Coach Allister leads Gophers’ turnaround in third season

Minnesota made an NCAA regional for the first time in 10 years.

Minnesota softball head coach Jessica Allister, right, volunteer assistant Dannie Skrove and pitching coach Piper Ritter coach in the dugout on May 5, 2013 against Indiana. Arriving three years ago, Allister has helped the Gophers win over 30 games in their last three seasons.

Jerry Lee, University of Minnesota

Minnesota softball head coach Jessica Allister, right, volunteer assistant Dannie Skrove and pitching coach Piper Ritter coach in the dugout on May 5, 2013 against Indiana. Arriving three years ago, Allister has helped the Gophers win over 30 games in their last three seasons.

Dane Mizutani

Jessica Allister arrived on the University of Minnesota campus three years ago with a vision: turn around the Gophers softball program.

She may have already done it.

The Gophers ended one of their most successful seasons in the last 10 years two weeks ago with a 3-0 loss to Hawaii in the NCAA Seattle Regional.

Minnesota finished the year 36-19, recording its most wins in a season since 2003, the last year it made an NCAA regional.

The Gophers have won more than 30 games in each of Allister’s three seasons.

“She has the heart, and she believes in us,” said senior catcher Kari Dorle. “She knew how good we were as soon as she got here, and she pushed us to get that out of us.”

In 2010, the season before Allister was named head coach, the Gophers finished 16-37 — 2-17 in the Big Ten.

Allister was an All-American catcher at Stanford in the early 2000s and coached at Georgia, Stanford and Oregon before she accepted the head coaching job at Minnesota.

She has experienced success at every stage of her career, but she said she entered her first season with the Gophers blind. Allister was familiar with some of the talent on the roster, but she hadn’t really seen the team in action.

“I’m not going to sit here and say it was easy,” Allister said. “I think people are always resistant to change in some respect, but we had a core group of players on the team that wanted to win.”

Junior Sara Moulton has been part of that core group from the start. She has since morphed into the backbone of the team as a dominant pitcher at the top of the Gophers’ rotation.

“There were a lot of players that wanted to help turn the program around,” Moulton said. “That was added motivation for us — and with Coach Allister, that was her goal, too.”

Moulton said her success as well as the team’s success stems from Allister and her attitude on the diamond.

“She’s the most competitive coach I’ve ever played for in my life,” Moulton said. “She brings a very competitive approach to her coaching style, which definitely rubs off on the rest of us.”

Dorle is one of the few players on the current roster who played under the previous regime of co-head coaches Lisa Bernstein and Julie Standering. Dorle said she noticed significant differences in Allister’s coaching style right away. She, too, said there was an increased sense of competitiveness with Allister at the helm.

“She wants to win, and she will do whatever it takes to win,” Dorle said. “She’s a perfect fit for this program.”

Minnesota was a perfect fit for Allister, too.

She said she looked at the success of women’s programs at the University and at the overall commitment placed on women’s athletics before she made her decision.

“It’s not just a focus on men’s basketball and football with this University,” Allister said. “That is something that was important to me because there was a support system in place to succeed.”

The Gophers have been near the top of the Big Ten in defense in each of the past three seasons, and Moulton has become one of the top pitchers in the nation.

Allister credited assistants Jessica Merchant and Piper Ritter for the team’s improved defense and pitching.

“I couldn’t do it alone,” Allister said. “It’s a 24/7 job with college athletics, and it never stops, so the fact that we are on the same page is important.”

This is only the start for the softball program, said Allister, who wants to focus on the major aspects of building a program in the coming years.

“We have to keep all of our staff together and recruit the right athletes to this program,” Allister said. “It’s a little piece at a time with building a program.”

The Gophers have an inherent disadvantage in college softball because they play in a cold climate. But Moulton said there’s no doubt Allister will lead the team to a College World Series appearance in the future.

Dorle has more lofty goals for the program.

 “I can see this program as the next Arizona, Oklahoma, Alabama or one of those top schools,” she said. “I cannot see [Allister] ever letting up.”

“She will achieve her goal of making our program a top school in the nation.”