Four years ago, the Gophers baseball team advanced to an NCAA tournament Super Regional against Oregon State, one step from the men's College World Series. One year later, the Gophers softball team took it one step further, knocking off LSU in a Super Regional to reach the women's College World Series.
Both teams had their 2022 seasons end last weekend under different circumstances.
John Anderson's baseball squad finished 16-36 and last in the Big Ten Conference for a second consecutive year. With only eight teams making this week's conference tournament, the Gophers will be home watching, and next season, Anderson will be entering the final year of his contract.
Piper Ritter's softball team reached the NCAA tournament this year, overcoming the 11th-toughest schedule in the nation. But the Gophers fell to Texas A&M twice last weekend, and finished 27-26-1.
Both teams have much higher aspirations moving forward. Here are three reasons for hope and three reasons for concern for Gophers softball.
Three reasons for hope
1. Two best power hitters return
Senior center fielder Natalie DenHartog has already said she will be back for a fifth season, granted to players in her class by the NCAA because the pandemic cost them most of the 2020 season. DenHartog hit a team-high 19 homers and had 36 RBI this past season. She is the program's career leader in homers, with 58, and has averaged nearly one RBI per game in her career. Batting lefthanded — the opposite of DenHartog — and batting behind her was sophomore Chloe Evans. She had 11 homers and a team-high 46 RBI in a breakthrough season, batting .318.
2. Freshman Emily Leavitt in the circle
The righthander from Chino, Calif., came in highly touted but had an up and down season. She shut out then-No. 6 Northwestern 8-0 on three hits on May 6 but gave up eight runs in three innings in the Gophers' season-ending loss to Texas A&M on Saturday. She had a winning 15-11 record but a 4.70 ERA. She was a workhorse with 169 2/3 innings pitched and 45 appearances, including 30 starts. She should be better in her second season.
3. Defense should be strong again
The Gophers tied for second in fielding percentage (.972) in the Big Ten and had the second-most double plays (23). Catcher Sara Kinch, second baseman Sydney Strelow and outfielder DenHartog in center all will return up the middle as well as Kayla Chavez, named to the conference all-defensive team at third base as a freshman.
Three reasons for concern
1. Pitching depth
The Gophers had none after three pitchers left after fall practice. Leavitt and Autumn Pease, who is expected to come back for a fifth season, pitched all but 19 1/3 innings. Pease looked like the staff's next ace in 2021 when she was 12-3 with a 1.75 ERA and never allowed more than three runs. This past season she regressed: 11-14, 4.17 ERA in 157 2/3 innings and four or more runs allowed 14 times. A tough schedule only partly explains those struggles. Ritter has to hope Chanhassen star Sydney Schwartz (17-0, 170 strikeouts in 107 1/3 innings) can contribute right away as a freshman next season.
2. The loss of four key veterans
Grad transfers Lauren Espalin, who hit .340 in the leadoff spot, Makenna Dowell, a shortstop who made the conference all-defensive team, are gone after making big contributions in their one season. Grad Megan Dray, a first baseman/catcher, hit nine homers in her second season after transferring. Outfielder Ellee Jensen, a senior redshirt who played all or parts of five seasons, hit .281 this year and almost always put the ball in play.
3. Lack of comeback magic
The Gophers were 7-15 when an opponent scored first during the 2022 season. They also were 4-17, 2-16 and 0-18 in games they trailed after four, five and six innings, respectively.