Black players scarce in Gopher softball and baseball

Photo by Charles Hallman

There are approximately 100 African American and other student-athletes of color this school year at the University of Minnesota. In an occasional series throughout the school year and sports year, the MSR will highlight many of these players.

This week: Gopher graduate student shortstop Makenna Dowell, senior pitcher J.P. Massey and redshirt senior pitcher Josh Culliver

Both Minnesota diamond teams, softball, and baseball, are in the midst of season-long home stands. The softball team hosts Wisconsin in a doubleheader on April 20 as part of its longest homestand (six games) of the 2022 season. The baseball team’s five-game homestand, also a season-high, began April 19 with visiting St. Thomas. This is followed by three games this weekend vs. Penn State and a single contest vs. South Dakota State on Monday, April 25.

The MSR recently talked with the school’s only Black softball player and only Black baseball pitchers.

A family of infielders

After a stellar career at Auburn, 5’-2” infielder Makenna Dowell (Suwanee, Ga.) is finishing her college softball career this season as a graduate transfer. “I’ll be finishing in the fall the sports management graduate program,” Dowell said. The Southern-born young woman said there’s no regrets moving up north for her softball and academic studies. “I think this is a really special place with special people,” she pointed out.

As the Gophers’ starting shortstop, Dowell is part of Minnesota’s nationally ranked defense, in the 30s for turning double plays and fielding percentage. At the plate, she is batting over .400 when leading off and holds the team’s longest reached-base streak (13) this season.  

“I think I’ve kind of struggled to get my feet in the [batter’s] box,” said Dowell in self-critiquing her play to date, “but I think lately I’ve been seeing the ball.” 

 Last week in a 9-8 extra-innings comeback win over South Dakota State, Dowell reached base on all four trips with a hit and three walks and scored two runs. “I think it’s just I was lacking a little bit of confidence, wasn’t seeing the ball as well as I usually am.” 

Dowell said being an infielder, especially at short, might be a family tradition. “It’s kind of right in the family,” she said proudly. “I’ve grown up playing there. My dad and brothers, all three of them played shortstop. I’m just really comfortable there.” 

Makenna Dowell
Photo by Charles Hallman

Hurlers with team spirit

Since their arrivals on campus a year apart, we have tracked the Gophers’ two Black hurlers. Earlier this season, we finally got to see both J.P. Massey (Chicago) and Josh Culliver (Omaha, Neb.) perform on the mound in the same game. Massey as a starter pitched 6.2 innings and earned the win, and Culliver in relief closed it out with a scoreless ninth inning, striking out two batters.

“My best pitch is my out pitch,” disclosed the 6’-5” Massey, who usually is the second-game starter in a weekend series. “I won’t tell what I think is my favorite. The pitch that gets me the most outs is the one I’m loving.”

Added Culliver on his reliever role, “You got to stay ready.”

Culliver and Massey are two of nine Gopher seniors this season. Massey said he plans to return next season for his fifth year, while Culliver said his plans are up in the air. Both young men are on track to earning their degrees.

Both Culliver and Massey throughout their Gopher years strive to be their best on the mound, never resting on their laurels.

“I still have stuff to work on,” said Culliver. “The team keeps pushing me to be on my best.” 

“Just try to go out there every week and give my team a chance to win,” said Massey. “That’s what I care about.”