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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Two years ago, Minnesota was ranked No. 1 in the USA Today/NFCA softball poll heading into the NCAA Tournament.
Somehow, the Golden Gophers weren't even a national seed and got sent to Alabama for regional play. It was a harsh fate for a highly respected Minnesota team with a 54-3 record. Alabama, a traditional power, won the national title in 2012 and was the runner-up in 2014.
The Crimson Tide eliminated the Golden Gophers with two one-run wins, leaving a cloud over what by many measures was the best season in Minnesota history.
Two years later, Minnesota hosted regionals and Super Regionals as a No. 7 seed and broke through to reach the Women's College World Series for the first time in school history. The Golden Gophers (46-12) will play UCLA (51-6) on Thursday at USA Hall of Fame Stadium.
Jamie Trachsel, who took over as Minnesota's coach after that 2017 season, said her team appreciates the opportunity.
"We take it personally that we are getting to represent some teams that came before us, some of the opportunities that maybe they didn't get, that we did get and we earned," Trachsel said.
In other opening day matchups, No. 1 seed Oklahoma (54-3) will play Alabama (57-8), Oklahoma State (44-15) will face Florida (49-16) and Washington (50-7) will meet Arizona (47-12) in a battle of Pac-12 rivals.
Minnesota ranks seventh nationally with a 1.64 ERA and has hit 72 home runs. Amber Fiser was the Big Ten Pitcher of the Year. She has 31 wins this season and pitched all 36 innings for the Golden Gophers during NCAA Tournament play.
Infielders Natalie DenHartog, MaKenna Partain and Hope Brandner join Fiser as first-team All-Big Ten selections. They will be on a new stage, and Trachsel said there's no time for her team to ease its way in.
"You have to be ready from the get-go," she said. "We'll do the best we can to be prepared for that and keep it a game of execution and go out there and put our best foot forward."
Here are some things to watch during this year's World Series:
Oklahoma will try to win its third national title in four years, and the prospects look good. The top-seeded Sooners lead the nation in batting average, earned run average and home runs.
Sydney Romero, who plays third base, was a finalist for USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year. In the circle, Arizona State transfer Giselle "G'' Juarez went 26-1 this season and Mariah Lopez went 18-1.
It's a Sooner squad that set the Division I record for a consecutive wins in a season with 41 before losing to Wisconsin in the second game of regional play.
PLAYER OF THE YEAR
UCLA's Rachel Garcia has repeated as USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year.
She hit .344 with nine home runs and 49 RBIs to become just the fourth player to win the honor in back-to-back seasons. As a pitcher, the junior went 24-1 with a 1.01 ERA and struck out 253 in 166 innings.
The other finalists were Romero and James Madison's Megan Good.
Arizona is back.
The Wildcats have reached the World Series for the 23rd time, but the first time since 2010. They have eight national titles, with the most recent coming in 2007.
Mike Candrea, who coached the Wildcats to all of their national titles, appreciates how hard it is to qualify.
"It's been a journey," he said. "I think some journeys are more frequent than the last one. Very rewarding to get back here and very proud of this team."
Arizona did most of its damage this season by ranking second nationally in home runs. Jessie Harper's 28 home runs lead the nation. She hit three home runs against Auburn in the regional final.
Washington's two dominant pitchers helped the Huskies earn a No. 3 seed.
Gabbie Plain, a sophomore from Australia, went 23-2 with a 1.14 ERA. Taran Alvelo, a senior, went 25-4 with a 1.55 ERA.
Washington coach Heather Tarr said she feels she can defend on both in pressure situations. Alvelo emerged as an ace in 2017, then Plain stepped up last season when Alvelo was injured.
"They can just be available and ready as called," Tarr said. "They're not fragile. They're able to adapt and compensate, whether one has to come in and close. They don't know about an hour before the game starts who is starting the game."
Florida pitcher Kelly Barnhill is still thriving, despite carrying more of the load than ever.
Barnhill was the USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year in 2017, but she lost more games this year than she had in her previous three seasons combined and some of her numbers dropped.
She still put up one of the best seasons in the nation. She ranks third nationally with 349 strikeouts, accumulated in 279 1/3 innings, and ranks second in the nation with 34 wins. The team has little depth behind her, so she will have to be at her best for the Gators to make a run.
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