, her returning first-team All-America, to close it out.
Even that wasn’t easy: The Bears got the tying run to second with one out in the sixth. Carlie Brandt, a play-everywhere senior, opened at shortstop, as the replacement for the graduated Allie Arneson.
One game in, Brandt was a fine answer, with three outstanding plays — two of which assisted Fiser in the sixth. Then came the seventh, and Amber was an All-America closer, with three strikeouts around a walk.
Trachsel’s second season in 2019 finished with the Gophers’ first trip to the Women’s College World Series. That creates expectations, particularly with Fiser continuing in the circle, but there are significant gaps to be filled.
Arneson, four-year force Maddie Houlihan and No. 2 pitcher Sydney Smith were seniors. Ellee Jensen, the outstanding center fielder, is battling stress fractures in her legs for a second straight season. Hope Brandner, the replacement slugger for transfer Kendyl Lindaman a year ago, has an undisclosed medical issue and there’s no timeline for a return.
“We need to go out and spread our wings — go get tested, see where we’re at,’’ Trachsel said earlier in the week. “I’m excited to see how this blend we have, both experience and a reliance on young players, comes together.’’
There were four players in the Game 1 lineup who weren’t on the field when last season ended with the 5-3 elimination-game loss to Washington in the World Series:
BYU transfer Brooke Vander Heide (CF), sophomore Emily Hansen (1B) and freshmen Peterson (catcher) and Kianna Jones (designated player). Plus, Pease took a sturdy first step to become the Gophers’ No. 2 starter with five scoreless, two-hit innings.
What’s most familiar for the Gophers will be Fiser, the starter in 83 of the 118 games coached by Trachsel entering this season. What has made the senior this spectacular ironwoman of pitching for the Gophers?
“Fiser has the desire to be great,’’ Trachsel said. “She has a very professional way about her training. Off the field, she takes care of herself. She doesn’t take anything for granted.
“She is a powerful athlete. She is very flexible. She has great strength and endurance, due to her consistent workouts with our conditioning coach. She competes in everything she does.’’
There’s no position in sports where one player has more influence on a team than a fast pitch pitcher. And even as one of the best, a first-team All-America, Fiser said there is no option in big-time softball other than to keep improving.
“The hitters keep getting better in their approach; the bats they use keep getting better,’’ Fiser said. “And, as a pitcher, I have to be better.’’
This was a midweek phone conversation. Near the end, the UCLA championship lineup she faced in a 7-2 loss in the WCWS opener was mentioned.
“You really find out how tough teams can be at the World Series,’’ I said. “That was quite a lineup.’’
Long pause. “Yes.’’ End of that subject.
Thanks for the reminder, Fiser. Tremendous competitors might get beat, but they don’t concede.
Write to Patrick Reusse by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org and including his name in the subject line.