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    Fighting Irish

    Feb. 17, 1998

    Irish Set to Open 10th Season of Notre Dame Softball at Gladstones Tournament

    No. 9 Kansas, No. 10 South Florida headline field

    NOTRE DAME, Ind. -- Notre Dameís softball team opens its 1998 season this weekend at the five-team Gladstones Tournament at the University of South Florida in Tampa, Fla. The Irish will take on Kansas and South Florida on Fri., Feb. 20, Auburn and DePaul on Sat., Feb. 21, with bracket play to follow on Sun., Feb. 22.

    Scouting the '98 Irish: Seniors Kelly Nichols (Vancouver, Wash.), junior Angela Bessolo (Lakewood, Calif.) and freshmen Jennifer Sharron (Agoura Hills, Calif.) and Melanie Alkire (Union City, Calif.) give the Irish a young but talented and potentially dominant pitching staff. After leading the nation in saves in each of her first two seasons, Nichols shifted into a starting role for the Irish as a junior, finishing with an 11-5 record. She entered her junior season with 10 career wins and more than doubled that with her 11 in í97. Bessolo led the Irish staff in wins for the second straight year with her 15 wins as a sophomore and is already fifth on Notre Dameís all-time wins list. She has the ability to dominate batters and has returned stronger than ever after a summer of impressive improvement and hard work. The pair of freshman hurlers should fill the gap left by three-time academic All-American Joy Battersby. Sharron will make history when she steps on the mound for Notre Dame as she will become the first-ever lefthanded pitcher in Irish history. Alkire will help the Irish both on the mound and at the plate. She frustrates hitters with a variety of pitches and can also frustrate pitchers with her bat as well. Senior Korrie Allen (Carol Stream, Ill.) and junior Kris McCleary (Westerville, Ohio) should handle the catching duties once again for Notre Dame. McCleary also will be counted on to provide the Irish lineup with power after a breakthrough sophomore season in which she hit .311. The top returning catcher in the BIG EAST, McCleary led all conference catchers in BIG EAST batting (.405) and base runners thrown out (eight) in í97. Allen will serve as backup to McCleary once again and has given Miller contributions to the team in offensive areas, including pinch running. With two starters gone from 1998, the Irish infield will have a new look as the coaches have pieced together the infield with seven talented players vying for the four positions. Senior Kelly Rowe (Edison, N.J.) and sophomore Tara King (Overland Park, Kan.) are likely to anchor the Irish once again at first base. Rowe had a perfect 1.000 fielding percentage in BIG EAST games while handling the most fielding opportunities on the team. King hit .322 in her freshman year in which she played in 44 games, starting 29 of them at first base and right field. Dawn Cunningham (Bethalto, Ill.) and Alkire should share time at second base. Cunningham brings the most experience of any of the infielders after starting 85 games in the infield in her first two years. Sarah Mathison (Hilton Head Island, S.C.) has been impressive in her switch to shortstop after playing in the outfield as a freshman. The unanimous BIG EAST all-rookie selection started all 60 games in 1997, the first Irish freshman to accomplish this in six years. Lisa Tully (Garden Grove, Calif.) returns in '98 after an off-season training regimen which has improved her power as she appears ready for a breakthrough season offensively. The outfield will be a sure strength of the team as senior Jenn Giampaolo (San Marino, Calif.) returns to center field while Amy Laboe (Monroe, Mich.) and freshmen Sarah Kirkman (Kokomo, Ind.), Danielle Klayman (San Diego, Calif.) and Lizzy Lemire (Irvine, Calif.) will play in right and left field. Giampaolo has been the teamís best outfielder since her arrival in í95 thanks to her speed and quick reads and reaction to fly balls. Laboe, who served as backup to Kara McMahon at third base in her first two years, gets the nod in left field in í98 after a fall season in which she showed great improvements defensively and with the bat. Lemire looks to nail down right field, a position that saw numerous players rotate in and out last year. She brings a powerful bat into the lineup as well as her mature defensive skills. Klayman has impressed the coaches with her quick footwork and range in the outfield. She should split time with Laboe in left field in addition to helping with the rest of the outfield. Kirkman has been improving in the outfield and should develop into one of the top hitters on the team.

    Irish Softball Enters 10th Season: The 1998 season marks the 10th season of Notre Dame softball since its first year in 1989. The program has compiled a 335-183-2 (.646) record in the first nine years, an average of 37-20. In the first four years under head coach Brian Boulac from 1989-92, the Irish went 135-90-2, winning the Midwestern Collegiate Conference in 1990 and 1991. Liz Miller, who served as an assistant to Boulac in 1992, took over in 1993 and has compiled a 200-93 record with MCC titles in 1993-95 and NCAA appearances in 1994-96.

    Notre Dame Picked As BIG EAST Favorite: For the third straight year, Notre Dame is the preseason pick to win the BIG EAST South Division in a vote by the conference coaches. The Irish received six of a possible seven votes with Rutgers garnering the other vote. Defending BIG EAST champion Boston College is the preseason favorite in the North Division. The BIG EAST schedule, reduced from 20 games each of the last two years, features a 17-game season, with each team playing divisional opponents three times and cross-divisional opponents twice.

    Captains Kelly: Seniors Kelly Nichols and Kelly Rowe will serve as captains of the '98 Irish softball team after a vote of the team following the '97 season. Nichols is the first pitcher to serve as captain since Staci Alford captained the Irish in 1993.

    '98 Schedule: The Irish face a difficult schedule once again, with games against ranked teams in eight of their first 15 scheduled contests, including opening-day games against 10th-ranked South Florida and ninth-ranked Kansas. Notre Dame has games scheduled against 12 teams that played in the 1997 NCAA regionals and three games against teams in the College World Series. For the third consecutive year, the Irish head to Columbus, Ga., for the prestigious National Fastpitch Coaches Association Leadoff Classic and have trips scheduled to Tampa, Fla., Fresno, Calif., Los Angeles, Calif., and Honolulu, Hawaii.

    BIG EAST Championship Come To Ivy Field: The first ever postseason games will be played at Ivy Field May 2-3, when the 1998 BIG EAST Conference softball championship comes to Notre Dame. The Irish have qualified for the past two championships but have gone 4-4 in those two appearances. Boston College will look to defend its title against the field comprised of the two division winners plus two at-large selections. The softball championship will mark the fourth BIG EAST championship held at Notre Dame in the three years since joining the conference in 1995-96. The Irish have won each championship at Notre Dame, winning volleyball in '95, women's soccer in '96 and men's golf in the fall of '97.

    All-BIG EAST Returnees: The Irish return four players that received all-BIG EAST honors a year ago, including seniors Kelly Nichols and Kelly Rowe, junior Kris McCleary and sophomore Sarah Mathison. McCleary's .405 conference batting average is the highest of Notre Dame's returning all-BIG EAST selections and was the highest of any BIG EAST catcher. McCleary also threw out a conference-best eight base runners attempting to steal and picked off five runners.

    Gladstones Tournament Preview: The Irish open the season at the Gladstones Tournament at the University of South Florida in a five-team field that boasts three ranked teams, #9 Kansas, #10 South Florida and #24 DePaul. Notre Dame will open on Fri., Feb. 20, against South Florida, which has beaten the Irish 3-2 in eight innings in the only two meetings between the teams.

    The Irish and Jayhawks also have played just twice with Notre Dame winning both games 7-5 and 4-2 last year at the Sooner Classic. The Blue Demons have beaten the Irish 16 times, more than any other opponent, including a doubleheader sweep to end the 1997 season. Notre Dame will also face Auburn, a 4-2 loser to the Irish in 1997.

    Notre Dame will be looking for its first season-opening win since beating Michigan 4-3 in 1995, and joins DePaul in season-opening games at the Gladstones Tournament. Kansas is currently 5-1, South Florida 3-2 and Auburn 2-0.

    Head Coach Liz Miller: Liz Miller has compiled a 200-93 (.683) record in her five seasons at Notre Dame since 1993. Miller, with a career record of 741-235 (.750) led the Irish to a school-record 48 wins in 1996 and to their third consecutive NCAA appearance that same year. She was named the 1996 BIG EAST coach of the year in her first year in the conference and has led Notre Dame to a 35-5 record and two BIG EAST South Division titles in her two years in the conference. Miller won her 700th-career game on April 27, 1996, at the time becoming one of only five collegiate softball coaches to have won 700 career games. Miller began her coaching career at Lake Michigan Community College where she posted a 541-142 (.792).

    USA Today/NFCA Coaches
    Preseason Top 25 (Jan. 28)
       Rk.   Team                      '97    Points
        1.   Arizona                   61-5   625
        2.   Fresno State             55-14   590
        3.   Washington               50-19   580
        4.   Michigan               56-16-1   522
        5.   Iowa                      52-9   508
        6.   South Carolina *          63-5   443
        7.   California               35-25   415
        8.   Colorado                 51-14   393
        9.   Kansas *                 38-23   372
       10.   South Florida *          50-13   356
       11.   Oklahoma State *         40-22   344
       12.   Massachusetts          37-23-1   334
       13.   Missouri                 47-16   316
       14.   Long Beach State       44-20-1   271
       15.   Cal State Northridge   34-22-2   261
       16.   Oklahoma                 55-19   239
       17.   UCLA *                   49-14   213
       18.   Utah                     44-18   191
       19.   USL                      46-18   161
       20.   Central Michigan         41-22   152
       21.   Florida State          45-19-1   138
       22.   Michigan State           46-22   113
       23.   Arizona State            32-25    98
       24.   DePaul *                 42-15    70
       25.   Tennessee                45-22    55
       * indicates 1998 Notre Dame opponents
       
    
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