OKLAHOMA CITY — It’s fitting that the new kids on the block at this year’s Women’s College World Series had to battle the biggest bully of them all in their debut.
And while the Gophers softball team appeared overwhelmed at times during Thursday’s opening-round game against 12-time national champion UCLA, they made a game of it down the stretch before losing 7-2 at USA Softball Hall of Fame Stadium.
“It’s our first time in program history,” coach Jamie Trachsel said before the game. “Why not try to slay the ultimate dragon?”
To do that, pitching ace Amber Fiser’s margin for error was basically nonexistent. She had been so impressive as the team’s workhorse throughout the NCAA Regional and NCAA Super Regional, pitching every inning for the Gophers the past two weekends and entering the College World Series with a 5-0 record and a 0.77 earned-run average in the NCAA tournament.
UCLA leadoff hitter Bubba Nickles didn’t care about any of that. She got ahold of a rise ball that was high and out of the zone and took it deep over the left-field fence to put Fiser on the ropes early.
“Honestly, it kind of got the nerves away,” Fiser said of the home run. “I’m like, ‘All right. That’s fine.’ She hit a pitch out that I didn’t think she could. I just had to go attack the hitters right after her.”
That was the start of a laborious outing for Fiser, who gave up the home run in the first inning, walked in a run in the second and allowed another run in the third before eventually settling down. She went 5M innings and walked a season-high six before being pulled for Sydney Smith with two outs in the sixth.
“There were a lot of nerves, and it took us a few innings to settle in,” Fiser said. “As soon as we settled in, I thought we played pretty well. I thought my pitches were good, and I thought they hit some good pitches. You have to give credit to those hitters.”
Bruins star pitcher Rachel Garcia was virtually untouchable for most of the contest, though the Gophers finally got to her for two runs in the sixth inning.
The Gophers’ rally started with a single from Maddie Houlihan, followed by a run-scoring double from Natalie DenHartog to make it 3-1. A couple of batters later, Allie Arneson poked a ball to the left-center field gap to make it 3-2.
“I don’t think there was a moment where I didn’t think we were in the game,” DenHartog said. “We saw Garcia well. We just didn’t see her well enough.”
With the Gophers in need of a shutdown frame after cutting into the deficit, the UCLA offense exploded, aided by an error from second baseman MaKenna Partain and capped by a monster three-run homer by Aaliyah Jordan.
If the Gophers can latch on to anything, it’s that they found a way to manufacture some runs against Garcia, the National Player of the Year.
“It definitely gave us that little boost that we belong here,” Partain said. “We challenged the heck out of her. I think that’s really encouraging for us.”
Now the key is taking that mind-set into a do-or-die losers’ bracket game against Washington at 11 a.m. Saturday. It won’t be easy with a likely matchup against All-American pitcher Gabbie Plain.
Still, the Gophers have confidence their season won’t end then. Why?
“Because adversity has been the name of this story so far,” DenHartog said. “And the way we’ve dealt with things and the way we’ve bounced back has showed what this team can do. That’s no different now.”