Last season the Gophers softball team played the toughest nonconference schedule in the country.
The first RPI rankings for this season have not come out yet, but suffice it to say that Minnesota's schedule is among the toughest again so far. That's why the Gophers, just above .500 with a 5-4 record through nine games, are still ranked No. 17 in the latest USA Today/NFCA weekly poll.
In the St. Pete/Clearwater Elite Invitational last weekend, Minnesota beat then-No. 5 Florida State 7-6 -- best win so far this season -- and then-No. 19 Missouri 10-1 in six innings, and lost to then-No. 16-Oklahoma State 2-0 and Virginia Tech, the defending ACC champion, 2-1.
Five things to know this week about the Gophers:
1. The schedule does not get much easier this week in the Baylor Invitational in Waco, Texas. None of the three teams the Gophers will play -- Texas State (twice), Tulsa (twice) and Baylor (once) -- are ranked, but all have impressive records.
Texas State is 7-2, on a five-game winning streak, and the Bobcats have only lost to then-No. 15 Kentucky 2-1 (the Wildcats beat Minnesota 7-0) and then-No. 23 Auburn 3-1.
The U opens with Texas State at 9:30 a.m. Friday … Tulsa is 8-1. The Hurricane uses three pitchers and has not allowed more than two runs in any game. Last time Tulsa played Minnesota was March 19, 2016, and the Hurricane won 10-1. … Baylor is 8-2, has won six in a row and is 6-0 at home. Losses were to two teams Minnesota has played, Missouri 9-1 (the U has split with Mizzou) and Missouri State 3-0 (the U beat the Bears 1-0). Ace Gia Rodoni is 4-1 with a 1.27 ERA and 43 strikeouts in 27 2/3 innings.
2. It's been feast or famine with the bats this season. The Gophers are averaging 8.2 runs per game in their five wins this season and 1.25 runs in their four losses. These numbers would be even more skewed except for the season opener -- Minnesota beat Missouri State 1-0.
3. Two Gophers lead the nation in a statistical category this season. Senior righthander Amber Fiser has an NCAA-high 71 strikeouts (in 43 innings). That gives her 737 for her career -- fifth most in program history and the most among active pitchers. Sophomore left fielder Natalie DenHartog has been hit by pitches seven times (she also has three walks). She's the team's most dangerous long ball threat with Hope Brandner still not cleared to play for medical reasons.
4. Sydney Strelow had a breakout game vs. Florida State. The 5-4 freshman catcher from Kenosha, Wis., hit her first home run, with a runner aboard, in the second inning to give Minnesota a 2-0 lead. Then she had a two-out RBI single in the seventh to give the Gophers a 7-6 walkoff win over the then-No. 5 team in the country. Her mom, father, three younger sisters, grandfather and grandmother were all in Clearwater to watch her play in college for the first time last weekend, Strelow said on a Gophers podcast this week, adding, "[My parents] both said they kind of teared up" during her big game.
5. MaKenna Partain (pictured above), the Gophers senior second baseman who bats first, is off to a terrific start. Already a two-time All-Big Ten first team pick the past two seasons, Partain is hitting .419 with 13 hits, including four doubles and a triple. She set a program single-season record with 66 runs last season and will soon be among the top five in program history in career doubles. She has 46 doubles now, five shy of Maddie Houlihan, in fifth-place on the all-time list with 51 between 2015-19.
Partain also began the season with a career batting average of .377, fifth best in program history. "I don't really care [about records]," Partain said on the Gophers weekly podcast. "To me this is just a game that I love to play."
Photo above: MaKenna Partin during a game against LSU last season. By Anthony Souffle.