The Gophers softball team, ranked No. 8 in the USA Today/NFCA Coaches preseason poll, opens its season Friday with two games in the NFCA Division I Leadoff Classic in Clearwater, Fla.
Minnesota will play North Carolina State at 1:30 p.m. and Missouri State at 4 p.m.
The Gophers are coming off a 46-14 season that ended with the program's first appearance in the Women's College World Series.
Among key returning players are pitcher Amber Fiser, a senior who is fifth in program history in wins with 72 and strikeouts with 666, and two power hitters in junior Hope Brandner (19 homers) and sophomore Natalie DenHartog (17), and senior second baseman MaKenna Partain who led the team with a .383 average and set a program single-season record with 66 runs.
Softball America ranked Fiser No 7 in its preseason top-100 list while the other three were all in the top 57.
Brandner, however, will probably not be able to play this weekend. It was announced last week that she was not medically cleared to play for undisclosed reasons.
Even without her in the lineup, the Gophers have a talented squad.
"We're led by Amber Fiser in the circle," coach Jamie Trachsel said. "We have a great and very experienced infield, which was a catalyst for our team last year and we will find a way to do some timely hitting."
Brandner played first base last season. Partain is back at second as is Katelyn Kemmetmueller at third. She made the All-Big Ten defensive team with a .949 fielding percentage and 122 assists.
Kemmetmueller is part of what Trachsel calls a "very special senior class."
The Gophers will also be helped by the return of outfielder Ellee Jensen, a redshirt sophomore. She hit .401 as a freshman and made the All-Big Ten second team but missed most of last season with an injury.
Despite the team's success last season, Trachsel said the Gophers are not talking about 2019.
"We want to make sure they are competing for championships at the end of the season just like last year," said Trachsel, in her third season at Minnesota. "We are still the northern team going in the South and people find different reasons to say that we are not prepared or we are not good enough to do that. So we accept that challenge and keep that mentality where it needs to be and go out there and try to ruin some people's day."
The Gophers also appear to have a stronger pitching staff this season. Fiser, obviously, is the ace but the team added several promising arms:
• Freshman righthander Ava Dueck. A transfer from Augustana, she led Maple Grove to the Clas 4A title last spring when she had a 0.88 ERA and struck out 221.
• Sophomore righthander Autumn Peace. She was co-freshman of the year in the Big Sky Conference last season pitching for Idaho State. She was 10-5 with a 2.36 ERA and 115 strikeouts.
• Freshman righthander Kianna Jones. She is from Surrey, British Columbia, and has been a member of the Canadian junior women's national team and has played on two national championship teams with the Surrey Storm.
"We will need other people besides [Fiser]," Trachsel said, adding she has a pitching coach, Piper Ritter, that she can rely on.
Trachsel said the Gophers' schedule — both nonconference and Big Ten — will be challenging: "It might be a little tougher than it was last year."
But one of her goals, Trachsel said, is to be in a position to be one of the top 16 teams in the country at the end of the season to be able to host a regional tournament.
U women at Bemidji St.
The No. 4 Gophers women's hockey team will play at Bemidji State this weekend in a WCHA series. Games will be 7 p.m. Friday and 3 p.m. Saturday.
Minnesota (21-5-3, 13-5-2-1 WCHA) is coming off a split at home with Minnesota Duluth, winning 5-0, then losing 2-0, while the Beavers (14-3-3, 8-10-2) played at Ohio State, losing 7-2 and tying 2-2.
The Gophers beat Bemidji State 7-1 and 3-0 in mid-November at Ridder Arena.
•Wartburg, ranked No. 1 in Division III wrestling, beat No. 2 Augsburg 19-14 in Waverly, Iowa, by winning the final five bouts.
•Red Lake County defeated Fosston 67-54 in boys' basketball to give coach Steven Philion his 600th career win in 46 seasons. He is the 10th boys' basketball coach in state history to reach that milestone.