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Four players on the Gophers softball roster will be much closer to home when the team opens NCAA regional play Friday in Seattle.

Big Ten Pitcher of the Year Autumn Pease is a California native. So are All-Big Ten first teamers Jess Oakland and Kayla Chavez and team steals leader Amani Bradley.

In the last two seasons combined, the Gophers have had eight players from California. The last time U softball didn't have at least one Californian on the roster was in 2017.

The current Golden State foursome's impact in Seattle could be a determining factor, as Minnesota tries to advance to its first Super Regional since the World Series run in 2019.

"This team is very family-oriented and when I was getting recruited, that's what it felt like," Oakland said. "When I saw they had a lot of California kids, I was like, they must be doing something right if they're coming all the way out here and loving it."

Minnesota plays McNeese at 5:30 p.m. Friday. The game will be on ESPN+.

The Gophers (37-17) were riding a 12-game win streak before falling to second-seeded Indiana in the Big Ten tournament semifinals last weekend. A big part of Minnesota's success came from balancing Pease's brilliance in the circle with some scoring punch at the plate.

Gophers shortstop Jess Oakland (9) is a San Jose, Calif., native.
Gophers shortstop Jess Oakland (9) is a San Jose, Calif., native.

Shari L. Gross, Star Tribune

Oakland, a freshman shortstop from San Jose, bounced back strong from a 10-game hitless stretch earlier in the season to record a hit in 17 of her last 18 games. She's batting .327 and ranks second on the team in home runs (13), runs (39) and RBI (44).

"It was really hard to adjust in the beginning because this was a whole new level and the speed of the game is faster," Oakland said. "But I just tried to stay consistent and had teammates who I know and trust will back me up. That's been really helpful."

Being able to count on Chavez's bat in the clutch also made a difference for the Gophers during their late season run, most recently in a Big Ten tournament quarterfinal win vs. Ohio State. The sophomore third baseman led the team with two hits, including a home run.

Chavez, a Chino Hills, Calif., native, might not have signed with the Gophers if not for her former club softball teammate in California, Emily Leavitt, also joining her in the U's 2022 recruiting class. Leavitt wound up transferring from Minnesota to Texas A&M after leading the Gophers with a 15-11 pitching record last year.

Chavez stayed after becoming the only freshman to make the All-Big Ten defensive team last year. She also has become a formidable presence at the plate, ranking second on the team in batting (.333) and first in hits (63) and doubles (14).

"That was fun coming in with [Leavitt], knowing her from when we were 8 years old," Chavez said. "It was nice knowing someone coming in, so [college] was not just a big scary place."

Pease and Bradley both had college experience before joining the Gophers as transfers from Idaho State and Cal, respectively. They're both from Murrieta, Calif., but they had different reasons to end their career in Minnesota.

Bradley decided to visit Piper Ritter's program after her Cal teammate Lauren Espalin played with the Gophers last year. Espalin, one of six Californians on last year's team, is now a U graduate manager on Ritter's staff.

"When I hit the transfer portal, [Espalin] said she loved her experience here and that I should give them a call," said Bradley, who is batting .285 and has a team-high nine stolen bases. "I took a visit and fell in love with the coaches. … It was an opportunity I couldn't pass up for my final year."

Gophers pitcher Autumn Pease is a Murrieta, Calif., native.
Gophers pitcher Autumn Pease is a Murrieta, Calif., native.

Anthony Soufflé, Star Tribune

None of the Californians on the roster have been with the Gophers longer than Pease, who transferred in 2020. Her bounce back from an injury-plagued 2022 season to become the Big Ten's top pitcher helped turn the U into a contender with her 26-7 record, 1.45 ERA and 256 strikeouts.

Pease watched a dream scenario play out even better than she could've imagined when visiting her sister who was living in Minnesota several years ago.

Despite being committed to Idaho State as a high school star at the time, Pease decided to walk around the U campus. She never thought she'd be there one day so far from home.

"When I got an email from the coaches here in the portal, I literally started crying," Pease said. "I thought this is so cool and they're so good. It kind of made it easy to want to come."