For Minnesota sports fans, the word championship instantly piques interest, but for the most part, lives in imagined scenarios of missed field goals miraculously made or costly errors turned classic catches.
Luckily, the Gophers softball team has an authentic link to what it takes and how it feels to win an NCAA championship. Jessica Merchant, a former two-time All-American who captained the 2005 Michigan Wolverines to the NCAA championship, is in her first year as an assistant coach for Minnesota.
“Winning the national championship was a dream come true,” Merchant said. “You grow up watching the Women’s College World Series on TV. To actually be a part of it three times and then finally my senior year break through and win it, it was incredible.”
Merchant is more than just an accomplished softball player. As an assistant for Minnesota, she is in charge of the infield, has a large role in recruiting and works with head coach Jessica Allister on the team’s offensive development. She came to the Gophers from the University of Massachusetts, where she served as an assistant coach for four years.
While in Massachusetts, she helped lead the Minutemen to the NCAA tournament four times in a row before coming to Minnesota to work with Allister, a former All-American herself. Merchant, like the rest of the coaching staff, has had a positive influence on the Gophers’ play this year. The team has already passed its overall win total from 2010 and more than doubled its conference victories.
“By the time I got to college, I was pretty sure that I wanted to be a college coach when I got done playing,” Merchant said. “Someday I’d like to be a head coach.”
Those dreams of a softball life began early for Merchant. She started playing T-ball when she was 4, and began softball soon after.
Her success in the sport takes its roots quite a ways back in her family.
“My grandpa played softball, my dad played softball, my mom played softball, my aunt played softball in college. Everyone in my family, that’s what we do in our spare time, just play sports.”
Merchant also played basketball growing up and actually preferred it to softball when she was looking at her options in college. However, when Michigan reached out to her to play softball, she said she couldn’t refuse.
With the Wolverines, Merchant set the program’s all-time record for home runs with 46, and most in one season with 21. The all-time record has since been broken, but she’s still tied for the single season crown. She also left the school ranked in the top-five for career starts, doubles, and RBIs.
Though Merchant’s skills as a softball player are no longer displayed on the field, her years as a top player gave her plenty of wisdom she can pass down to younger players.
“The main thing I take away from my playing experience is that I want the girls at Minnesota to have as much pride in Minnesota softball as I did in Michigan softball,” Merchant said.
Merchant isn’t through her first season at Minnesota yet, but already has grown attached to the University as well as the softball program. She has been impressed with the support the program has, the facilities available to the team and the quality players she gets to work with.
“So far, it’s everything I could have asked for,” she said.
Though she is on the sidelines much more often than she used to be, Merchant still has ways of finding the field in her spare time. She played in softball leagues in Massachusetts in her time as a coach there, and plans to find teams in Minnesota once she has a chance to step back from what’s been a demanding schedule this season.
“It’s challenging. It’s fun to go out there every day and see what you can do,” she said. “It’s a team sport, but there’s a lot of individual things that you have to be accountable for.”
Merchant is moving rather quickly through the softball world, already capturing NCAA and international cup championships, playing professionally in the National Pro Fastpich League and coaching for three separate college programs (she volunteered one year with Michigan).
However, she isn’t necessarily heading to her next stop in a hurry. When asked what her dream job with softball would be, Merchant gave an encouraging answer: coaching in the Big Ten.
“It’s where I came from, the conference I love,” said Merchant, who grew up in Wayland, Mich. “It’s going to take some time, it’s going to take some hard work, but when I committed to this job, I committed to helping coach Allister build a program.”