MaKenna Partain had a lot to consider.
On the surface, it seemed like an easy choice: She loved softball. She was good at it. So join the other four Gophers senior starters for a fifth year to make up for their original final season that the coronavirus pandemic cut short.
But Partain already had been at peace with leaving her happy, little college bubble to venture into the real world. She had to re-evaluate if risking more injuries, attending grad school, spending another year away from her family in Oregon and working with an altered coaching staff was worth another chance at the Women's College World Series.
This past Monday, she realized the answer was yes.
"She was kind of the last question mark, the last piece of the puzzle," said left fielder Natalie DenHartog, a sophomore this past season. "And having that kind of cleared up and having her say that she's fully committed to coming back and play another year with us, I think we were all really happy about that."
The Gophers' 2020 season ended more than two months ago at 15-9-1. Since then, five of the team's six seniors have decided to take up the NCAA on its offer of an extra year of eligibility following canceled spring seasons. Second baseman Partain, shortstop Carlie Brandt, third baseman Katelyn Kemmetmueller, center fielder Brooke Vander Heide and pitcher Amber Fiser will join six incoming freshmen for a larger-than-usual roster of 24 in 2021.
Just junior infielder Josey White, who transferred to Southern Utah, will not return, while first baseman Hope Brandner, who wasn't medically cleared to play this past season, still does not have a clear return date. Coach Piper Ritter said Brandner, a first baseman, still is working on "doing what's best for her," and the coach can't answer what the future might hold for the 2019 All-Big Ten first-team slugger.
Partain, though, is excited to figure out the dynamics of an expanded roster, the first step being reaching out to the freshmen she thought she would miss. Ritter, who took over after coach after Jamie Trachsel left for Ole Miss, is looking forward to how the fifth-year seniors will teach the younger players.
"I've seen it through these years of how much Sara Moulton helped Sara [Groenewegen] as a freshman here, and same thing happened with Amber and Sara G," Ritter said, referring to recent star pitchers. "… I'm glad because they're going to see how hard they work. They're going to see what they can do with their pitches, and I think that's going to be the same with the hitters in that class as well."
Ritter has the entire team reading "The Champion's Comeback," a book about how athletes can overcome hardships to achieve great success, and the group discusses that and other topics in weekly video chat meetings. That's about as much as the Gophers can do right now, with the pandemic still limiting their ability to work out and practice.
To think, it was one year ago Monday that the Gophers defeated Louisiana State in Stillwater, Okla., sealing the program's first trip to the World Series. They came back this year for a shortened schedule, something Ritter now counts as just "a glorified practice season."
All the pieces — actually, an abundance of pieces — are in place, so depth isn't an issue. The one area Ritter wants her team to improve on is finishing games, something the Gophers excelled at in their 46-14 World Series season but struggled with early in 2020.
"I don't think we showed our true potential last year," Partain said. "There was something missing, and we couldn't quite figure it out. But I'm certain that we're going to figure it out this next year.
"And that we're going to shock some people with how good this team can be."