Winter woes behind, Minnesota heads for Super Regional

Published 7:49 pm Wednesday, June 6, 2018

MINNEAPOLIS — The college baseball landscape has long been dominated by the boys in the Sun Belt, with some West Coast success mixed in.

Big Ten teams and their snow-shortened seasons haven’t kept up.

Well, there’s at least one way those climate-constrained programs from the northern part of the country can make their springtime disadvantage temporarily disappear: Keep winning well into June, just like Minnesota has done.

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The Gophers have reached the Super Regional round of the NCAA Tournament for the first time, in 20 years of the 64-team format. They start a best-of-three series at No. 3 overall seed Oregon State on Friday, needing two victories to make their first College World Series since 1977.

“We knew if we played far enough the weather would turn out like this every day,” said Gophers shortstop Terrin Vavra, standing on the sun-soaked artificial turf at Siebert Field under a blue sky painted precisely for being at the ballpark before practice on Tuesday afternoon.

John Anderson, in his 38th season as head coach at Minnesota, has been hard-pressed to come up with one that’s been more satisfying than this.

“It’s just a wonderful group that has taken on every challenge, whether it’s been a daily practice or getting in the weight room and conditioning, or dealing with the weather and finding a place to practice and prepare,” Anderson said on Sunday night after the 14th-seeded Gophers beat UCLA for the second straight time to win their regional. “They never flinched. They never quit preparing and working and pushing one another every single day.”

The Gophers (44-13) have won 12 straight games and 16 of their last 17. They endured some of the harshest April weather a Minnesotan could imagine, including a mid-month blizzard that dumped about 15 inches of snow on the Twin Cities area. Their home series against Penn State was moved to Purdue on April 6-8, and the final tally was six games canceled, two postponed and two suspended. Before the NCAA Tournament, the Gophers had only nine games on campus at Siebert Field. They played as scheduled 13 nonconference games at nearby U.S. Bank Stadium, starting three weeks it hosted the Super Bowl.

“Usually when you go through springs like that you see a little bit of inconsistency in performance,” said Anderson, who was a student assistant coach on the 1977 team whose playing career was cut short by injury. “But I never saw that.”

Indiana, in 2013, is the only Big Ten team to represent the conference in the College World Series in the last 33 seasons since Michigan did so in 1984. Ohio State, in 1966, is the most recent national champion. The Gophers last won it all in 1960.

There’s never been a shortage of pride at Minnesota, though, with Hall of Fame products Paul Molitor and Dave Winfield leading the list. After an uncharacteristic losing season in 2015 the freshmen were summoned for a meeting with Anderson about the culture and expectations of the program. Those players are seniors now.

“Everyone bought in,” designated hitter Toby Hanson said.

Alumni did, too, dating to a decade ago when renovating a deteriorating Siebert Field became a necessity. University fundraisers told Anderson the $7 million-plus price tag would be impossible to meet, but a $2 million gift from Minnesota Twins owner Jim Pohlad and his family provided a big boost. The ballpark reopened in 2013, and lights were added in 2014. Former Gophers and Twins pitcher Glen Perkins gave $500,000 for high-tech batting cages that got heavy use during all those cold, snowy days.

“Either we were going to get a facility and get better or we were going to get worse and at some point get eliminated here,” Anderson said. “I thought we were very vulnerable.”

In a far less threatening way, they’ll be vulnerable this weekend against Oregon State. The Beavers had six players selected this week in the first 10 rounds of the Major League Baseball draft, including two top-20 picks. Eight of the top 16 teams were eliminated during the regionals, including second-seeded Stanford. Florida, the top seed, is the only team left above Oregon State.

The Gophers, though, can’t be counted out.

“We knew what we had coming back in our lineup, and we knew we were pretty talented and had some young guys coming in that we were pretty excited about,” Vavra said. “It’s all kind of taken shape this year. We’re honored and we’re excited, but I wouldn’t say we’re surprised. We know what we’re capable of.”