Gophers softball ends postseason bid with loss to UCLA

Minnesota was just two games away from moving on to the NCAA Super Regional round

MaKenna Partain waits to bat on Saturday, May 25, 2019 at the Jane Sage Cowles Stadium.

Jasmin Kemp

MaKenna Partain waits to bat on Saturday, May 25, 2019 at the Jane Sage Cowles Stadium.

Matthew Kennedy

The no. 24 Gophers softball team headed west in pursuit of a long postseason run, but they were unable to advance past regional play. The team lost to powerhouse UCLA, ending their season.

After earning a 29-11 record in the Big Ten conference Gopher softball finished second place and secured an at-large bid in the NCAA tournament. Playing in the Los Angeles regional, Minnesota dropped their first game against Fresno State on Friday, May 21. With two wins on Saturday, May 22, the Gophers were set to face UCLA in the final Sunday.

Minnesota’s other Saturday win over Long Beach St. put them against UCLA for the Sunday final, where they were narrowly defeated 2-1.

Friday, May 21

On Friday, the Gophers were involved in a tense pitching duel against Hailey Dolcini one of the “top pitchers in the nation,” according to Gophers Head Coach Piper Ritter. Dolcini pitched a 1.01 ERA in the regular season with a 21-4 record. Amber Fiser took the circle for the Gophers. Fiser was a part of the 1-2 starting pitcher punch alongside Autumn Pease.

Through five innings, the game was scoreless. Minnesota’s lone hit came with an Ellee Jensen lead off single in the bottom of the first inning.

In the sixth inning, Fresno St. finally broke the tie as a pair of singles put runners on first and second base with one out. After a sacrifice bunt by Adrianna Noriega moved both runners to second and third base, Hayleigh Galvan was hit by a pitch, making the bases loaded with two outs.

Up next to bat was Schuylar Broussard, who singled to right field bringing home the Bulldogs’ runners from second and third base. This made the game 2-0 Fresno St. The inning concluded after Center Fielder Natalie DenHartog threw out pinch runner Liliana Mejia at home off of a Avery Lawley single.

In the bottom of the sixth inning, MaKenna Partain singled to CF and DenHartog walked, making a lucrative comeback opportunity for the Gophers down by two. But the next three batters all failed to reach base before the inning ended.

In the top of the seventh, Fresno St. added to their lead with Miranda Rohleder scoring from first base off of a Keahilele Mattson double to right field.

The final half-inning of regulation didn’t bode well for the Gophers with Dolcini pitching a 1-2-3 inning, striking out Sara Kinch, Sydney Strelow fouling out to the catcher and pinch hitter Chloe Evans striking out.

Dolcini finished with a complete game shutout, striking out 13 batters. Fiser pitched all seven innings for the Gophers, allowing 3 earned runs.

Fresno St. won 3-0 and advanced to play UCLA in the winners bracket while the Gophers would face Long Beach St. in the losers bracket.

The message in the locker room after the game was to “stay alive” by taking one game at a time, focusing all of their energy on that matchup to get to play another game, according to Ritter.

Saturday, May 22

On Saturday, the Gophers made quick work of Long Beach St, winning 11-0. A solo home run by Kinch and a grand slam by Natalie DenHartog were the highlights of the game. Fiser pitched six shutout innings and Ava Dueck sealed the win over pitching in the final inning.

After the Gophers’ first elimination game victory they would proceed to rematch Fresno St. after the Bulldogs lost earlier in the winner’s bracket to UCLA. The Gophers would need to defeat Fresno St. to move onto the regional final.

Minnesota got off to a hot start quickly, with DenHartog homering to deep CF off of Dariana Orme that brought in two runs in the first inning, giving the Gophers a 2-0 lead.

That home run was DenHartog’s second straight long ball after hitting a grand slam in her final at bat versus Long Beach St. Ritter talked about DenHartog’s surge at the plate on Saturday.

“For her it’s all about timing. She worked most of yesterday and today on being on time for the pitches she wanted to hit,” Ritter said. ”So when you get that swing off and see the ball as well as she did today, it feels good.”

In the bottom of the first inning, Mattson hit a solo shot off of Gophers starting pitcher Pease to cut the lead down to one and through one inning the score was 2-1.

In the third inning, DenHartog knocked in another RBI from a single to center field, allowing Partain to score. The lead returned to two runs for the Gophers, ahead 3-1 over the Bulldogs.

Fresno St. answered with a double by Mattson, who scored two runners from second and third to tie the game at three apiece.

In the top of the fourth, Strelow homered to center, bringing home Kinch. The lead extended to 5-3 Gophers in the top of the fifth with a Partain home run to left field.

Fiser was tasked to close out the game in the bottom of the seventh inning. She got out of a bases loaded jam with a defensive play, knocking a hit from UCLA’s Mattson in the air with her glove. The ball ricocheted to the Gophers short stop Carlie Brandt to throw Mattson out, winning the game.

Sunday, May 23

After a scoreless first inning, Pease hit a batter by pitch but still gave up no runs in the second inning while in the circle for Minnesota. Megan Dray hit a leadoff home run to left center to give the Gophers a 1-0 lead.

The Gophers continued to attack UCLA offensively and had a bases loaded opportunity to increase their lead but ace relief pitcher Rachel Garcia (15-0, 0.82 ERA, 137 Ks, 102 IP) halted the Gophers offensive pursuits.

The Bruins took the lead in the top of the fourth inning as Kinsley Washington hit a two RBI single to score Rachel Garcia and Maya Brady to take a 2-1 lead. Garcia reached base from a single and Brady doubled down the left field line to reach second base as Garcia advanced to third.

The next three innings featured no scoring, but the Gophers almost tied the game up in the bottom of the seventh inning with Chloe Evans reaching second base on a pinch hit ground ball error by UCLA SS Briana Perez.

With one out and a runner in scoring position, Delanie Cox came to pinch hit for Brant and struck out and Partain flew out to left with two outs to end the ballgame — and the Gophers season — in Los Angeles, losing in a close 2-1 battle.

After the final game, Ritter commented on how much she appreciated the leadership of the fifth-year seniors on the team.

“They meant a lot to me because they have been through so much and their dedication to this program really speaks volumes,” Ritter said. “A lot of coaching changes have occurred during their tenure and they helped our upperclassmen a lot, especially during COVID-19 when team bonding was essential.”

Those fifth year seniors included Carlie Brandt, Fiser, Katelyn Kemmetmueller and Partain.