The Gophers softball team on Sunday got news of both an exciting opportunity and a tremendous challenge.
The opportunity: Minnesota received an at-large berth to the NCAA tournament, marking the ninth consecutive time the Gophers will play in the national event.
The challenge: To advance in the tournament, the Gophers likely will need to beat defending national champion and top-ranked Oklahoma, winner of 49 of 51 games this season, in Norman, Okla.
The Gophers (26-24-1) are the No. 3 seed in the Norman Regional and will open play against No. 2 seed Texas A&M at 4 p.m. Friday (ESPN2). Oklahoma, the No. 1 overall seed in the 64-team tournament, will then face No. 4 seed Prairie View A&M (20-28) at 6 p.m. The double-elimination regional runs through Sunday, and the winner will advance to one of eight super regionals next weekend.
"No matter where we were going to go, we were going to be the underdog,'' Gophers center fielder Natalie DenHartog said. "Going to the No. 1 [seed] doesn't scare us or make us more worried than anywhere else we'd go. This team's ready to play free, just be brave and let it all on the line and hopefully ruin some people's days.''
Minnesota closed its regular season on a strong note, winning four of its final five games, including a pair of 8-0, five-inning routs over Big Ten champion Northwestern. However, the Gophers' stay in the conference tournament was short. They lost 2-0 to Wisconsin in the first round.
An ambitious schedule that's ranked the 11th-toughest in the nation helped the Gophers land the NCAA bid. They've played 29 of their 51 games against teams in the NCAA field, going 10-18-1 against that competition. Included in that was a 9-1, five-inning loss to the Sooners on March 7 in Norman.
"I was joking with the girls about it. 'Coach Ritter took us to Oklahoma for spring break for a week because she wanted to make Oklahoma our home field,' '' Gophers senior pitcher Autumn Pease said. "It's cool that we get to go back there. It's going to be a fun competition.''
Before the Gophers can face Oklahoma this weekend, they likely need to beat Texas A&M, the last of 12 SEC teams to make the NCAA field. The Aggies are No. 40 in the NCAA Softball RPI, five spots behind the Gophers. Haley Lee leads A&M with a .410 batting average, 14 home runs and 41 RBI, while the pitching duo of Makinzy Herzog (9-7, 2.47 ERA, 115 strikeouts) and Emiley Kennedy (11-11, 2.77, 103 K's) has taken the bulk of the starts.
Gophers coach Piper Ritter wants her team's attention on the Aggies, not a rematch with the Sooners.
"First and foremost, it's Texas A&M, and we've got to work to beat them,'' said Ritter, who guided the Gophers to the UCLA Regional final last year, her first as head coach.
Should the Gophers get past the Aggies, the Sooners likely are next. Utility player Jocelyn Alo is the reigning USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year and has an NCAA career-record 113 home runs. This season, she's hitting .481 (second in the nation) with 25 homers (third nationally) and 62 RBI (eighth nationally). Infielder Tiare Jennings ranks third nationally with 68 RBI. Oklahoma's pitching is dominant. Hope Trautwein is 16-1, and her 0.31 ERA is the second-best in the nation, while Jordy Bahl (21-1, 0.95) and Nicole May (12-0, 1.11) also are in the top eight in ERA.
Pease believes her team is ready for whatever the regional competition brings.
"We stuck together and stopped really caring about what other people are saying about us because it hasn't been very nice this season,'' Pease said. "… We're good enough to be here.''