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Jess Oakland is a star in the making for Gophers softball

The Gophers shortstop started all 57 games, integral to their Women’s College World Series Regional appearance.
Image by Photo courtesy of Matt Krohn
Jess Oakland’s game-tying home run against Michigan at Jane Sage Cowles Stadium on May 6, 2023.

The University of Minnesota’s softball team came into the season with an experienced and battle-tested team. Shortstop Jess Oakland made an instant impact as a freshman, bursting onto the scene and providing another element to the Gopher squad.

Throughout her first season for the Gophers, Oakland received many accolades. Those included Big Ten Freshman of the Week x2, All-Big Ten Freshman Team and All-Big Ten First Team honors.

Oakland’s freshman season concluded on May 20 after a heartbreaking 1-0 loss to McNeese State in the Women’s College World Series Regional. After a great season, Oakland and the team are focused on improving themselves for the future.

“For next year, we have to stay consistent in our workload and just have that same trust and same bond that we had towards the end of last season,” Oakland said. “I think we’re going to be successful that way.”

Oakland mentioned consistency as a major point of emphasis over the offseason. On the field this season, she was exceptional on defense at shortstop and at the plate. 

Jess Oakland’s season totals reflect an incredible freshman Big Ten campaign. Minnesota’s shortstop started all 57 games and only committed 11 errors while assisting on 107 plays, which was by far the most on the team.

Oakland had the power to hit home runs and the discipline to draw walks, leading the team with 33 walks and tying Taylor Krapf for the team lead with 14 home runs (5th in the Big Ten).

Reflecting on her impressive freshman numbers, Oakland mentioned by “having confidence and trusting my teammates who have already been through it,” she was able to quickly adjust to the collegiate scene.

The response displays Oakland’s character and shows the culture Minnesota’s head coach Piper Ritter has set for the team. She has kept a calm, humble demeanor throughout all her success in high school and college.

At St. Francis High School, Oakland was a star dominating the state of California. Not only did she produce for her school, but she also put together one of the best high school careers in California’s softball history. 

During her time at St. Francis, she tallied 44 home runs, 159 RBI and 135 runs, ranking her in California’s all-time top 25 softball players.

Ritter and Minnesota knew what they were getting from the moment they began recruiting Jess Oakland.

“We saw Jess play before COVID hit and then we watched her develop while recruiting rules didn’t allow us to watch her in person,” Ritter said. “Jess always impressed us with her composure and her ability to come up with a big hit.”

Clutch hitting was on full display during Oakland’s game in her freshman season. The main examples are two walk-offs against Big Ten opponents and an inside-the-park home run versus Northern Colorado in the NCAA Seattle Regionals.

Minnesota has had success recruiting on the West Coast. The year prior Kayla Chavez, the No. 31 ranked player in the 2021 class by Extra Innings Softball, committed to the Gophers from California.

When asked what made Minnesota stand out and how Ritter influenced her decision, she said, “When I was first getting recruited, I wasn’t too sure about being so far away from home. Coach Ritter and Coach [Carly] Wynn made it seem family-like. They emphasized family orientation as a team.”

Ritter’s culture is one of the main attraction points drawing recruits to Minnesota. The Gophers’ coaching staff has been incredible at recruiting out-of-state talent and helping them reach the next level of their game.

One of the best examples of this is Autumn Pease who was the ace on the Gophers pitching staff. Pease struggled at periods during her long Minnesota career, but was one of the best players in college softball in her final season. Constantly improving in various areas yearly, the Gophers look to continue that and make Oakland one of the best in the country.

An impressive statistic from Oakland’s freshman season was that she started all 57 games. In them, she tallied 57 hits and posted an on-base percentage of .435.

Additionally, she was a tough out due to her keen eye for the plate combined with her hitting power. As a direct result, Oakland posted a profound 1.051 OPS, which is not easy to hit, especially for a freshman. The only other freshman hitter with a higher OPS in the Big Ten was the conference player of the year Taryn Kern sitting at 1.505.

Oakland’s approach to the plate led to most of her success. During the interview, she mentioned hitting something hard and having quality at-bats was the goal each time at the plate.

The answer may be simply wanting to “hit something hard,” but nothing else needs to be said when that leads to 14 HR and a batting average above .300.

On a lighter note, it was Oakland’s first time experiencing a full Minnesota winter and a different climate than the sunny west coast.

“It was something I had to learn how to walk on the ice,” Oakland said. “I kept slipping and falling every single day. It was embarrassing, but then I would look around, and everyone else was slipping and falling too. It was just really cold, but they stocked us up with gear, so I was always warm.”

Minnesota weather is always different for recruits attending Minnesota from out of state. The weather could play a factor in recruits’ decisions to attend Minnesota if not for coach Ritter’s impressive culture.

Gopher softball associate head coach Carly Wynn was one of the people Oakland spoke about during our interview. Oakland mentioned how important she was to her development throughout the season.

When asking coach Wynn about Oakland’s biggest area of growth, she mentioned how it started from within and translated to the field.

“The growth in her game really came from fully understanding her capabilities. She was challenged daily to have better drop steps, more range and to get to more pitches and each time she responded,” Wynn said. “She has always been a very talented athlete, but I think continuing to challenge her to get a little better each day is where we really saw her respond and grow.”

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