Three-hundred and fifty-one days.

That’s how long it has been since the Gophers softball team has played a competitive game. Star pitcher Amber Fiser has been counting.

On Friday afternoon, that number resets to zero with Minnesota opening its season in Leesburg, Fla., with a pair of games against Maryland.

“Ever since we got back in the spring, we just keep doing a countdown every single week,” said Fiser, who pitched in the team’s last game, a 3-2 victory over Hawaii on March 12, 2020. “Now that it’s finally here, that’s all we can talk about. We’re just excited to go back on the field and represent this university and get in those uniforms.”

The season looks different, with the normal Big Ten schedule expanding from 30 to 44 games in lieu of no nonconference games. The usual schedule would send Minnesota down South every weekend for the first two months of the season. That has been cut in half. The team-bonding lunches and packed and rowdy bus rides that come with that have been nixed for social distancing purposes.

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The roster, however, has almost no change. The NCAA’s decision to grant spring athletes an extra year of eligibility gives a veteran-heavy Gophers team another chance at a Big Ten Conference championship and potential College World Series berth. Minnesota is ranked No. 24 in the latest USA Today poll, second-best in the Big Ten behind No. 17 Michigan. Four seniors from last season return, with Fiser headlining the group of “super seniors.”

The team’s pitching ace since her freshman year in 2017, Fiser holds a career 1.60 earned-run average in 136 appearances. She already ranks in the top-five in program history for strikeouts and wins. She’s likely to crack the top three in wins and games pitched by the end of the season. Junior pitcher Autumn Pease also returns. She was 4-2 with a 2.12 ERA last season.

The two biggest cogs in the Minnesota batting order, junior Natalie DenHartog and fifth-year senior Makenna Partain, return as well. DenHartog hit .425 with seven home runs and 28 RBIs before Minnesota’s season was cancelled last year. Partain hit .349 with four home runs and 19 RBIs.

That experience has helped the only significant new puzzle piece, head coach Piper Ritter, fit into place. Ritter took over the program from Jamie Trachsel, who left Minnesota in the offseason for the same role at Ole Miss. Ritter has spent the past 13 seasons as the Gophers’ pitching coach, and pitched for Minnesota from 2001-04.

“Transitioning as a head coach and knowing Amber and the rest of the super seniors for as long as I have, has been really nice,” Ritter said. “I know I can count on them to make sure what needs to be done with the team is done and the expectations are met.”

Ritter knew pitching and she knew recruiting in her previous role but has had to acclimate herself to the inner workings of the program as head coach. She has her hands on every decision the program makes, both on the field and in the administration. That’s been an adjustment, she admitted.

Ritter has made small shifts in the way the team practices, but many of the big ideas she had in her head are on the back burner because of COVID. Practices are quick-paced and constantly changing with a point system in place to keep the team engaged. Ritter has channeled her inner P.J. Fleck, preaching that all her players can think about is the day in front of them.

And after 351 days, the day in front of them is finally a game day.

“We’re just excited to play, no matter what,” Fiser said.