The Gophers softball team had landed Hope Brandner as a transfer from Oregon State in August 2018. This was going to add a power-hitting first baseman to a team led by catcher Kendyl Lindaman, with 20 home runs in each of her first two seasons with the Gophers.

Then, in late November, it was announced Lindaman was using the transfer portal to head to Florida, a dynastic program in the potent SEC.

OK, Brandner would be in the lineup, but could that alone make up for the loss of power production provided by Lindaman?

Turned out, it didn't have to.

"I didn't know what position the Gophers had for Natalie as a freshman, but I thought for sure they would want her bat in the lineup,'' Hopkins softball coach Carl Yancy said.

Natalie DenHartog wound up being the designated player — a DH who can also be used in the field on occasion — when coach Jamie Trachsel used her No. 1 lineup.

The Gophers had totaled 55 home runs in Lindaman's 2018 season. The Gophers totaled 72 home runs in 2019, with Brandner hitting 19 and DenHartog 17.

They went to the Women's College World Series in Oklahoma City for the first time. Lindaman and Florida also were there — the 10th time for the Gators. Both teams went 0-2 in separate brackets.

Big changes soon arrived. The 2020 postseason was canceled by COVID-19. Trachsel took a job at Ole Miss in late April. Piper Ritter, the long-serving pitching coach, became the head coach.

Amber Fiser, the All-America pitcher from 2019, took the extra COVID season and finished after 2021. Autumn Pease is now every bit the ace all college teams need to succeed.

The constant since the glorious 2019 run to Oklahoma City has been DenHartog. She was the kid in 2019, and four seasons later she is the only holdover from that team.

"Being a youngster and naïve with a team of such great role models, and now playing with teammates that call three of us — me, Autumn Pease and Amani Bradley — the 'Grandmas' …

"I think it's great to have played with so many different players and personalities, and in such different roles."

DenHartog's father John was the Hopkins football coach for 17 years before stepping down for 2020. His oldest daughter Haley and then Natalie got him involved in softball, and he has served as an assistant to Yancy at Hopkins.

"Not this spring, though," Yancy said. "John wanted to be able to attend as many of Natalie's games as possible since this is her final season."

This final season has been played out in miserable spring weather, even by Minnesota standards. And yet there was never a chance that Natalie was going to check into the transfer portal and field opportunities from every warm-weather powerhouse in college softball.

  • Gophers softball on TV: 11 a.m. Saturday, 1 p.m. Sunday vs Michigan on BIG

"Playing college sports is such an outstanding and limited opportunity," DenHartog said. "And I genuinely love representing Minnesota, wearing that uniform. As soon as the NCAA said athletes could get another season to make up for COVID, I said, 'Sign me up.' "

This attitude came even as DenHartog was earning her undergraduate degree in communications in three school years at Minnesota. She's spent the last two years receiving a master's in organizational leadership, policy and development, and will start law school at the University of Michigan in the fall.

First, though… these precious last college games: three at home vs. Michigan this weekend to close the regular season, followed by the Big Ten tournament, followed by a possible return to a fourth NCAA tournament for DenHartog.

She is batting .318 with 11 home runs and 33 RBI. With some help from the added season, her 69 home runs are the second highest total ever in the Big Ten, and her 205 RBI are second in Gophers history.

The early DH use might have hid the fact that she's an outstanding athlete.

"Natalie's fast, strong, smart and unselfish," said Yancy, her high school coach. "She's a center fielder now, but we played her at shortstop. Then, as a senior, when our best pitchers were gone, I asked her to pitch.

"She was our best, but it probably cost her being Minnesota's softball player of the year. People looked at her pitching numbers compared to others, when hitting and playing in the field were her real talents."

The Gophers and DenHartog have been on a late-season run that again has demonstrated the extreme need for a pitching ace in fastpitch.

"Autumn [Pease] has been excellent, and what's most apparent is how competitive she is," DenHartog said. "You don't want to make her mad as a hitter. She'll sit you down."

This could mean in the dugout, or the batter's box.