Jane Sage Cowles Stadium, home of the Gophers softball team, sits in a tight space on the University of Minnesota campus, with its left-center field fence only a couple of strides away from the indoor football facility. That building's white facade provides an enticing target for Gophers power hitters who might or might not be aiming to bang one off that wall.
"In BP, absolutely — and probably too much,'' Gophers center fielder Natalie DenHartog said, referring to batting practice. "I caught myself today just missing underneath. I told myself, 'I just gotta stop trying to launch one and just hit a line drive.' ''
DenHartog knows a bit about hitting home runs. Nobody in Gophers softball history has hit more than the 57 round-trippers that the Hopkins High School graduate has in her four years on campus. On March 27 at Rutgers, DenHartog connected for a two-run shot for her 52nd homer, breaking the school record that Jordanne Nygren set from 1999 to 2003.
With 18 homers this season, DenHartog is two shy of the single-season school record of 20, which Kendyl Lindaman set as a freshman in 2017 and matched in 2018.
"She puts in all the extra time,'' Gophers coach Piper Ritter said of DenHartog. "To be average, you put in all the same amount of time. She does the offseason program, works with our strength and conditioning coach. I don't think she misses a day they have scheduled in the offseason.''
The Gophers and DenHartog will try to keep their season going at the Big Ten tournament in East Lansing, Mich. They open play against Wisconsin at 3:30 p.m. Wednesday. Should they beat the Badgers, the Gophers would face regular-season champion Northwestern at 3:30 p.m. Thursday in the single-elimination tournament.
Throughout her career, DenHartog has tried to keep things in perspective. Good hitters in softball fail to get a hit in 70% of their at-bats, let alone set home run records.
"The record is fun, fun to talk about and fun to think about, but it's all just about being able to compete with my teammates and win games,'' DenHartog said.
DenHartog was a quick study for the Gophers. She hit 17 homers and drove in 64 runs while batting .373 as a freshman in 2019 on a team that went 46-14 and advanced to the Women's College World Series for the first time in program history. The coronavirus pandemic ended the 2020 season after 25 games, and Minnesota rebounded last year by going 31-13 and reaching an NCAA regional as DenHartog hit 15 homers and drove in 42 runs.
This year has been more of a challenge for the Gophers, who enter the Big Ten tourney with a 26-23-1 record and an 11-12 conference mark that left them in ninth place. Minnesota closed the regular season on a strong note, taking two of three from No. 6 Northwestern over the weekend. The Gophers twice won 8-0 in mercy rule-shortened games before falling 3-1 in the finale. DenHartog went 4-for-9 with a homer and five runs scored in the series.
The Gophers want to get back to the NCAA tournament, and a strong showing in the Big Ten tourney would help. The champion will receive one of 32 automatic bids to the national tourney, and the other 32 spots are filled by at-large selections. The Gophers are No. 35 in the latest RPI, which ranks sixth among Big Ten teams. Wisconsin is No. 38 in the RPI, so beating the Badgers would bolster Minnesota's case.
DenHartog, who plans to return next year for her super senior season, draws motivation from that 2019 run.
"That's a highlight of my life, honestly,'' she said. "Just walking onto that field and feeling, a year ago I was playing high school softball in the springtime in the snow in Minnesota. Fast forward a year, and I'm on the biggest stage in college softball.''
Honing her skills
DenHartog comes from an athletic family. Her father, John, is the former football coach at Hopkins High School, and her brother, J.T., played quarterback at Wisconsin-Eau Claire. Natalie's athletic ability helped her land with the Gophers.
"She's not unlike a lot of Minnesota athletes who play softball. They get a little bit better, and their junior year is where you really see what their potential can be in college,'' Ritter said. "When you evaluate athletes at a younger age in softball in Minnesota, they just haven't been able to have the reps and practice as much.''
Though her skills might not have been fully developed, DenHartog impressed the staff with her hitting ability and work ethic.
"A person either has a powerful swing or they don't,'' Ritter said. "Bat speed, you can get a little bit better at, but you can't go from scratch to [having] bat speed.''
First, though, the ultracompetitive DenHartog had to learn to channel her energy in the right direction.
"It's just being able to stay calm,'' she said. "As a freshman, I kind of cleared the dugout after every strikeout. Now, I need slightly less time to recover from that.''
Off the field, DenHartog is just as focused. She completed her undergraduate degree in communication studies in three years with a 3.83 grade-point average and has a 4.0 while working on her master's degree in organizational leadership, policy and development. She is one of 30 softball finalists for the Senior CLASS Award, given for excellence on and off the field.
Her plans for those degrees? "Something special,'' she said, a feat she's already accomplished with the Gophers.