Home opener provides relief for team, grounds crew

The Gophers will play 16 of their last 21 regular-season games at Jane Sage Cowles Stadium.

by Drew Claussen

The Gophers softball team will make its first appearance in front of its hometown fans nearly two months into the season.

Minnesota (21-12, 4-2 Big Ten) will host Wisconsin in a three-game series this weekend at Jane Sage Cowles Stadium.

Head coach Jessica Allister said even though the team enjoyed traveling to places like Florida, California and Arizona during its nonconference schedule, she’s excited for the home opener.

“It will be nice to not travel,” Allister said. “And then to be able to play in our own stadium and in front of our own fans just provides so much energy.

“Everything’s a little easier when you’re at home.”

The Gophers have had time to transition from playing in southern climates to the cooler weather they’ll see this weekend. Minnesota opened up its Big Ten schedule with series at Iowa and Northwestern.

“Winter is winter everywhere,” Allister said. “We were down in Auburn, Ala., and it snowed, so it’s not like we’ve been in 80 degree heat.”

Minnesota’s grounds crew kept Jane Sage Cowles Stadium ready during the offseason in preparation for this weekend’s opener.

Facilities manager Jarrett Yehlen said that after the team is done using the field in the fall, the crew lays down two-inch-thick insulated blankets on the infield and covers those blankets with a tarp.

“Those stay on all winter,” he said, “and that hinders the frost line from driving into the soil really deep.”

Yehlen said Minnesota’s late spring and frigid temperatures threw the staff a curveball because the frost line was lower than it typically is at this point in the year.

“We’re really about 2 1/2 weeks behind, weather-wise, from our yearly average,” Yehlen said. “Each spring offers unique challenges. The challenge this year was single-digit temperatures two weeks before the first game.”

Yehlen said he always has doubts about whether the weather will prevent the opening games from being played.

“It’s our job to overcome that,” he said.

He said temporary labor had been contracted to help clear snow off the infield tarps. Crew members had to wait for warmer temperatures before removing the snow.

Heavy equipment could not be used on the infield, so all the snow from that portion of the field had to be removed by shovel.

“We were actually quite pleased with the condition of the infield [Wednesday] at 11 a.m. when we pulled the blankets,” Yehlen said.