The six freshmen in the lineup on Feb. 11, 2012, believed they were unbeatable. They had yet to play an inning of college softball and were representing a program not known for great success, yet these young Gophers were inspired.
“Looking back on our freshman year, we thought we were just the best team out there, and that made us scary,” senior shortstop Tyler Walker said. “We thought we were great. Maybe we had some things to work out, but we just thought when we stepped on the field we were better than everybody else, and that’s what made us lethal our freshman year, and we’ve just kind of built on it.”
In her college debut Walker had a pair of hits and scored twice in the leadoff spot in the Gophers’ 2-0 victory against Kent State — the first of 157 victories for a class that has matured into the most successful in program history.
Seniors Kaitlyn Richardson, Erica Meyer, Hannah Granger, Madie Eckstrom, Erika Smyth and Walker still anchor the Gophers’ roster as they did four years ago, and they’ll lead the charge entering a third consecutive NCAA tournament berth that stopped a nine-year drought.
They are in Tucson, Ariz., this weekend where they’ll meet New Mexico State in the first round. St. John’s and overall No. 12 seed Arizona complete the four-team, double-elimination regional.
Last season, the Gophers advanced to the Super Regional, or round of 16, for the first time after winning the Big Ten tournament for just the second time. They were upset in the quarterfinals of the conference tournament last week after entering ranked as high as No. 9 in one of the national polls.
Walker has missed the three-plus weeks because of a hip injury but is hopeful she can return at some point in the tournament.
“The Minnesota softball bar has been set high,” Richardson said. “It gets a little bit higher every single year. … We all had a common vision when we came in and committed to this school and have kind of seen it through, and it has been an incredible experience.”
The vision came from fifth-year coach Jessica Allister, who searched the country for her first recruiting class. She took over a struggling program in 2011 and won 31 games with the talent she inherited. Once Richardson, Walker and gang were in the system a year later, the transformation began.
The freshman-heavy lineup in 2012 finished ninth in the Big Ten, jumped to third the next year, and once they matured into upperclassmen they’ve been excellent — as they predicted. The Gophers are 90-21 overall and 36-9 in Big Ten play over the past two seasons. They finished one game out of first place in the Big Ten standings this year behind No. 3-ranked Michigan.
“That group has put in work. So seeing that work pay off is tremendous,” Allister said. “The growth of the program from when they got here to where it is right now is absolutely a product of the work they’ve done. They believed. They had the commitment, and they made it.”
The rest of the Big Ten and college softball has also taken notice of the success brewing in Minneapolis.
“The biggest thing now is they have a culture going and they expect to win,” Purdue coach Kim Schuette said. “And they have that theme in their dugout, and they have that theme in their stands. … They have that thing that other coaches want to get going.”
The only thing left for the senior class to do is reach the softball College World Series — something a Gophers team has never done — a goal they’ve believed in since Feb. 11, 2012.