When Jamie Trachsel dialed the phone, she wasn’t sure what she was going to hear. The new Gophers softball coach, who was hired last July after former coach Jessica Allister left for Stanford, knew there had been speculation about whether Big Ten Player of the Year Kendyl Lindaman would stay.
Lindaman was the first player Trachsel called after signing her contract — and the sophomore catcher immediately put her mind at ease.
“I told her, ‘I love this school,’ ” Lindaman recalled Wednesday. “I could never see myself leaving this team behind. I just wanted to come back out here with a chip on my shoulder and get back to work at Minnesota.’’
That commitment, Lindaman said, helped her and her teammates withstand a rocky start to the season before surging into this week’s Big Ten tournament in Madison, Wis. In their first 30 games under Trachsel, the Gophers went 17-13 and fell out of the national rankings. Their fortitude — along with Lindaman’s bat and pitcher Amber Fiser’s arm — propelled them to 19 victories in the past 21 games, giving them the No. 2 seed in the tournament and a bye into Friday’s 11 a.m. quarterfinal against host Wisconsin.
The Gophers finished second in the Big Ten with a 17-4 record, and Lindaman repeated as the winner of the conference’s top award. In their past 21 games, they have outscored opponents 151-14, so the two-time defending tournament champions are brimming with confidence.
“With the coaching change and eight new players, they had a lot of things to work through,’’ Trachsel said. “These kids have fought for each other and for what they want.
“There’s a lot of pride in this group. Piece by piece, they just kept putting it together. And they can still get better.’’
The Gophers (36-15) enter the tournament hitting .287, fourth in the Big Ten, and their team earned-run average of 1.82 is second behind Michigan. Lindaman is tied for the league-high in homers with 19, while Fiser ranks second in the Big Ten in victories (25), ERA (1.48), strikeouts (216) and shutouts (nine).
Lindaman proudly pointed out that no players transferred out of the program when Allister left for her dream job at her alma mater. The former coach instilled a culture based on devotion to the program and to each other, which served the Gophers well as they moved on without her.
Senior third baseman Danielle Parlich said Trachsel’s intense personality is similar to Allister’s, and her emphasis on defense is a good complement to the offensive focus the Gophers had under their previous coach. Still, it took time for the Gophers to adapt to some position changes, integrate new players and adjust to life without record-setting pitcher Sara Groenewegen, who completed her eligibility last year.
In 2017, the Gophers finished 56-5, were ranked No. 1 for the first time in history and lost only three of their first 33 games. They were wildly inconsistent over the first two months of this season, going 12-13 after opening with a five-game win streak.
“It was difficult. Our emotions were everywhere,’’ said Lindaman, also named first-team All-Big Ten this week along with Fiser and second baseman MaKenna Partain. “Last year, we only lost five games. It was hard for us this year, losing that many in two weekends.
“But we backed each other up, kept each other calm. We just kept saying, ‘We got this. It’s going to come around.’ ’’
The turning point came after a disappointing start to the Big Ten season at Northwestern. The Gophers lost the first two games of the series, surrendering leads and falling by one run in each.
They have lost only twice since, recording 12 shutouts and a perfect game by Fiser on April 27 against Purdue. In her past 93⅓ innings, Fiser has allowed seven earned runs, going 13-2 with 87 strikeouts. Lindaman also heated up during Big Ten play, batting .512.
The key to their 19-2 run, Lindaman said, has been playing aggressively from the first pitch of every game. By putting pressure on their opponents, they have taken it off of themselves.
“The beginning of the year was definitely rough,’’ Parlich said. “But there are changes every year. It’s all about how you accept it and work with it. I think we did a good job of continuing to work hard and figuring it out, and we feel good about how it’s all coming together.’’