The Minnesota Golden Gophers’ offense was one of the surprising bright spots of the 2019 season. Transfer Hope Brandner and then-freshman Natalie DenHartog helped anchor a solid Gophers batting order that ultimately led the Minnesota to the program’s first-ever berth in the Women’s College World Series.
Holding the clipboard and at the helm of the offense was Katie Rietkovich Browder, a former collegiate player and the first-year hitting coach in Minneapolis. Now, with that stellar inaugural year under her team’s belt, Rietkovich Browder is tasked with shepherding the Gophers’ offensive attack in 2020, and piggybacking on that historic postseason run.
Long seen as a future coaching star, Rietkovich Browder spent several seasons as the volunteer assistant coach at Ole Miss under Mike Smith, working with the team’s hitters but without a full-time coaching role – or salary. She paid her dues in Oxford, and was a part of the staff that helped lead the Rebels to the SEC Tournament Championship in 2017 and the first-ever Regional hosting berth that same year.
Even as an unpaid “volunteer” assistant, though at an SEC school, Rietkovich Browder knew what she would be looking for in the full-time coaching positions that would inevitably come along: She wanted a place where she could install her own offensive game plan and guide her hitters in her own methodology.
That opportunity came in the summer of 2017; Minnesota opened the search for a hitting coach, and a little while later, Rietkovich Browder was announced as the program’s new assistant. She credits head coach Jamie Trachsel with the immediate camaraderie of the Gophers’ new staff.
“Right away, when Jamie called from Minnesota, I was [interested],” Rietkovich Browder said. “First off, just to have that opportunity from a national brand like [Minnesota], a school in the Big 10… then I got to know about Jamie’s philosophy, who she was as a head coach, where her vision for the program was, where she saw the program going. After talking to her and Piper [Ritter, Minnesota’s pitching coach], I knew it would be a great fit.”
As for Rietkovich Browder’s top necessity in prospective jobs, the offense in Minneapolis was hers to lead from day one. “[Trachsel] made it very clear that she wanted me to run the entire offense, and have the main say and everything on that side of the game,” Rietkovich Browder said. “And I knew that she would be there to support me, and continue to mentor me along.”
The Gophers offense included a trio of players – including Brandner and DenHartog – who ended the season with batting averages over .350, and six players who hit at least five home runs. The program’s prowess at the plate took, admittedly, even Rietkovich Browder by surprise.
“I expected to perform at a high level, because they had the proven success, but no, I didn’t know [that they would perform so highly],” Rietkovich Browder reflected. “People up and down the lineup performed so well in different realms. They just believed… we caught spark and the kids believed in what they were doing, and trusted what we were doing, and it took off.”
For Rietkovich Browder, her batting order’s success was a true feather in the cap of a young coach trying to make her mark. “During my years at Ole Miss, and even further back and when I was at Georgia, I knew the things that I wanted to implement whenever the time was right for it to become my turn to run an offense,” she said. “But you never know for the first time around if everything is right, so when things do pay off and you see the way that your training translates to success on the field, it becomes something special and it helps you realize that you’re doing something right.”
Even the transition of a Southerner to the “great white North” went well for Rietkovich Browder; she credits Minnesota’s indoor facilities and “really nice parkas” for helping her acclimate to the frequent sub-freezing temperatures.
Injuries and offseason departures led Minnesota to a quiet opening weekend of the 2020 season – the squad went 3-2 at the NFCA Leadoff Classic – but the Gophers’ offense scored twenty-eight runs and recorded a .403 on-base percentage. Under Rietkovich Browder’s guidance, watch out for more surprises this year from the Gophers’ lineup.