The Gophers softball team was ranked No. 8 in the USA Today/NFCA preseason poll. Then Minnesota lost two games the first weekend of the season and dropped to No. 14.
Two more losses the second weekend, dropped the Gophers to No. 17.
The third weekend, the trend continued. They lost two more games to fall to No. 18 this week.
Cause for alarm, perhaps? Gophers coach Jamie Trachsel was actually pretty upbeat after a split last Saturday: a 4-0 win over Texas State and a 2-1 loss to Baylor in eight innings. "I'm proud of how we competed and who we were today," she said. "We had our chances. That was the most complete day we played so far this year."
Five things to know about the team this week:
1. The defense is playing exceptionally well. Exhibit A is the Baylor loss. Second baseman MaKenna Partain made a diving stop behind second base and, while still on the ground and without taking the ball out of her glove, flipped the ball backhanded to shortstop Carlie Brandt for a forceout. The play was No. 7 on Sports Center's top 10 sports highlights of the day last Saturday and a short clip of it was viewed 80,000 times. In the same game, Natalie DenHartog in left field and Brooke Vander Heide in center both made diving catches.
Vander Heide also threw out a runner trying to stretch a single into a double in the fourth. Partain threw out a runner at home in the seventh inning. In the Baylor Invitational, the Gophers only made three errors in five games and have eight total for the season for a .979 fielding percentage. That's 18th best in the nation. Only Michigan (.982) is ahead of the U in fielding in the Big Ten.
Vander Heide is a senior, a transfer who played three years at BYU. DenHartog said on the Gophers softball podcast this week that Vander Heide adds "a whole lot of steadiness in the outfield especially. Having someone who you know will back you up on everything and lay out for everything. And she makes incredible throws ... She probably has the best arm on the team."
2. The pitching is improving. Amber Fiser and Autumn Pease combined to allow only six runs, four earned, in five games in the Baylor Invitational. That's a 0.84 ERA. Fiser had a no-hitter in the tournament, too, the third of her career and struck out 21 in 19-1/3 innings. ... This season opponents are hitting .197 vs. the Gophers, which puts them first in the Big Ten in that category.
3. On deck are five games in the Auburn Tigers Invitational. This is probably the easiest tournament the Gophers have played in so far. Up first is the 0-5 Binghamton Bearcats -- they have scored six runs in five games. The U also plays them a second time on Sunday. In the second game Friday, the Gophers play host Auburn (9-7), which is coming off an 11-1 loss to No. 1 UCLA in Palm Springs, Calif. The U also plays Auburn on Saturday. The Tigers have lost 2-0 to Illinois and beaten Northwestern 6-4. Fifth game is against Georgia Southern (10-5). The Eagles have beaten Rutgers 9-1 in 5 innings and lost to Maryland 4-2. And on Wednesday they lost 5-3 at No. 16 South Carolina. This weekend could be a chance to get freshman Kianna Jones in circle again. In her only appearance this season, she faced three hitters and all reached base. But KJ, who has been playing right field, has been on Canada's junior national team and needs another look.
4. Good eye. The Gophers lead the Big Ten in walks with 53 and have also been hit by pitches 13 times -- two behind the conference leader. That's a big reason Minnesota is second in on-base percentage at .370 behind Purdue at .381.
DenHartog alone was hit seven times in U's first seven games. "Most of it is accidents," she said on the podcast, "because they always come on 0-2 counts. ... Once my swing starts, I am closer to the plate than they expect me to be."
Asked if being hit by pitches hurts, she said, "I will never admit being hit by a pitch is hurting, ever. Unless I get knocked in the head or something."
5. The Gophers got new white helmets last weekend. On one side is Goldy Gopher, outlined in black lines, and on the other side is the word Gophers in black script. The traditional 'M' is on the front of the helmet, just above the bill in multiple colors. The team got custom bats earlier this season. Both Vander Heide and DenHartog said they liked the new headgear.