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After its best season in program history, the Gophers softball team will open its 2018 schedule with two games Friday, facing Southern Utah at 11 a.m. and Utah Valley at 3:30 p.m. in the SportCo Kick Off Classic in Las Vegas.

Minnesota finished 56-5 last season — a school record for wins. The Gophers also set program records for longest winning streaks to start a season (19) and longest winning streak ever (26). They won their first Big Ten regular-season title since 1991 and their third conference tournament title in four years.

And, after never being ranked in the top 10 before, the Gophers reached No. 1 in the USA Today/NFCA coaches poll and No. 3 in the ESPN/USA Softball poll just before the NCAA tournament began.

Despite its gaudy record, Minnesota was not among the 16 teams seeded in the national tournament — a controversial decision — and was sent to the Tuscaloosa Regional. There the Gophers lost twice to host Alabama, 1-0 both times, and were eliminated. The first game against the Crimson Tide went nine innings and ended that 26-game winning streak.

In the two major preseason polls this year, Minnesota is No. 16 in one, No. 18. And then there’s the Fastpitch News poll, which has the maroon and gold ranked No. 5. More on that later.

What’s certain about the Gophers when they take the field against Southern Utah is that their lineup will be much the same as it was for nearly every game last season.

Seven of eight position players return as does No. 2 starter Amber Fiser.

Gone are pitching ace Sara Groenewegen and left fielder and leadoff hitter Sam Macken. Both graduated.
Also gone is head coach Jessica Allister, who took a job at Stanford, her alma mater.

Jamie Trachsel has replaced Allister. She was the coach at Iowa State last season and before that, the co-head coach at North Dakota State for six seasons. She is a native of Duluth and a 2001 graduate of St. Cloud State.

She emphasizes defense, her players say. She inherits one of the best hitting teams in college softball last season: the Gophers .342 batting average was the third best among all NCAA teams as was Minnesota’s 7.2 runs scored per game.

Catcher Kendyl Lindaman hit 20 homers and had 76 — both school records and was named the Big Ten player and freshman of the year. She also hit .426.

“Jamie is definitely focused on defense,” Lindaman said in a recent podcast. “She is a defensive coach and that is huge because we have always been really big into our offense. That just makes us a better team. We get two different perspectives on the game of softball.”

First baseman Sydney Dwyer matched Lindaman’s RBI total of 76 and had 12 homers. Only two other Division I players had more RBI last season than Lindaman and Dwyer.'

The rest of the infield returns intact as well: MaKenna Partain (.380, 39 RBI) at second base, Allie Arneson (.284, 26 RBI) at shortstop and Danielle Parlich (.344, 34 RBI) at third base.

Also back are outfielders Dani Wagner (.333, 30 RBI) in center and Maddie Houlihan (.396, 17 doubles, 50 RBI) in right.

“Our lineup is so strong that it takes the pressure off other people,” Houlihan said. “I know if I don’t get the job done, that Kendyl has an awesome chance to get the job done or anyone else in the lineup.”

Lindaman, Parlich and Houlihan were among the 50 players recently named to the watch list for USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year.

Groenewegen (31-4, 0.63, 307 Ks) will be hard to replace but the Gophers have several players who can compete for the No. 1 job.

Fiser was 14-0 last season as a freshman with a 1.68 ERA. And junior Sydney Smith, a transfer from LSU who pitched for Maple Grove High School, also has a lot of potential. She was 25-11 over two seasons with 11 shutouts pitching for a team in the Southeastern Conference, the nation’s strongest softball league

As for those preseason polls, Eric Lopez of Fastpitch News, a website, says the two major top 25 polls are basically the same as they were at the end of last season. Certainly in Minnesota’s case that’s true. The Gophers were No. 15 in the final USA Today/NFCA poll last year and are No. 16 now. ESPN/USA Today dropped them from No. 14 to No. 18.

Fastpitch News, in contrast, has the Gophers at No. 5 behind only national champion Oklahoma, NCAA runner-up Florida, Oregon and Florida State. (The Gophers play the Seminoles twice in Tallahassee, Feb. 16 and 17.)

“The Fastpitch News poll is actually based on advanced stats — there’s no human element,” Lopez said on a recent podcast. “There are some tweaks we make to it for coaches changes, players getting hurt, a lot of different factors.”

The advanced stats formula, he said, looks at such things as strength of schedule, run differential, etc., and “it takes away some of the biases out there.”