Three years ago, Sara Groenewegen was named Big Ten freshman of the year, Big Ten pitcher of the year and was none of the 10 finalists for the National Fastpitch Coaches Association Freshman of the Year Award.
The next year, Danielle Parlich became the first freshman in program history to hit .400 or better, was all-Big Ten and was also an NFCA freshman of the year finalist.
Last season, Maddie Houlihan led the Gophers in runs scored and was named the Big Ten freshman of the year.
This season, Minnesota has two standout freshmen.
There's catcher Kendyl Lindaman, the clear front-runner for Big Ten freshman of the year, who's in the top 10 in the nation in slugging percentage (.852) and on-base percentage (.563) while leading the Gophers with a .407 batting average. And there's infielder MaKenna Partain, who's also hitting .400.
Lindaman and Partain were both named to the NFCA's initial list, released Thursday, of 25 finalists for freshman of the year.
The Gophers were one of just two schools to have at least two players listed.
Lindaman, Houlihan and Partain, all underclassmen, are Minnesota's three leading hitters and bat Nos. 3-5 in the order for the nation's fifth-ranked team that's 40-3 heading into a three-game home series against Iowa, which starts Friday.
Star freshmen aren't supposed to grow on trees, yet Gophers coach Jessica Allister continues to pluck them out of each recruiting class.
They come from different softball backgrounds. Houlihan, a Benilde-St. Margaret's grad, didn't play club softball in high school, while Lindaman was a prized recruit from Iowa coveted by the Hawkeyes, Gophers and Wisconsin.
But regardless of accolades or resumes, everyone succeeds almost immediately for the Gophers.
"It's just coming in fearless," Groenewegen said. "You can't have any expectations of what it's going to look like. And I think that our freshmen have done a tremendous job of just coming in and playing ball like they know how to. They're playing fearless out there."
That, Allister said, is the hardest piece of the college softball puzzle. She noted all of her young players are skilled, talented and have softball knowledge. But more importantly, they've quickly recognized that, while the competition may be better, it's still the same game they've always played.
"I never thought it was going to be easy," Houlihan said. "I knew that coming in it was going to be hard and it was going to be a tough adjustment, but I knew that if I believed in myself and had the support of everyone, I could do it."
It makes sense that as the Gophers have continued to succeed and ascend into national prominence, they could get highly touted players who are expected to contribute from Game 1. That was the case this season, as Partain delivered a walk-off single in Minnesota's season-opening 3-2 win over Maryland in February.
"With the success of our program, we're maybe able to get our foot into some doors that we haven't gotten into before," Allister said. "But we've been able to bring in great players for the last however many years. Not trying to change what we're doing too much."
Houlihan said freshmen are treated no differently from seniors from the start of fall practice. Everyone gets the same number of reps and is expected to improve.
"This team really helped us to make the transition. Everyone was there just to motivate us, to push us to be our best, just the little things," Lindaman said. "They do push us to be our best and they want to see the best out of us. ... The results are being shown right now."
Still, Allister said there's no secret formula Minnesota uses to make sure all of its players are ready from the season's outset. She said, regardless of talent, "there are so many pieces to that puzzle that, until players are actually in that situation, you don't know what it's going to look like. There's no slam dunks."
Layups, three-pointers, half-court heaves, whatever they are, the Gophers are hitting on a high percentage of freshmen.
Some way, somehow.
"We get out here and we work hard," Allister said. "I'm a firm believer that nothing in life comes without hard work. So we get after it in the fall. But (the instant success is) all about their confidence and their mind-set and their belief. You're the only one that can give yourself confidence, so make sure to choose your thoughts carefully."
This article is written by Jace Frederick from St. Paul Pioneer Press and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.