The team bus pulled up outside of Rita Hillenbrand Memorial Stadium in Tuscon, Arizona, but the Gophers didn’t get off of it.
Heading into its March 14 matchup at then-No. 9 Arizona, the Minnesota softball team was 14-10 and loser of six of its last nine games. Jamie Trachsel didn’t like much of anything she’d seen from her team, from the way it went about its work on the field to the types of teammates her players were being off of it. The first-year coach said the players were all affecting one another, and not in a good way. There was a lack of confidence, and they couldn’t get out of their own way.
“Without going into too much detail about it, it was everything,” Trachsel said.
So she had a choice to make as the bus pulled up to the stadium. Trachsel could hop off and lead her players onto the field, maintaining the current course. But she knew what result that would lead to.
“We had no shot,” she said. “We just didn’t have a choice. I thought it was (say something) now or never, because we have no shot if we don’t do it.”
So, Trachsel acted. Instead of the Gophers getting off the bus and taking the field for warmups, the coach stood up and spoke. Trachsel said the meeting was about the team “redirecting and centering” who it was and how it acted. She said the poor performance at that point in the season was merely a byproduct of the team’s actions.
“It was addressing the controllable stuff and seeing something for what it is and saying, ‘This is what you get. These behaviors equal these results,’ ” Trachsel said. “And when you know better, you do better. And I know those kids were raised better than what they were doing.”
At the end of her lengthy message, Trachsel and the rest of the coaching staff got off the bus and told the players, “We’ll see you guys when we see you.”
Meetings like that can go one of two ways. But Trachsel had a receptive audience that afternoon. Her players nodded in agreement with the accusations thrown at them, accepting their faults.
“I think it was really eye-opening,” sophomore catcher Kendyl Lindaman said. “We all needed to hear it.”
Senior first baseman Sydney Dwyer said the speech was “a long time coming.” After the coaches got off the bus, Dwyer looked at her teammates and said, “we’re at rock bottom.”
“We can either stay here, or this is the point where we start turning up,” Dwyer said. “And everyone was like, ‘Yeah, let’s starting going up from here.’ ”
Soon after, the team was off the bus and on the field. Trachsel said the Gophers’ ensuing warmup was their best to date. Minnesota upset the Wildcats 1-0 that evening, marking its most impressive win of the season.
The Gophers are 25-5 since that bus talk, winning their third straight Big Ten tournament title last weekend. Minnesota (39-15) opens its NCAA Regional action in Seattle at 8 p.m. Friday against Texas (32-24). The winner of that game likely will face off against No. 5 Washington (44-8) in the winners’ bracket of the four-team, double-elimination tournament.
“From Arizona, I think we started to play as a team, play like the team that I knew we could, and it’s kind of been exciting from there,” junior outfielder Maddie Houlihan said. “It’s still been a little bit of a roller coaster, we’ve had our bumps, but I think right now we’re playing our best ball, which is what we want going into the postseason.”
That Tucson talk helped Minnesota finally move past last season, when the Gophers earned the No. 1 national ranking in the coaches poll but weren’t granted the chance to host a regional and were bounced by Alabama in the first weekend of postseason play.
Sophomore infielder MaKenna Partain said the Gophers carried a chip on their shoulder into this season, which she felt only hurt the team. Trachsel said the team seemed stuck on where it was the year before and where it wanted to get back to, rather than being truthful about where it was in the present.
“You have to see yourself for who you are and where you are, the reality of it,” she said. “And that’s how you bridge the gap between the two, working your way from where you are to where you want to go.”
That building process seemed to start in Arizona. From there, Lindaman said the Gophers started to attack the present. Dwyer said they pushed “the little things” to the side and started to focus on their bigger goals. Houlihan said they started trusting one another and being better teammates. Partain said they started to play for one another, and with that came a growing sense of confidence.
“We’re starting to learn how to play as a team again and just being a lot closer not on the field but off the field, as well,” sophomore ace Amber Fiser said. “We’re playing as a family, and that’s what makes it so fun.”
Trachsel credited her players for finding their identity after the tough start.
“Because if you quit and you bail, you’ve got no shot,” she said. “They didn’t. Because they didn’t, we’ve been playing better, we’ve been maximizing our ability and trying to take advantage of the opportunities.”
Lindaman said the Gopher point back to that bus talk and say “That’s when things changed.”
“Looking back we’re like, ‘Thank you, (coach). Thanks for doing that,’ ” Dwyer said. “We needed it.”