Local talent keys Gophers’ success

Minnesota natives make up the team’s outfield and most of its regular infield.

Sam Macken prepares to bat at the Jane Sage Cowles Stadium on April 26.

Alex Tuthill-Preus, Daily File Photo

Sam Macken prepares to bat at the Jane Sage Cowles Stadium on April 26.

Emily Polglaze

The Gophers have made the NCAA tournament the last three seasons, the longest streak in program history, and in-state recruits have done a bulk of the work.
 
 
The team’s roster has featured 10 or fewer non-Minnesotans the last three seasons, and the Gophers have only six players from outside the state on this year’s team.
 
 
“One of our recruiting priorities is that the best softball players in Minnesota need to play at the University of Minnesota,” assistant head coach Jessica Merchant said.
 
 
While growing up playing softball in Minnesota often comes with weather restrictions, the Gophers have been competitive in the Big Ten and nationally recently with home-grown players.
 
 
The team is ranked No. 22 in the country currently and is third in the Big Ten standings. 
 
 
Minnesota has finished in the top three in the Big Ten standings the last three seasons.
 
 
The Gophers have won 153 of their last 205 games, including a 24-10 start this season. The team’s top three hitters, in terms of batting average, are from Minnesota, and so is the entire starting outfield and all but one regular in the infield.
 
 
Those players couldn’t play softball year-round growing up, but they often made the most of their summers.
 
 
“There’s a lot of club ball in the summers,” senior outfielder Kayla Wenner said. “In other areas, you can kind of spread it out between the seasons, but here you have a span of three months where you have to get those games in. It was every weekend, doubleheaders twice a week [growing up]. It was constant softball.”
 
 
Southeastern and Pacific-12 conference schools in the South and West Coast dominate the college softball landscape, with 14 of the 25 ranked teams belonging to the two conferences.
 
 
The Gophers have been one of the few teams to emerge from the Midwest, as Minnesota and Michigan are the only Big Ten schools to finish in the top-25 of the RPI the last two years. 
 
 
Merchant said Minnesota softball players are special because they learn toughness by dealing with weather delays and indoor practices early on.
 
 
When those players face similar obstacles in college, it feels natural, and the Gophers haven’t let those issues keep them from being competitive.
 
 
“We’re doing the same thing that every other team is doing,” junior third baseman Sam Macken said. “We’re still getting good cuts and ground balls and fly balls. It’s a little bit different, but we use the confidence we get from those [indoor] practices in games.”