After 13 seasons as an assistant coach and a three-week delay to the start of the 2021 season, Piper Ritter will begin her first season as the Gophers softball coach on Friday.
One thing has eased the adjustment for Ritter — the presence of "super" seniors Carlie Brandt, Amber Fiser, Katelyn Kemmetmueller and MaKenna Partain.
"It's phenomenal," said Ritter. "As I've transitioned to head coach, I can really count on them to make sure that what needs to be done, is done, and that expectations are met. They have been helping their younger teammates. It is also a comfort to have them on the field."
The four are back for a fifth season after the Gophers' 2020 season ended prematurely after 25 games and the NCAA offered another season of eligibility.
"We're so excited to be back on the field," Fiser said. "We're all looking forward to it. It was hard for everybody to have last season taken away. We're going to enjoy every minute."
The Gophers went 15-9-1 under former coach Jamie Trachsel before last season ended because of the pandemic March 12. Trachsel left to become the coach at Mississippi, and Ritter took over after a long stint as the team's pitching coach.
The Gophers are ranked as high as No. 19 in the polls and are the favorite to win the Big Ten, according to D1softball.com.
Who's back: In addition to the super seniors, 10 letter winners return from last season's team. Among the returnees is left fielder Natalie DenHartog, who hit .429 with seven home runs and 28 RBI. Second baseman Partain, whose .375 career batting average is fifth-best in program history, hit .349 last year. Brandt, the primary shortstop last season, has played every position but catcher during her career. Junior pitcher Autumn Pease, who was 4-2 with a 2.12 ERA last season after transferring from Idaho State, also returns.
Newcomers: Eight freshmen are among the nine new players on the roster. Among them is freshman Ansleigh Hollifield, an all-state pitcher from Georgia, and transfer Megan Dray, a catcher who played three seasons at North Carolina.
Fiser by the numbers: Fiser has an 82-26 record and 1.60 ERA. She ranks fifth in victories and strikeouts (811) in Gophers history. Her 82 career victories are the most of any active pitcher in Division I. She was a first-team All-America in 2019.
Schedule: The Gophers will open their 44-game schedule (against Big Ten opponents only) with six games this weekend in Leesburg, Fla. — two against Maryland, Ohio State and Indiana. Minnesota will return to Leesburg on March 11 for six more games. After a four-game series at Illinois in late March, the Gophers are scheduled to play their home opener on April 2 against Purdue. That will be the Gophers' first home game since May 25, 2019.
Last word: "We believe in ourselves," Fiser said. "… Our hitting and defense will do great. I've been focusing on hitting my spots and staying consistent and being stronger mentally. I have to first show up for my teammates every day."