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Gophers softball got the NCAA’s toughest regional. They prefer it that way

MINNEAPOLIS -- Another stellar performance in the Big Ten conference and a grueling nonconference schedule earned the Minnesota Golden Gophers the No. 7 national seed and a chance to host a regional this weekend.

What it did not give them was an easy road to Super Regionals.

The Minneapolis regional is stacked, to say the least. Sporting the 22nd RPI in the nation, Drake was a deserving No. 2 seed. Third-seeded Georgia is a strong Southeastern Conference school with the nation’s 26th-best RPI. Even North Dakota State’s No. 44 RPI suggests it might have deserved better than the four seed it received.

It’s the only regional with four 40-win teams. Some, in fact, don’t have a single team with 40 wins.

“You’re not going to be able to take a game off,” Gophers senior outfielder Maddie Houlihan said. “It’s postseason, anything can happen. Why would you want it to be easy? If we’re going to come out on top, why not play in the toughest regional? I think we’re just kind of embracing the challenge.”

The Gophers started preparing for weekends like this back in February. Coach Jamie Trachsel scheduled a grueling nonconference slate with the idea that if Minnesota could get through it with a respectable record, it would help the Gophers’ come tournament time.

She was proven correct on Selection Sunday. And those tournaments featuring one national power after another should prove valuable again this weekend. If the Gophers manage to knock one titan off, another will be waiting.

“To be the best, you’ve got to play the best,” Trachsel said. “Yeah, we have a tough regional, but every team is tough when it comes to postseason because anything can happen, especially when there’s everything on the line.”

Freshman outfielder Natalie DenHartog said the Gophers want to earn everything they get, a program mantra for years. That mentality makes Trachsel proud.

“You hope every team gets it like that, expecting it to be hard, wanting it to be hard,” she said. “It just feels that much better, anyway. To be able to come out of this region, whoever does, there’d be a lot to be proud of, because there’s not a gimme in here. … We’re in the right mentality and the right place as we enter postseason.”

The Gophers are home for a regional for the first time since 2014. Trachsel thinks the standing-room only crowds made a difference in Minnesota’s final regular-season series against Northwestern, which the Gophers took two games to one.

On Wednesday, the U announced it has added left field, standing-room-only platforms for the first time to help meet demand for this weekend’s games. The Gophers start Friday against North Dakota State, the team Trachsel coach from 2011-16.

“We’re going to ask (our fans) for a little bit more for a little bit longer this weekend, because we’ll need them,” Trachsel said.

Houlihan noted on Tuesday that the Gophers are usually getting ready for board a flight for their NCAA regional. Seniors on this team have waited four years for a chance to play postseason softball at Jane Sage Cowles stadium, and now that the opportunity is here, they plan on taking advantage.

“It’s something that I think this program has deserved in the past, and the fact we get a chance to do it, I know that we can take advantage of it — prove that Minnesota softball is a big brand and that it should be well known,” Houlihan said. “… This weekend is going to be hard. It’s not going to be easy, and we have to come out ready knowing we’re going to get all three teams’ best game and best stuff, so we just have to work hard to make sure that we’re doing everything on our end to come out with the W.”

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