The Gophers softball team advanced to the 64-team NCAA tournament last season despite a 27-26-1 overall record, 11-12 conference record, ninth-place finish in the Big Ten and going 0-1 at the Big Ten Tournament.

While the Gophers' strong finish to the regular season was a consideration, the primary factor in their reaching the postseason was their daunting schedule, which was deemed the eighth-most difficult in the country.

Minnesota won four of its final regular season games, taking two of three from Northwestern, which went on to the College World Series. The Gophers reached the NCAA tournament for the ninth consecutive season, not counting 2020 when the event wasn't played.

While this season's schedule, which opens Friday against Western Kentucky in Leesburg, Fla., isn't as challenging as last season's, it is still difficult. The Gophers' 2023 schedule features seven teams that played in last year's NCAA tournament.

The Gophers play their first 19 games on the road — in Florida, North Carolina, Texas and California — before making their Minnesota debut on March 10 with a six-team tournament at U.S. Bank Stadium. It will be the first time the Gophers softball team has played in the stadium, which opened in 2016.

"Last year was difficult," said Gophers coach Piper Ritter, who is in her third season as the team's head coach. "This year isn't quite as hard, but we still have a couple of stacked tournaments. We're excited about playing [at U.S. Bank Stadium]. It's a great venue and we're looking forward to a weekend at home."

Among the returning players for the Gophers are Natalie DenHartog and Autumn Pease. Both are grad students.

DenHartog hit .347 with a career-high 19 home runs (one shy of the school single-season record) last season. Pease is 27-19 with a 2.96 ERA in her Gophers career. Pease shared the pitching duties with Emily Leavitt last season. Leavitt, who was 15-11 and named to the Big Ten All-Freshman team, has transferred to Texas A&M.

Right fielder Chloe Evans, one of the Gophers' best hitters last season as a sophomore, also transferred. She went to Central Florida. She led Minnesota a year ago in RBI (46), was second in homers (11) and third in batting average (.318).

Two other returning players who should see expanded roles this season are senior utility Delanie Cox and junior infielder Maddy Ehlke.

Highlighting the newcomers are a pair of freshmen in infielder Jess Oakland and pitcher Sydney Schwartz. Oakland was California's Division 1 Girls Athlete of the Year and California's Ms. Softball, while Schwartz was the Star Tribune's Metro Player of the Year.

Oakland led the state of California with 21 home runs while Schwartz was 21-2 with a 1.42 ERA and 224 strikeouts in 148 1/3 innings for Chanhassen.

"Talk about hitters, Jess is right up there with Natalie," Ritter said, "from what we've seen so far."

Other newcomers include a trio of transfers — pitcher Bri Enter, who spent three years at Florida State; Jacie Hambrick, who spent two seasons at Grand Canyon; and catcher Taylor Krapf, who spent last season at Duke. Krapf will help fill the void left by the departure of Sara Kinch, who transferred to Arizona State after starting 48 games behind the plate for the Gophers last season.

"This has been a great group to work with," said Ritter. "We have a lot of young players. Freshmen can be up and down, but they're pretty good players."

The Gophers open Big Ten play on March 24 and the Big Ten Tournament is scheduled to begin May 10 in Champaign, Ill.