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    Fighting Irish

    Feb. 24, 1998

    Notre Dame Makes Third Straight Trip to Columbus for NFCA Leadoff Classic

    • #6 South Carolina, #11 Oklahoma State On Tap

    NOTRE DAME, Ind. -- Notre Dame’s softball team opened the 1998 season at the Gladstones Tournament in Tampa, Fla., and left with a 1-4 record including two losses in extra innings. The Irish return to the NFCA Leadoff Classic in Columbus, Ga., this weekend with games against sixth-ranked South Carolina, 11th-ranked Oklahoma State, Canisius and Auburn, which handed Notre Dame one of its four losses in Tampa.

    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 ’97.

    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 Dame’s 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 ’97. 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 team’s best outfielder since her arrival in ’95 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 ’98 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.

    NFCA Leadoff Preview: Notre Dame heads to the National Fastpitch Coaches Association Leadoff Classic this weekend in Columbus, Ga., for the third straight year after finishing 3-3 in '96 and 1-4 in '97. The Irish will face Canisius and sixth-ranked and 3-1 South Carolina on Fri., Feb. 27, and Auburn and 11th-ranked and 10-1 Oklahoma State on Sat., Feb. 28. Teams will be seeded for bracket play on Sun., March 1.

    Notre Dame and Canisius have never met and the game will be the season opener for the Golden Griffins, who were 31-14 in 1997 before losing an NCAA play-in series with World Series participant Massachusetts. Notre Dame and South Carolina met a year ago at the NFCA Leadoff Classic in a 3-2 win by the Lady Gamecocks on their way to winning the tournament. The Irish and Auburn meet for the second straight week while Notre Dame plays Oklahoma State for the first time since a 7-0 Irish win at the 1996 South Florida Classic.

    Gladstones Tournament Recap: The Irish began the 1998 season at the Gladstones Tournament in Tampa, Fla., and left with a 1-4 record. Notre Dame opened on Fri., Feb. 20, against tournament host South Florida and outhit the 10th-ranked Bulls 8-6 but allowed three runs in the fourth inning and eight walks in seven innings in a 3-1 loss. The Irish rebounded against ninth-ranked Kansas for a 7-2 win. Amy Laboe drove in a pair of runs and Jenn Giampaolo scored a pair. Kelly Nichols and Melanie Alkire combined to hold the Jayhawks to five hits.

    On Saturday, Auburn led 4-0 before Notre Dame attempted to rally in the bottom of the seventh for a pair of runs but stranded runners on second and third to lose 4-2. The Irish were forced to rally in the their second game against 24th-ranked DePaul. The Blue Demons led 2-0 before Laboe singled in the bottom of the seventh to drive in Lizzy Lemire and Sarah Mathison. Notre Dame had a chance to win the game with runners on first and second but could not break the 2-2 tie. DePaul scored three times in the top of the ninth but the Irish nearly came back once again, scoring two in the bottom of the ninth but left runners on first and third to fall 5-4.

    For the third straight game, Notre Dame rallied for a pair of runs against Kansas on Sun., Feb. 22, to send the game into extra innings at 4-4. The Jayhawks, who capitalized on six Irish errors in the game, used two hits and two errors to score four runs in the ninth for an 8-4 win.

    Early Irish Leaders: After just four games, seniors Jenn Giampaolo and Kelly Nichols lead the Irish offense and pitching staff. Giampaolo had six hits, an RBI and scored two runs while Nichols did not allow an earned run in 12 innings pitched, picking the win against Kansas. Amy Laboe was one of the most productive hitters with five RBI on four hits.

    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 nine of their first 16 contests, after opening-day games against 10th-ranked South Florida and ninth-ranked Kansas. Notre Dame has 13 games against 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.

    Head Coach Liz Miller: Liz Miller has compiled a 201-97 (.674) record in her five-plus seasons at Notre Dame since 1993. Miller, with a career record of 742-239 (.756) 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
       
    Preseason BIG EAST Coaches Poll
    South Division     Pts.  '97   (BE)
    1.   Notre Dame (6) 27   35-25 (16-4)
    2.   Rutgers (2)    23   22-28 (7-9)
    3.   Villanova      16   24-28 (6-12)
    4.   Seton Hall     10   23-23 (5-13)
    North Division        Pts.  '97   (BE)
    1.   Boston College (6)27   36-13 (15-1)
    2.   Connecticut (2)   23   30-20 (11-5)
    3.   Providence        13   13-28 (6-13)
    3.   St. John's        13   16-29 (3-12)
    
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