Gophers softball begins head coaching search

The Gophers have a void to fill after the sudden departure of head coach Jamie Trachsel.

Nolan O'Hara

A spring break series in Hawaii, a canceled season and now a head coaching search. It’s been a whirlwind last two months for the Gophers softball team. 

On April 23, in the midst of an already uncertain time, reports emerged that head coach Jamie Trachsel would be leaving Minnesota to become the next head coach at Ole Miss. A day later, the University athletic department confirmed Trachsel’s resignation. In a press release, Athletics Director Mark Coyle announced the University has already identified “several candidates” to fill the void left after Trachsel’s sudden departure. 

Here’s a list of six possible candidates.

Piper Ritter — Assistant coach, University of Minnesota

The Gophers may not have to look far to find a replacement. Ritter has been with Minnesota for 13 seasons as the pitching coach, developing pitchers the likes of Briana Hassett, Sara Moulton, Sara Groenewegen and most recently Amber Fiser. In the shortened 2020 season, Fiser’s dominance in the circle continued, posting a 2.17 ERA and racking up 145 strikeouts. In her first season at Minnesota, sophomore Autumn Pease posted a 2.12 ERA with 62 strikeouts on the year. Given the Gophers’ pitching strength in recent years and Ritter’s already established relationship with Fiser, Pease and the rest of the team, it would make sense if Minnesota decided to go with the inside hire. 

Jessica Merchant — Associate head coach, Stanford

Merchant spent seven seasons as an assistant coach at the University under former Minnesota and current Stanford head coach Jessica Allister. Allister led the Gophers prior to Trachsel’s tenure, and together in their seven seasons, Merchant and Allister guided the Gophers to a 290-107 record. Notably, Merchant and Allister directed the Gophers to a program best 56-5 record in 2017. Merchant, an offensive-minded coach, would work directly with the strong bats of sophomores Natalie DenHartog and Emily Hansen, junior Hope Brandner, freshman Sydney Strelow and senior MaKenna Partain if she decides to return in 2021. Given her previous success at the University and familiarity with the upperclassmen on the roster, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Merchant take the helm as the next Gophers’ softball coach. 

Gretta Melsted — Head coach, Augustana 

While Melsted has spent 15 seasons as the head coach of Augustana, she will likely be on the list to take over for the Gophers in 2021. An Albert Lea native, Melsted has led Augustana to nine NCAA Tournament appearances, including a Division II National Championship victory in 2019. Her consistent success as a head coach at the Division II level may not be as visible as some on the Division I level, but after 15 seasons, it certainly isn’t a fluke. 

John Tschida — Head coach, St. Thomas

A long-tenured and the all-time winningest (highest win percentage) Division III coach, Tschida has spent 20 seasons at the helm at St. Thomas. In that time, he has guided St. Thomas to a 766-139 record, making six College World Series appearances and winning two national titles. Prior to his tenure at St. Thomas, Tschida spent 10 seasons coaching at St. Mary’s, leading them to a national title in 2000. He was the first coach to win NCAA championships at two schools. Overall, Tschida has a 974-183 record in his coaching career. His resume speaks for itself. 

Darren Mueller — Head coach, North Dakota State University

Another long-tenured coach, Mueller has spent 19 seasons across the western Minnesota border as the head coach at NDSU. In 2009, NDSU made the jump to Division I, and Mueller was ready. NDSU reached the NCAA Super Regional that season and has won 10 Summit League tournament championships in the last 12 seasons. Mueller has a 654-366 record in his time at NDSU. Perhaps after 19 seasons, Mueller is looking for a new opportunity. 

Jen Walter — Head coach, University of Minnesota-Duluth 

Walter has led the Bulldogs for the last five seasons and guided UMD to a 156-87 record in that time. Prior to her tenure at UMD, she spent 16 seasons across the street as the head coach of St. Scholastica. In her first season at UMD, she led the Bulldogs to the NCAA Division II Tournament for the first time in four seasons. Walter is another highly respected Division II coach that could be in the running for the position at Minnesota.