Feb. 26, 1998

1998 Women's Softball Season Outlook

A new era in Notre Dame softball kicks off with the 1998 season. Head coach Liz Miller enters her sixth season at the helm with the deepest pitching staff in Irish history and two new assistant coaches as she welcomes former Nebraska standout Deanna Mays and Stephenie Henderson, the top hitter in Western Michigan history.

"There definitely will be a new, exciting look to our team in 1998," says Miller. "With the graduation of five seniors, a strong freshman class that will contribute right away and two new assistant coaches on our staff, there will be a lot of new faces and some old faces at new positions."

After Notre Dame posted the highest single-season team batting average in school history at .311 in '97 with the strong bats of the graduated Meghan Murray, Katie Marten and Kara McMahon, the Irish will shift from relying on the bats of a few players to the contributions of the entire team in '98.

"The strength of our team will be the depth we have throughout all four classes," says Miller. "All four classes have players who will contribute. We have versatility in all of our positions and we feel fortunate to have a lot of choices in our lineup."

Two of those choices will be seniors Kelly Nichols and Kelly Rowe. They will serve as captains and will be needed to provide leadership and stability within the lineup.

Nichols, junior Angela Bessolo and freshmen Jennifer Sharron and Melanie Alkire give the Irish a young but talented and potentially dominant pitching staff.

"We will have our biggest pitching staff ever which should give us more options on the mound," says Miller. "We have a good variety of pitchers with different styles which we can match against the strengths of our opponents. All four of our pitchers can start for us at any time."

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. Nichols upped her career saves total to 18 and now needs just two saves in her senior year to become the all-time NCAA saves leader, breaking the 19 saves of Cal Poly Pomona's Lori Thompson.

"Kelly has worked very hard in the offseason and enters '98 mentally and physically as strong as she has ever been," says Miller. "We are looking to get her in the lineup at first base or designated player as much as possible when she is not on the mound."

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.

"Angela's confidence is the highest it has been since her freshman year," says Miller. "She is smarter on the mound than ever before and uses a variety of pitches that strengthen her game."

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. A first team all-state selection in California, Sharron struck out 715 batters during her career at Thousand Oaks High School where she threw seven career perfect games.

"Jennifer will be a strong force on our pitching staff," says Miller. "She is completely different than any other pitcher on our staff. She is the first lefty to pitch for us and is a dominant rise-ball pitcher."

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.

"Melanie is a very versatile athlete who can throw a lot of pitches with great control and location," says Miller. "She is also a very strong hitter who will have many roles in addition to pitching."

Senior Korrie Allen and junior Kris McCleary should handle the catching duties once again for Notre Dame.

"We have a lot of experience behind the plate with our two catchers who both are effective in bringing out the best in our pitchers," says Miller. "Our four pitchers have different styles, and Kris and Korrie have done an excellent job working with them. They are both dedicated and focused and are always 100 percent prepared."

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.

"Kris has an excellent arm and one of the most powerful bats in our lineup," says Miller.

Allen will serve as backup to McCleary once again and has given Miller contributions to the team in offensive areas, including pinch running.

"Korrie has become much more confident in her role on the team," says Miller. "She will do a lot of baserunning for us once again in addition to working with the pitchers."

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.

Rowe and sophomore Tara King 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. While batting leadoff, Rowe strung together an eight-game hitting streak and reached base safely in 15 consecutive plate appearances during a five-game stretch last year.

"Kelly has been solid for us at first base," says Miller. "She is capable of hitting for average and is also an excellent bunter."

King hit .322 in her freshman year in which she played in 44 games, starting 29 of them at first base and right field.

"Tara should develop into an effective power hitter as she continues to work on the consistency of her swing," says Miller. "She will help us out at both first base and designated player."

Dawn Cunningham 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.

"Dawn is capable of being an excellent second baseman and backup at short stop," says Miller. "She can mix things up offensively and has a lot of variety."

Sarah Mathison 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. Mathison's powerful bat will be needed as much as her defensive skills.

"Sarah's shift to shortstop should work out well because she has improved her defense tremendously by quickening her game."

Lisa Tully returns in '98 after an off-season training regimen which has improved her power as she appears ready for a breakthrough season offensively. Solid for the Irish defensively as a freshman, Tully had a .953 fielding percentage in 38 games mostly at second base but will move to third base in '98.

"Lisa is very confident and is a natural at third base," says Miller. "She plays with intensity and has a strong arm. She has quickness and her range is getting better all the time."

The outfield will be a sure strength of the team as senior Jenn Giampaolo returns to center field while Amy Laboe and freshmen Sarah Kirkman, Danielle Klayman and Lizzy Lemire 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. In addition to a career .341 average, her lefty bat has slugged 32 career doubles, already fourth best in Irish history. With the loss of their top four hitters the Irish will look to Giampaolo both in the field and at bat.

"Jenn brings the confidence, experience and leadership that we need in the outfield," says Miller. "She is a great basehitter for us but can bunt or hit for power equally well."

Laboe, who served as backup to 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. She started seven games last year but saw action in 43 games, primarily as a pinch hitter, driving in 15 runs on 13 hits.

"Amy has met the challenge of learning a new position perfectly," says Miller. "With her strong arm, she will be very effective in leftfield but will also be our backup at third base and at designated player."

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.

"Lizzy has great footwork in right field," says Miller. "Her arm is getting better, and she will be one of the power hitters in the lineup."

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.

"Danielle is a very aggressive outfielder and can dive for fly balls," says Miller. "She will also be our backup centerfielder."

Kirkman has been improving in the outfield and should develop into one of the top hitters on the team.

"Sarah has the best bat speed on the team and when she gains more experience at this level she will be one of our better hitters," says Miller.

The Irish face a difficult schedule once again, with games against ranked teams in eight of their first 15 contests, including opening-day games against 10th-ranked South Florida and ninth-ranked Kansas. 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.

A trip Notre Dame will not have to make is to the BIG EAST championship. Miller and the Irish have circled the BIG EAST championships on the schedule and are excited about their chances to claim their first BIG EAST title, when the '98 tournament is held at Notre Dame's Ivy Field on May 2-3, the first ever postseason games to be played at Ivy Field.

"This year we are focusing entirely on winning the BIG EAST championship," says Miller.

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