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Gopher softball approaches NCAAs with confidence

Minnesota softball players celebrate their victory over Northwestern in the title game of the Big Ten Softball Tournament in Madison, Wis. Sunday, May 13, 2018. Minnesota won 9-4 to earn their third-consecutive Big Ten Tournament title, becoming the second team in Big Ten history to win back-to-back-to-back titles. Tom Lynn / University of Minnesota Athletics1 / 2
The Wisconsin Badgers host the 21st Big Ten Softball Tournament at Goodman Diamond in Madison, Wis., May 10-12, 2018. Courtesy of Unversity of Minnesota Athletics / Tom Lynn2 / 2

ST. PAUL—Heading into this weekend's NCAA Regional in Seattle, first-year coach Jamie Trachsel has set the focus on this Gophers softball season as an individual entity. Never mind the program's past success.

"(We're) trying to write our own story," Trachsel said. "This is their opportunity. It's our tournament to go out there and try to win and be competitive. ... We're going to go give it our best shot."

Still, it's difficult to ignore Minnesota's recent postseason results. This weekend marks the Gophers' sixth straight NCAA Regional appearance. They have established themselves as a consistent postseason participant and one of the Big Ten's top programs, but that's about it.

Because while the Gophers have been competitive in each of their previous five regional appearances — winning at least one game in each trip — they've advanced to Super Regionals just once, winning the one regional they hosted in 2014.

Even last season, when Minnesota was ranked No. 1 in the season-ending coaches poll, the Gophers were bounced by Alabama after being sent to Tuscaloosa for regional play. The result reinforced a national narrative that the Gophers aren't yet a premier program.

For Minnesota to be viewed in a different light, the Gophers are going to have to make some postseason noise. That could come this weekend. The Gophers open regional play at 8 p.m. Friday against Texas, with the winner playing No. 5 Washington or unseeded Boise State on Saturday in the four-team, double-elimination tournament.

"I think it's time, honestly," junior outfielder Maddie Houlihan said. "I think we're ready for the big stage, and I think this team can be a dark horse in this tournament and make a run."

On paper, this wouldn't seem to be the Gophers team to break through. Gone from last season are coach Jessica Allister, who bolted to alma mater Stanford, and graduated All-American pitcher Sara Groenewegen, and Minnesota got off to a rough start this season, opening 14-10.

But what has happened since has the Gophers convinced they're primed to make a run. Minnesota won 19 of its final 20 games heading into this weekend, including a run to last weekend's Big Ten tournament title.

"I think we keep peaking as every weekend goes on," sophomore ace Amber Fiser said.

The Gophers are armed with the experience of past failures, which senior first baseman Sydney Dwyer said has Minnesota, particularly its seniors, "definitely hungry."

Trachsel wants her team going into Seattle knowing that it will be difficult. It's supposed to be in the postseason. Players said they may have to find new ways to win. In the past, after coasting through the Big Ten slate, the Gophers seemed almost caught off guard when challenges arose in NCAAs. This group expects to be different.

Trachsel pointed to last weekend's Big Ten tournament, in which the Gophers were unfazed despite countless rain delays and schedule changes, as a sign of the team's mental toughness. She expects more of that this weekend.

"Kind of expect that it's going to be hard and maybe a call won't go your way," Trachsel said. "Stay confident and keep your composure. I think that's a big thing is supplying your own energy and being excited. There's no pressure on us when we go out there, and using that, but not letting the moment get too big."

But the expectation of a challenge doesn't mean the Gophers won't go in planning for good results. Dwyer said Minnesota's confidence is "at a high."

"We're as good as any team, no matter our seeding," Dwyer said. "I think confidence is a huge thing, and then I think just playing free and attacking early. I think if we can attack early and set the tone, I think it'll be a pretty even matchup (with anyone)."

Others around the country still might not expect much from Minnesota in the postseason, but the Gophers' aspirations are as high as ever. That aspiration, Trachsel said, is to get to the Women's College World Series.

"The time is going to come," Houlihan said. "I think this program is deserving of it. We work hard enough to compete for a national championship, I believe. So, I think, if any year, this would be the year."