It's not yet spring in Minnesota, but the No. 21 Gophers are already heading to Florida to begin their season.
Minnesota softball is looking to win its fourth consecutive Big Ten tournament title. Last season, the Gophers became the first Big Ten team to win three straight Big Ten championships since the Michigan Wolverines from 1996-98.
Their roster features a mix of experienced players and fresh faces. A quartet of seniors returns to Minnesota's roster from the 2018 season: infielder Allie Arneson, outfielders Taylor Chell and Maddie Houlihan and pitcher Sydney Smith. The Gophers also welcome five freshmen to the team: catcher Emma Burns, infielders Natalie DenHartog, Emily Hansen, Josey White and outfielder Ali Lindner.
Minnesota's end goal is in the post season, but Houlihan said the team needs to stay focused during the regular season.
"We have some lofty goals," Houlihan said. "We have a great team and a great staff. We're going to put up some good numbers against some good teams."
Minnesota's season begins on Friday with a pair of games against North Florida and Central Florida in Orlando, Florida. The Gophers will play their first 32 games away from Jane Sage Cowles Stadium. Minnesota's home opener is on March 29 against Purdue. After the home opener, the Gophers will play 14 of their remaining 22 games at home.
"Going to those sunny places will give us an opportunity to play on the field," said infielder MaKenna Partain. "Here, we can't play. It's never fun not being in your home stadium, but playing in some of these stadiums is amazing."
Last season, Partain finished second on the team in RBIs with 48 and hit seven home runs, which was tied for third most for the Gophers. Partain's batting average was .375, the second highest on the team behind outfielder Ellee Jensen, whose batting average was .401. Houlihan led the team in stolen bases with 17 and did not get caught stealing on any of those attempts.
Junior Amber Fiser led the Gophers' pitching staff in 2018. Fiser started 43 games last season and won 27 of them, losing 10 times and recording six no decisions. She appeared in 46 games for Minnesota and recorded two saves, holding opponents to a combined .194 batting average. Fiser's ERA was 1.69 and she struck out 237 batters.
After winning the Big Ten championship last season, the Gophers went on to the NCAA Super Regional, making it to the regional finals before losing 5-2 to No. 3 Washington on May 20.
Head coach Jamie Trachsel enters her second season at the helm of the program. Trachsel led Minnesota to a 41-17 record, good for second in the Big Ten during the regular season.
Trachsel said paying attention to little details and the fundamentals of softball is how teams win championships.
"We're a team that spends a lot of time in every area offensively, defensively, pitching, catching [and] base running," Trachsel said. "We take a lot of pride in doing the little things right."
First pitch for Friday's season opener against Northern Florida is scheduled for 4 p.m.
Partain said Minnesota is a tight-knit group that sticks together through the hardships of the season.
"We're always wanting to do things with each other no matter what's going on outside in the world," she said. "The fact that we're able to stay so close and stay united as a team is going to make us great."
Correction: A previous edition of this story misstated the number of freshmen on the team for the 2019 season and misspelled the name of one of the players.