A few Gophers fans were sprinkled around the mostly empty Target Field seats on Day 1 of the Big Ten baseball tournament Wednesday. The only maroon-and-gold presence on the field were the "M" helmets worn by the bat boys.
Toby Hanson sat with his father, possibly envisioning himself playing on the pristine big-league diamond. The reality, however, was that the Gophers freshman infielder and his dad were reluctant fans after Minnesota missed its chance to represent the home state in the conference showcase.
"We were just saying how fun it would be to be to be playing here right now," he said while watching Iowa and Ohio State in the second first-round game. "It's a disappointment to not make the tournament, especially when it's in your home state. Things just didn't go our way. It was a tough year.
"Obviously, it would have been nice to play for the hometown fans."
Minnesota missed the conference tournament for just the third time in 18 seasons, though it's the second time in four years. The trend argues that the Gophers are struggling to keep up with a much-improved Big Ten.
"You look at all the trends and evaluate your program and where you want to be and what may be contributing to those trends," said Gophers longtime coach John Anderson by phone, away from Target Field. "If you don't get in three out of 18 years, you should be proud of that. But you have to pay attention to what's going on with trends. … We haven't been able to maintain that same level of competitiveness we're used to and that's due to a lot of reasons."
Injuries, combined with the absence of pitching coach Todd Oakes, who's been battling leukemia, led to a down season from the pitching staff. The Metrodome's demise forced the Gophers to spend the first two months traveling, and Anderson said that hindered early development. The offense improved midseason, but it couldn't outslug opponents in the season's final weeks.
The Gophers were 21-30 overall this season, 9-15 in the Big Ten.
The players returning next season are already aware of these challenges, and eager to prove they are not second-tier talent in the Big Ten.
"It's concerning, and a little eye-opening for us as a program," junior second baseman Connor Schaefbauer said Wednesday from his home in Sioux Falls, S.D. "It tells us we need to get back to the drawing board and get back to business."
Schaefbauer played in the Big Ten tournament at Target Field in 2013. He said he'll likely watch some of the action on the Big Ten Network this week.
The Gophers' absence from the tournament likely hurt Ben Meyer and other seniors the most. Meyer was the team's No. 1 starting pitcher, leading the team in strikeouts and innings. His last outing Friday was spoiled by Michigan State's ninth-inning home run that ended the Gophers' hopes of a spot in the Big Ten tournament.
"We're dealing with it and moving on," Meyer said Wednesday. "It's a very competitive league right now, and we showed this year that we could compete with all those teams. … We have a young team, and we'll have a lot of those guys back."
Anderson didn't plan to attend the first-round games. His focus has already shifted to adjusting the way he'll coach future teams.
"We'd like to be there [playing at Target Field] to help it be as successful as possible, especially because I have relationships [with the Twins] and for our fans. It's a disappointment," Anderson said. "We have to look at trends and try to improve and try to find that magic formula again."