MINNEAPOLIS -- Years before Natalie DenHartog grew into a slugging freshman cleanup hitter for Minnesota softball, she tagged along to football practice with her dad, John, the head coach at Hopkins High School in suburban Minneapolis. "Did you ever see the movie 'Remember the Titans,' the little girl who was the football coach's daughter?" she asked before a recent practice. "That was me growing up."
Only DenHartog took it a step further than Sheryl Yoast, the precocious character portrayed by a pigtailed Hayden Panettiere. The youngest of the three DenHartog kids, Natalie relished playing football herself in the local youth association against boys, as a bruising running back and linebacker until sixth grade.
"I was bigger than everyone else," she said, smiling. "I would make boys cry, and it was the best thing because at the time I was trying to be tougher than anyone else. It was a lot of fun."
That toughness benefited DenHartog as she turned her attention to basketball and softball. A torn anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee her freshman year at Hopkins High ended her basketball aspirations.
A late bloomer in softball, DenHartog drew little Division I interest until then-Minnesota coach Jessica Allister offered a scholarship the summer after her junior year. When Allister left for Stanford a few months later, DenHartog stuck to her commitment.
"This is home," she said. "Thinking about playing anywhere else almost doesn't make sense."
Second-year coach Jamie Trachsel is glad she stayed put, especially since two-time All-American catcher Kendyl Lindaman transferred to Florida, leaving a massive hole in the Gophers lineup. DenHartog, a reserve when the season began, helped fill it. The Gophers (41-12) landed a No. 7 seed in the NCAA tournament. Minnesota faces North Dakota State (42-14), Trachsel's former team, in its regional opener Friday night. Drake (42-14) and Georgia (40-17) round out the field.
A unanimous All-Big Ten selection, DenHartog's name appears all over the conference hitting leaders: first in RBIs (59), second in slugging percentage (.830), third in home runs (16) and sixth in batting average (.392). DenHartog and first baseman Hope Brandner, a transfer from Oregon State, traded the Gophers' home run lead until Brandner (18) overtook her recently. Thirty-three of DenHartog's 60 hits have been for extra bases.
"She has natural power you can't teach," Trachsel said. "She has something other players don't have. She's one of the strongest kids on our team, and we have a pretty strong team. Her work ethic is off the charts."
Lindaman's two seasons in Minnesota coincided with the construction of the new football practice center beyond the left-field wall at Jane Sage Cowles Stadium, an inviting target for batting practice. DenHartog took aim at it last fall.
"She came out to one of our very first practices, took these huge swings and was hitting that building every single time," Brandner said. "I was like, 'Oh my gosh."
Smaller and less muscular than Lindaman, DenHartog generates power with a front leg kick, a strong hip turn and a quick bat. She modeled her swing after Geri Ann Glasco, the 2012 National Gatorade Player of the Year and a star at Georgia and Oregon who was killed in a car accident in January. Her father found video of Glasco and showed it to her.
"When Natalie was young, she was getting the bat on the ball but she just wasn't putting enough behind it," said John DenHartog, a former college baseball player. "She was a pretty small girl. We had to figure out a way to create power. I saw Geri Ann Glasco's swing and said, 'This is something you can do.'"
The ACL tear, followed by an injury to her right knee as a sophomore, led Natalie to give up basketball and concentrate on softball.
"The diagnosis was if that if I was going to keep playing basketball, I was going to tear another ACL," she said. "That kind of narrowed down the options for me. That's not to say I don't love softball. I did, and I always do. But that's kind of how I ended up sticking with softball."
DenHartog committed to Division II Augustana in South Dakota before Allister offered a scholarship. Though Trachsel chuckles now about limiting DenHartog to pinch-hitting duty at a season-opening tournament in Orlando -- "Kind of a head-scratcher when you look back at coaching decisions," she said -- DenHartog understood.
"I think it's funny that everybody brings up the pinch-hitting thing at the beginning of the season as if I was surprised to be in that spot, because I really don't think I was," she said. "It fits my career. I'm always in that spot where I have something to prove, and I just need the opportunity to do so. And so I was just excited. I didn't really have any expectations, but that's not to say I wasn't confident I could do it."
Her first chance came at the St. Pete/Clearwater Elite Invitational the following weekend. A three-run pinch-hit homer against Notre Dame earned DenHartog her first collegiate start later in the day against Florida State. She homered again and drove in three runs.
Since then, DenHartog has been a fixture in the lineup as a designated player/left fielder. DenHartog further bonded with her teammates by joining upperclassmen Maddie Houlihan, Katie Kemmetmueller and others at batting practice sessions each Monday inside the old football practice facility.
"Natalie hits the heck out of the ball," junior second baseman MaKenna Partain said. "She's one of the strongest people I've seen. She's insane. Watching her in the fall, she would hit balls out and hit the wall like no other. I have all the respect in the world for her. Just watching her progress throughout the season has been amazing to see."
Occasionally Trachsel wondered how much more formidable her lineup might be with Lindaman and sophomore Ellee Jensen, a .401 hitter last year who has been out since early March with an injured left foot. But the players she has proved more than capable.
The Gophers led the Big Ten in earned run average (1.72), fielding percentage (.978) and homers (68). Minnesota proved strongest in the circle, relying on Big Ten Pitcher of the Year Amber Fiser (26-7, 1.24 ERA) and No. 2 Sydney Smith (13-5, 2.48).
In the middle of it all is the kid who used to pass out water at Hopkins High football games, with enough presence to yell at players for throwing paper cups on the ground. According to her father, the players picked them up.
"That kind of shows where she was at," John DenHartog said.