Richardson proving to be a difference maker in Gophers’ hot start

Kaitlyn Richardson is tied for first in the Big Ten in both home runs and RBIs through 18 games as a freshman.

Kaitlyn Richardson practices with her team on Tuesday at the Gibson-Nagurski Football Practice Facility.

Mark Vancleave

Kaitlyn Richardson practices with her team on Tuesday at the Gibson-Nagurski Football Practice Facility.

by Betsy Helfand

About a week after head coach Jessica Allister got her job at the University of Minnesota, she saw Kaitlyn Richardson — her eventual first recruit — play live for the first time.

“I was looking for 2011 recruits that could come in right away and make a difference,” Allister said, “and what I noticed about her is the way she swings the bat.”

Now 18 games into her second season at the helm of the softball team, Allister has already seen Richardson make a difference.

Richardson is near the top of the Big Ten in many major offensive categories. She currently sits tied for first in the conference with Ohio State’s Alicia Herron in both home runs (6) and runs batted in (21).

Her .420 batting average is tied for sixth in the conference, and she is second in total bases with 43.

Allister said Richardson has had to work hard on her approach to every at-bat since she arrived.

“She doesn’t like to fail, so we work very hard on her realizing that she’s not going to hit a double in every at-bat,” Allister said. “Sometimes she’s going to have a bad at-bat, and she’s got to be able to let that be OK and come back from it.”

She’s been doing a pretty good job doing that — in five games last weekend she hit 6-for-12, scored six runs, drove in four and hit two home runs.

She was awarded Big Ten Freshman of the Week, an honor that she said means a lot. But she was also quick to point out the success of her team.

The Gophers finished 4-1 on the weekend, and their only loss came to No. 7 Georgia.

The young team’s hot start is parallel to Richardson’s own; the team is currently 14-4, and Richardson has already made her presence felt hitting third in the lineup.

Allister said that Richardson came in with a “beautiful swing,” and she stressed the importance of Richardson’s hard work in her success.

“I don’t think that there’s any substitute for hard work; I think that’s how you get to where you want to go, and that’s how [Richardson] works,” Allister said.

She also noted that Richardson “puts in her time,” showing up early almost every day and staying late.

Hard work has been imperative for Richardson, especially in the field, because she made the transition from second base to third base this year.

Allister said she made the switch because the team “recruited a fair amount of infielders, and it’s just what works out best for the team.”

Assistant coach Jessica Merchant, who works in a large capacity with the team’s infielders, said Richardson “took the extra time to learn the position” and is transitioning into the role well.

“She’s more comfortable now,” Merchant said. “Things happen naturally now that maybe in the fall it took her a second [because] she had to think about [things] instead of just reacting.”

Richardson has committed just one error on the season so far at the hot corner.

For her part, Richardson said the biggest adjustment she had to make moving from high school to college softball was improving her focus.

“I think even [games] we win in five innings, it’s a lot more exhausting mentally,” she said. “You’re really in it every pitch, every rep, every ground ball. It’s not as [much just] going through the motions.”

Richardson, a Phoenix native, played softball at Sandra Day O’Connor High School, where she was an all-state selection twice and an all-region selection three times.

During her junior year, which she called her biggest year, Richardson hit .495, drove in 51 runs and hit 19 doubles and six home runs.

Allister first watched Richardson play the summer after her junior year. Richardson was a member of the Arizona Hotshots and was competing in the Premier Nationals.

Richardson said Allister approached her after the game and made her the offer to play with Minnesota.

“She had just gotten the job, so she was really adamant — ‘Let’s do this, let’s make it happen,’” Richardson said, adding that she loved Allister’s attitude toward softball and winning.

“I think [Richardson] wasn’t afraid to go somewhere different and help build a program,” Allister said.

She was recruited by a handful of schools, including Stanford and Alabama, which she said was her first choice at one point.

However, after talking to the coaches, meeting her teammates and visiting the school, she changed her mind.

“Alabama was probably my No. 1 [choice] for awhile, but it didn’t work out, and I’m glad because I wouldn’t be here,” Richardson said.

Richardson and the Gophers will head to Boca Raton, Fla., to compete in the Embassy Suites Classic this weekend.