MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — The Gophers softball team got off to a 30-3 start this season, and were ranked as high as No. 6 in the country – a team record. They’re now 35-3 and ranked No. 7.
And this week, they finally played their first home game of the season.
That’s right, they did that all on the road.
But what makes the Gophers’ success so impressive is where home is.
“All of the questions and all of the stories are about, ‘How were you able to do it on the road?'” laughed coach Jessica Allister. “And, you know, we don’t talk about that. It’s something that, sure, if you want to use it as a built-in excuse, you can, but it’s what we do. It’s part of playing softball in Minnesota. So it’s not going to do us any good to complain about it.”
It’s something any Minnesotan can relate to – what Allister has built with the Gophers is a culture that embraces the weather, not runs from it.
But what’s so interesting about Allister and her culture is that, not only is she actually from Nacogdoches, Texas, but she didn’t exactly embrace it herself at first, and had to be talked into the job by a mentor. Allister’s college coach at Stanford used to be an assistant at Minnesota.
“And actually when this job came open,” Allister recalled, “he called me up and said, ‘Allister, you gotta look at Minnesota.’ And I said, ‘Coach, you’ve lost your mind, I’m not moving to Minnesota.’ And he said, ‘No, you gotta look into it, you’d love it.’ And the more that I learned about the University of Minnesota, the more I realized that, you know, this might be something special.”
So Allister took a chance on Minnesota, and Minnesota took a chance on a largely unknown 27-year-old who’d never had a head coaching job before.
“I don’t know,” Allister said with a laugh, “I guess looking back there’s all sorts of reasons why maybe I should’ve thought twice about it. But, (I was) young and dumb, and it’s been one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.”
It’s hard to argue with the results.
In seven years at the helm, Allister has turned Minnesota from a loser into a blossoming national power. And what’s incredible, is she’s done it in a place that defies all conventional wisdom.
Take a look at a map of the Top 25 rankings, where the nation’s best teams are from. Almost exclusively the south and the pacific coast.
Minnesota is mostly on an island, an outlier in an outdoor spring sport like softball where the weather presents a bigger challenge the farther north you go. And arguably, nobody’s got it worse than Minnesota, where it means not only starting the season on the road for eight weeks, but barely getting a proper outdoor practice for the first chunk of the season.
Allister admits, those challenges are not overstated.
“No, it’s significant,” she said.
“Well, we’re really honest with them, we don’t hide from the weather,” Allister said. “And that’s because you can’t hide from the weather. They’re going to get here and then they’re going to see what it looks like. We have recruits who come in the middle of winter, from other places in the country, and it’s, ‘This is it. This is January in Minnesota. If you can handle it, then it’s maybe a great spot for you, if you can’t then go somewhere else.’
“This is what it’s like. We practice inside, we travel and it’s going to be cold,” she said with a shrug. “But yeah, it’s significant. There’s some practice challenges. But if that’s my biggest challenge – it’s a great academic institution, great support from the athletic administration, a wonderful community, a state that really loves softball – I think those pros far outweigh the challenges.”
Which might explain how Allister got to the point where she is now – more excited about what this season could have in store than any other before.
“This is absolutely the best team we’ve had,” she said. “We’ve had great offenses before, we’ve had great pitching staffs before, this is the best combination of the two that we’ve had. And I think the sky’s the limit. This is probably the first year that I’ve looked at it, and really looked across the country at all the different teams, and thought….we can compete with anybody.”
Even at a school in a state that borders Canada.
“I think like anything in life, there’s a lot of times where you have all sorts of built-in excuses, and reasons why to not even try things,” Allister said. “And it’s easy to get caught up in those things. And then you miss all of the great things that go along with it.
“And we just happen to be, like you said, the state that borders Canada,” she said with a laugh.