OKLAHOMA CITY — No matter what happened over the weekend, win or lose, the Gophers softball team could rest its laurels on the fact that it already made history by reaching the College World Series for the first time.
Everything seemingly meaningless milestone — from the first pitch by junior ace Amber Fiser, to the first hit by junior second baseman MaKenna Partain, to the first run by senior outfielder Maddie Houlihan — was actually another step into uncharted territory for a program very much on the rise.
And while everyone involved will look back on those historic moments fondly in due time, it didn’t exactly make bowing out of the College World Series any easier in the immediate aftermath.
Facing elimination on Saturday at USA Softball Hall Of Fame Stadium, Minnesota couldn’t overcome an early deficit en route to a season-ending 5-3 loss to Washington.
It marked the third time in four seasons the Gophers have had to postseason dreams dashed by Washington, though this latest loss hurt the most considering the magnitude of the situation.
“I’m very sad,” senior shortstop Allie Arneson said, coming to the sobering realization that she had just played the final game of her career. “This game has taught me a lot and I hate to give it up right now. I’m just embracing everything right now. It’s really cool we made it to the College World Series. Not everyone can say that.”
That was the main point the Gophers hammered home while sitting at the dais about 30 minutes after the game ended. They weren’t supposed to be here.
With the cards stacked against them at every turn, starting with the fact that they only played 15 home games all season, the Gophers always found a way to overcome whatever challenge was in front of them.
All the way to Oklahoma City.
“I’m just so proud,” Houlihan said. “I think that’s the only word that comes to mind right now. I’m proud to finish my career alongside some pretty amazing people. It was an unbelievable way to end a career.”
As for the game itself, it was another slow start for Fiser, at least by her standards, as she surrendered a home run in the opening frame for the second straight game.
After serving up a solo shot to UCLA leadoff hitter Bubba Nickles in an opening round loss on Thursday, Fiser struck out Washington leadoff hitter Sis Bates on Saturday, only to allow a home run to Morganne Flores on the very next pitch.
That, paired with a wild pitch from Fiser later in the frame that allowed a run to score, and Minnesota was firmly behind the eight ball before it even had a chance to step into the batter’s box.
While the Gophers managed to get a run back thanks to double from Carlie Brandt, in need of a shutdown frame in the field, Fiser again struggled to locate, allowing a run-scoring single before being pulled in favor of Sydney Smith.
It was a sour ending to a stellar campaign for Fiser, who had been so dominant heading into the College World Series. She pitched every inning of the NCAA Regional and NCAA Super Regional, while finishing with 5-0 record and a 0.77 earned-run average.
Perhaps the workload finally caught up to her in the College World Series. She had her streak of 720 straight pitches snapped by being pulled amid a shaky performance against UCLA, and was far from her dominant self against Washington less than 48 hours later.
Still, there’s absolutely no reason for Fiser to hang her head. She was the lifeblood of this unprecedented run, and is going to continue to be the lifeblood of the program moving forward.
“She’s done so much for us,” coach Jamie Trachsel said. “She’s the biggest reason that we’re here right now.”
With Fiser’s day over, and Smith in the pitcher’s circle, lightning rolled in, delaying the game for more than three hours, as massive gusts of wind threatened to sweep the tarp up into the sky.
It served as a final battle with adversity for the Gophers in a season defined by it.
“We played mini-golf in our dugout and talked as a team and told some funny stories,” Houlihan said when asked how the team past the time. “We got an extra couple of hours together. It was a fun last game. ”
Once play finally resumed, the Gophers absolutely battled, scoring a pair of runs in their final at-bat to make things interesting before the final chapter eventually closed on a storybook season nobody will soon forget.
“It just shows the toughness that this team has,” Houlihan said. “There wasn’t ever a moment we ever gave up. We were going to give them hell until they found a way to beat us. That’s been our team the entire season.”