Sara Groenewegen noticed specs of maroon, green and purple behind the backstop while throwing her warm-up pitches. Three big-time softball programs, Minnesota, Oregon and Washington, had traveled to Seattle for the first time that fall to watch the heralded junior from Canada do her thing.

Beyond the catcher's mitt, she saw her future.

"I think that can get you pumped, or put you in a shell, like, 'Oh my gosh, they're here to watch me. I'm going to get nervous,' " Groenewegen said. "But I wasn't nervous at all."

Groenewegen thrived in that moment — and she mostly hasn't stopped in her nearly two full seasons with the Gophers. The fiery ace has been a major piece of the team's rise, and the program is aiming for its first-ever trip to the Women's College World Series.

"The pitcher sets the tone for the team in the circle," said Gophers coach Jessica Allister, the maroon spec behind the backstop that day. "They've got the ball in their hands every day. You want to make sure that it's somebody out there that reflects the attitude you want your team to have."

In 55 career appearances, the White Rock, British Columbia, native has suffered just seven losses. Groenewegen, named a finalist Wednesday for 2015 USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year, leads the Big Ten in ERA (1.50) and victories (19-4) and she has already struck out 207 batters in 139⅔ innings. The Gophers (30-7) are ranked in the top 15 nationally, in fifth-place in the Big Ten and have a three-game homestand against Northwestern starting Friday.

This success comes as an encore to an unprecedented freshman season for Groenewegen, when she became the first Gopher to win Big Ten Pitcher of the Year and just the third player in conference history to win Freshman of the Year and Pitcher of the Year in the same season. She led the nation with 11.6 strikeouts per seven innings while boasting a 14-3 record and 2.23 ERA.

"I wanted to be Freshman of the Year," Groenewegen said, "and that was a goal I set at the beginning of the year before I even knew anyone on the team."

Groenewegen had a running start in the college game by playing on the Canadian national team after her senior season in high school and participating in the World Cup of Softball.

"She wasn't scared coming in," Allister said. "I haven't really found anything that she's been scared of yet. She likes a challenge, but I think a lot of it is her personality. She wants to see what she can do."

'Tough as nails'

Groenewegen, a five-sport athlete in high school, knew she wanted to pursue softball after watching her older sister, Marina, play at Southern Idaho and Bradley. To garner attention from Division I schools, Groenewegen practiced with her high school in Canada but, starting her sophomore year, drove two hours to play with a traveling team in Seattle.

"We've had some sibling competitions," Marina said. "But we've been involved in sports at such a young age that it's a part of who we are. We don't like to lose. Tough-as-nails personality, I would say she has."

Groenewegen thrives athletically despite being diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at 9 years old. Groenewegen said it runs in her family, but she's never had an issue controlling her sugar levels on gameday.

"If someone has a sprained ankle, they have to look after that in a different way that I have to take care of my diabetes," Groenewegen said. "It's always in the back of my mind, but it's become normal. I don't know anything other than to not test in between games."

High hopes

The Gophers recruited Groenewegen harder over her original two dream schools, Washington and Oregon, and she liked the idea of being part of an up-and-coming program.

"I wanted to be part of a program that we literally built," Groenewegen said. "The coaches, I was all for what they wanted to see for the future of this team and just working hard to get where we wanted to be."

Expectations have jumped this season after a 44-12 record and a trip to Super Regionals (where the Gophers were swept by Oregon in the best-of-three series) last year. Groenewegen and the Gophers have a goal of making the World Series.

"Pitching is the name of the game; you can't win if you don't have great pitching," Allister said. "She's a big piece in that and proved that we can beat anyone in the country with her up in the circle."