Hegland hopes to trade spikes for skates in pursuit of elusive dream

by Michael Dougherty

“Ber” knows softball, but “Ber” also knows hockey. Gophers softball player Amber Hegland — Ber to her friends and family — is taking a page from the Bo Jackson book on two-sport athletes.
The senior from Farmington, Minn., is considered by some as one of the best softball players to ever play for Minnesota.
However, Hegland can’t help but peek past the softball season and take a look at her shot at playing for the Gophers women’s hockey team next season.
“I really am excited to watch her play hockey next year,” head softball coach Lisa Bernstein-O’Brien said. “I want and believe she can become an All-American in two sports, and I think that would be quite an accomplishment.”
Hegland was a second-team softball All-American her sophomore year, and is on track to make the first team this season.
She is hitting .444 for the season and has 30 RBIs for the 16th-ranked, 33-8 Gophers. She also holds the team career records for most RBIs, most walks and highest career average at .402.
Bernstein-O’Brien said Hegland’s leadership is the main reason the team gets along better than any team she has coached.
“She’s huge. She’s an impact player with a sound mind who has an excellent work ethic and a ton of determination,” the coach said.
Hegland, a self-described “big family person,” who lists her brother Adam as her biggest inspiration, was a highly recruited hockey player out of high school. She owns the distinction of being the only girl to ever record a point in the boys’ state hockey tournament.
But when she was looking at colleges, she chose to play softball at Minnesota, even though she realized that she probably would not get to play hockey again.
Hegland said her choice was easy, because it meant that she would be able to stay close to home. But when the Gophers added women’s hockey this year, Hegland’s puck aspirations began to ignite like a scorching slap shot.
Her hockey influence is evident in her choice of heroes, as she regards former Pittsburgh Penguin Mario Lemieux as her main sports influence.
“People say it’s so weird that he’s my favorite hockey player,” Hegland said. “It’s been four years since I’ve played competitively, and now I’m coming back and how he came back from Hodgkin’s disease — it’s kind of neat.”
With the goals of hockey down the road, Hegland focuses on the more immediate objectives she wants to reach on the softball diamond.
As a sophomore, she was part of a team that finished 44-18, captured second-place in the Big Ten and advanced to the NCAA tournament.
And with a large nucleus returning for the ’97 season, the hopes of a return trip to the NCAAs were high for Hegland and her teammates. But the team had a rough final two weeks of the regular season and failed to make it to the Big Ten Tournament, finishing 37-19 overall.
Expectedly, the highly competitive Hegland was not thrilled with the team’s failure to advance to the post-season.
“Last year we had to stay home. None of us expected it to be over, but it was just like — blah. But that won’t happen again,” she guaranteed.
The diverse Hegland has played every position for the Gophers, except pitcher. And she hopes to convince head coach Lisa Bernstein-O’Brien to let her pitch.
“I keep bugging Coach B,” she said. “I’m like, ‘Just one pitch, Coach,’ and she just kind of smiles and turns the other way.”
Bernstein-O’Brien has taken a wait-and-see attitude toward the pitching proposal, adding that team goals are more important than a personal achievement like that.
Hegland knows that, and would much rather be remembered for making it to the College World Series than be known for playing all nine positions.
Her team-first mentality trickles down through the entire team. Consequently, the relationship between the coaches and the players is great.
Perhaps the biggest indicator of the way the players and coaches get along is by the various “van jokes” when the team is on the road. The same people are usually in each of the two vans, which often leads to tomfoolery.
Hegland and her cohorts have pulled the seats out of the other van, thrown dead fish in the other van and had their van Saran-Wrapped. But the coup de grace was a prank that left the Hegland crew on the receiving end.
“They put some kind of cheese — it was the worst smelling cheese — on the engine block, and it started blowing in and we were sick from the stink,” Hegland said.
While she was unsure of the kind of cheese that created the stench, it’s obvious what type of cheese her torn-up elbow resembles: Swiss. A recent skin-mulching dive into second base left her with a four-inch scrape.
But that’s the way she wants it.
“It means you’re playing hard,” Hegland said. “If you’re not dirty and you’re not scraped up, you’re not doing it right.”