Non-Conference schedule leaves Gophers in strong position

The Gophers played the toughest non-conference schedule in the country in 2019.

Junior Amber Fiser pitches on Friday, March 29 at Jane Sage Cowles Stadium in Minneapolis. The Gophers beat the Purdue Boilermakers 5-1.

Tony Saunders

Junior Amber Fiser pitches on Friday, March 29 at Jane Sage Cowles Stadium in Minneapolis. The Gophers beat the Purdue Boilermakers 5-1.

Paul Hodowanic

The No. 19-ranked Gophers’ softball team wants to be seen as a powerhouse. 

But not just one in the Big Ten, where the team has finished 84-11 over the past five seasons, but in all of college softball. So far in 2019, their record and schedule have accomplished that. 

After the conclusion of the Gophers’ non-conference schedule two weeks ago, Minnesota was tabbed with having the toughest non-conference schedule in the country, finishing with a 19-9 record in the non-conference schedule. The difficult schedule was something the players on both sides of the ball have noticed throughout the beginning of the season. 

“The competition has been fun, [as we] play against these top teams,” said junior pitcher Amber Fiser. “I know they’re ranked higher than us and we’re expected to lose, but we go in and play like we have nothing to lose. And I think that’s what gives us our energy and motivation.”

Head coach Jamie Trachsel said that getting through the difficult schedule wasn’t without its learning moments. She said she was proud how the team handled non-conference play, especially for some of the younger and more inexperienced members on the team.

“You can just tell by the caliber of the pitching … [of] every single game that these are the best pitchers we are going to see, so moving forward we have to use that,” said senior outfielder Maddie Houlihan.

Though their strength of schedule rating has declined to No. 3 after two series against Big Ten teams, it is still an improvement on schedules from recent years. In 2018, the Gophers’ strength of schedule ranked No. 36. In 2017, they were ranked No. 72. The new approach has the team hoping it will prepare them better for the rest of the season. An increase in ranking shows the Gophers have been playing against better opponents over the past few years.

“I think we took advantage of playing some of the best competition in the nation,” Houlihan said. “It felt like every other game, or every game some weekends, … we competed with them. There weren’t any games where I felt we were ever out of it. I think a lot of them we played as good if not better than the top teams in the nation, and I think that shows in the RPI rankings.”

The RPI, or rating percentage index, ranks teams based on their record, the record of their opponents and the record of their opponents’ opponents.

The latest NCAA softball RPI rankings slotted the Gophers at a program-record No. 8. The team finished the 2018 season as No. 23 in RPI. In 2017, they finished No. 13.

The ranking puts the Gophers in a good spot to hold a regional, and potentially a super regional, if they make it that far through the postseason.

“Any program that gets a chance to host a regional would use that as an opportunity of a lifetime,” Houlihan said. “We just have to do our job every single game and focus on winning and the hope that we set ourselves up with a chance to do something like that at the end of the year.”

The Gophers have been continuing their high-level play since the end of non-conference season with back-to-back sweeps of Maryland and Purdue. Minnesota outscored its two Big Ten foes 48-17 in those six games.