Gophers SB team not afraid to dream — and talk — big

Published 7:38 am Friday, May 5, 2017

By Dane Mizutani

Pioneer Press, St. Paul, Minn.

You won’t catch members of the Gophers softball team reading from the book of sports cliches that so many athletes rely on.

“We aren’t overlooking anybody on the schedule.”

“We can’t worry about what other teams are doing.”

“We have to take it one game at a time.”

No, the fourth-ranked Gophers know what they want, and aren’t afraid to say it.

That’s why pictures of Oklahoma City — home of softball’s College World Series — are displayed prominently in the locker room.

“If we don’t see ourselves playing in Oklahoma City at the end of the season, what’s the point of even trying?” pitching ace Sara Groenewegen said. “Just thinking about it gives everyone chills.”

That way of thinking has been instilled by head coach Jessica Allister and her assistants since the season opener. It’s been reinforced over the course of a history-making season for the Gophers (48-3, 19-1 Big Ten).

“Getting to Oklahoma City is why we do what we do,” associate head coach Jessica Merchant said. “They can’t be afraid to talk about their dreams.”

Entering the final weekend of the regular season, the Gophers are closer than ever to realizing the first of several dreams. They can secure their first Big Ten regular-season title in more than 25 years by winning two of three games at Penn State this weekend. They also can reach the 50-win mark for the first time ever.

“We still kind of consider ourselves the underdog,” infielder Maddie Houlihan said, which even she realizes sounds a little ridiculous at this point. “We like to say the team that weekend is in our way, so Penn State is in our way this weekend.”

While the program has been building to this point ever since Allister arrived on campus more than six years ago, this unprecedented level of success has come as a bit of a surprise.

“Yeah,” Merchant said. “I don’t think we ever sat down and thought we could be top-5 good.”

“I’m not sure if anyone saw top 5 coming,” catcher Kendyl Lindaman added. “That said, we’ve worked really hard, and now looking back at it, we should’ve been thinking top 5.”

As the season has progressed, the Gophers have been forced to readjust expectations. Simply winning the Big Ten isn’t enough anymore. Nor is merely getting to the NCAA Tournament.

“We had the World Series as something that we talked about … and once the season started we were like, ‘Whoa. This is real. We can be really good,’ “ Houlihan said. “We have to work to continue to get better so we’re ready when that time comes.”

The Gophers sotball team has never made it to the College World Series. While Minnesota has reached the NCAA Tournament in each of the past four seasons, it has lost in the regional or super regional each time.

“We have had a lot of great teams,” Merchant said. “That said, at the end of the season, we have to be playing our best ball, and that’s where we haven’t been able to put it all together yet. That is the focus this time around.”

And it starts with winning the Big Ten regular-season title this weekend.

“It’d mean the world,” Lindaman said. “We have worked so hard for this. That is our ultimate goal right now. Then we’ll move on to the next goal.”
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