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In her first season as Gophers softball coach, Piper Ritter led her team to a 31-13 record and a spot in the NCAA regional in Los Angeles. The Gophers lost their first game in the regional last weekend but rallied to get a shot at UCLA, the second seed in the national field, before being eliminated with a 2-1 loss.

Despite the exit, it was a fine season for an experienced Gophers team that finished second to Michigan in the conference. It also was a great start to Ritter’s coaching career.

“They did everything they could to make it the best season we could,” Ritter said. “Going into that regional we knew it was going to be hard. Regardless of UCLA, we knew that Fresno State was going to be hard. It was a harder regional, but I loved the fact that our athletes really didn’t care. … We wanted to compete and wanted to see how far we could go.”

It didn’t help that Ritter’s first season came in the middle of a pandemic. Dealing with protocols took the focus off practice and the development she wanted out of her team.

Also, Big Ten teams were limited to a conference-only schedule, a move believed to be for financial as well as health reasons. The conference schedule was expanded to 44 games to make up for the lost nonconference games. The Gophers were able to play 40 games, with one series canceled because of COVID issues within the Badgers program at the time. It’s a shame that the Gophers were unable to schedule some top Power Five opponents to help prepare them for the tournament.

The Gophers will miss five departing seniors, including righthander Amber Fiser, who was 16-9 with a 2.13 ERA. However, some good players are expected to return. Junior righthander Autumn Pease was 12-3 with a 1.75 ERA. Junior Natalie DenHartog batted .321 with 15 home runs and 42 RBI. The program should remain competitive.

One thing that is certain: Piper knows pitching. The former Gophers standout was the pitching coach for 13 years before getting her big chance this season. Ritter developed Fiser and other elite starters in Sara Groenewegen and Sara Moulton before Fiser. The Gophers should retain command of the circle.

Of the three commitments for next season, two are pitchers. And Ritter can’t wait to return to the recruiting trail that was closed last year.

“We’re excited about the future,” Ritter said. “We have some really good student-athletes coming in. But it is really about going out and seeing them. I think this summer is going to be really important since it’s been a whole year since we have watched student-athletes play.”

Keep it up, JoeJoe West’s umpiring career began in 1976. You must be doing something right to still be working today.

On Tuesday, West umpired his 5,376th game when the White Sox played host to St. Louis to set the record for most games officiated. West was visited by MLB commissioner Rob Manfred before the game, saluted by the Oak Ridge Boys after they performed the national anthem and even received a bouquet from the San Diego Chicken on his record-setting day.

West once ejected an organist for playing “Three Blind Mice” during a minor league game. He once grabbed Jonathan Papelbon’s jersey during a dispute. He’s had a proclivity for being in the middle of controversies.

But running into West after a game is a treat. His love of baseball is evident as he has a story for every occasion. And you get a feel for just how hard it is for umpires to get it right all the time.

To last for more than 5,700 games is an enormous achievement. Congratulations, Cowboy Joe West.

Stay home, knuckleheadsSo are fans making up for lost time?

In two NBA playoff games Wednesday, players were the target of disgusting fan behavior. Washington’s Russell Westbrook had to be held back after a fan dumped popcorn on him as he walked off the court in Philadelphia. Atlanta’s Trae Young was attempting to inbound the ball when a fan spat on him at Madison Square Garden. In another game, Utah fans directed racist and inappropriate comments toward Ja Morant’s parents.

More fans are being allowed back into stadiums as COVID-19 restrictions are being relaxed. The unacceptable behavior should be checked at the door.

We all want to return to the days where we are in stadiums and arenas that are energized by passionate fans. The troublemakers can stay away.

Summer forecast: Still plenty of ReynosoNow that the Loons finally have added attacking players Adrien Hunou and Franco Fragapane, who will be their leading scorer by the end of the season? Robin Lod leads the club with two goals after scoring seven last season. The pick here is Emanuel Reynoso, still their most dynamic player. He will be healthy again and fun to watch when the club gets back in action later in June.

Safe bet: Berrios’ best year yetJose Berrios turned 27 on Thursday and still is looking to crack the 15-win barrier for the first time in his career. The Twins righthander has not taken the big step forward he seems primed to take, but he has not been terrible either. With his stuff, and continued health, he will have at least 15 wins by the end of this season.