Jessica Allister has done some fine recruiting in six years as Gophers softball coach, turning a slumping program into a two-time Big Ten tournament champion.
Sara Groenewegen, the team’s All-America pitcher and slugger, hails from Canada, but Allister has filled the lineup mostly with native Minnesotans.
One key in-state recruit got away four years ago, but to her team’s delight, Allister eventually reeled that one in, too.
Taylor LeMay has started all but three games at catcher for the Gophers the past three years and is a key part of their success heading into Friday’s NCAA tournament opener against North Dakota State.
The senior is batting .322 with a .442 on-base percentage and recently was named the Big Ten’s Defensive Catcher of the Year. Not bad, considering she transferred in from a Division II school.
Growing up in Cottage Grove and playing at East Ridge, LeMay always dreamed of catching for the Gophers. But when she couldn’t draw enough interest from Allister’s staff, she wound up at Concordia (St. Paul).
“She made her decision shortly after I got hired at Minnesota [in August 2010],” Allister said. “We were trying to catch up on the class in front of her, and it was just kind of that in-between period that happens anytime there’s a change in staff.”
LeMay never wound up playing an inning for the Golden Bears before transferring.
“The time between when you commit and when you sign your letter of intent, I think there’s a lot of growing up that happens,” LeMay said. “I realized a smaller school’s not going to be a good fit for me, and I never really got over wanting to be at the U.”
Once LeMay got her release from Concordia, she had a sit-down meeting with Allister. The coach admits she still wasn’t sure about LeMay’s skill set but quickly realized “we had lots of the same goals and same passion for the game.”
The Gophers needed a starting catcher for 2013, and LeMay wound up being the full package, with offensive and defensive talent to match her leadership skills. Allister was a catcher herself at Stanford, so it’s a combination she can appreciate.
“As a catcher, you can’t mind doing the non-glorious work behind the plate, and she embraces that, loves it,” Allister said. “She’s an unbelievable blocker. Sara G’s thrown all her changeups in the dirt, and lots of them are strikeouts, Taylor’s blocked them all and gotten the outs at first base. She takes a lot of pride in that.”
Groenewegen is 30-5 with a 1.87 ERA, including her 10-inning win over Michigan in last Saturday’s Big Ten championship game.
“As a pitcher, obviously, I appreciate a good catcher,” Groenewegen said. “And Taylor — we have a really, really good bond on and off the field. She has a great softball IQ. She has a good feel of the game.”
LeMay also is good for some comic relief. To get a rally started, teammates often encourage her to “fluff the bangs,” or tousle the trademark brown hair covering her forehead.
“She’s had the same haircut pretty much since she came out of the womb,” said senior right fielder Sydney Fabian, a Hill-Murray graduate.
“It pumps us up when she does her little [fluff] thing, whatever. She’s hysterical, so it’s just part of her identity, I guess.”