To our readers: Thank you for taking part in our Mailbag Monday this week. Star Tribune beat writers received many questions about the teams and leagues we cover, and each writer selected at least a couple of questions to answer. Look for a question and answer about each team in a future edition of the Star Tribune.
Q: How do the Gopher baseball and softball teams look heading into next season? They’re usually pretty strong. Will that continue? -- Dan Chang (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Gophers baseball coach John Anderson, who will start his 40th season in 2021 with 1,325 victories, said recently during a radio interview on 1440-AM that “with only one senior and losing one kid to the draft, we can have a very competitive team next year.”
The one senior on this year's team was shortstop/outfielder Jordan Kozicky, actually a fifth-year senior not expected back. (The NCAA granted all spring sports athletes another season of eligibility if they wanted it.)
Also gone will be junior pitcher Max Meyer, expected to be a first round pick in Major League Baseball’s shortened five-round draft starting June 10.
Back will be second baseman Zack Raabe, who hit .463 as a sophomore (NCAA-leading 31 hits), and third baseman Jack Wassel, who hit .364 as a junior (16 RBI, 10 extra-base hits). D1Baseball ranked Raabe as the fifth best college player at his position this past season and Wassel as the 10th best at his spot.
Two other regulars, both outfielders, also hit over .300: Easton Bertrand (.302, team high four homers), and Andrew Wilhite (.320).
On the mound, the Gophers lose their ace, Meyer (3-1, 1.95 ERA), but they have 11 pitchers who made at least four appearances and plenty of arms who can get strikeouts. After giving up six or more runs in seven of the first eight games (and 10 or more four times), the pitching improved -- it had to -- a bit.
The Gophers were 8-10 before their season was halted by the pandemic, including impressive wins over Oregon, Arizona, TCU and North Carolina.
Freshman Trent Schoeberl was 2-0 in five games, including three starts, and had a 2.75 ERA and 17 strikeouts in 19.2 innings.
Junior reliever Bubba Horton had a 4.50 ERA and 28 strikeouts in 16 innings. Starters J.P. Massey (1-1, 4.66, 24 strikeouts, 19.1 innings) and Sam Thoresen (0-1, 7.71, 19 strikeouts, 9.1 innings) showed flashes.
Incoming freshman George Klassen, of Port Washington, Wis., also should have an immediate impact. The 6-2 righthander struck out 56 and gave up just 10 hits in 22 innings as a junior. His fastball is in the mid-90s. He is considered the best pitcher in the 2020 recruiting class in Wisconsin.
So the 2021 season looks promising in baseball.
The softball team, under new coach Piper Ritter, should be among the best teams in the Big Ten in 2021 and will be hoping to make another run to the Women’s College World Series as it did in 2019.
Four of the team’s six seniors have said they would return for another season.
The most important one of them, of course, is pitcher Amber Fiser, a hard-throwing righthander. Fiser (10-7, 2.17 ERA, 145 strikeouts in 100 innings) and junior Autumn Pease (4-2, 2.12 ERA, 10 walks in 59.1 innings) will give Ritter two dependable pitchers in the circle. One of the other three pitchers on the roster also could develop into a solid contributer.
Also back will be junior left fielder Natalie DenHartog, the team’s best power hitter. She hit .429 with seven homers and 28 RBI in 25 games.
The other three seniors coming back are shortstop Carlie Brandt (.177), third baseman Kaitlyn Kemmetmueller (.203) and center fielder Brooke Vander Heide (.246). All are skilled fielders who struggled at the plate.
Next season if those struggles continue, Ritter will have freshmen she can turn to like infielders Jenna Beckstrom of Lakeville North and Rylie Costa of Tracy, Calif., and outfielder Mackenzie “Wheels” Denson of Mansfield, Texas, who stole 52 bases in 2019.
So expectations for the softball team, which was 15-9-1 when the season ended in mid-March, will be high for 2021. Rightfully so.