'98 Irish Complete the Three-Peat
Notre Dame wins third consecutive BIG EAST South Division Title; Newcomers show promise.
The 1998 season was a reflection of both the new and the old for the Notre Dame softball program.
The new included two new assistant coaches on sixth-year head coach Liz Miller's staff and a crop of new talent, which contributed early and often, softening the blow made by the graduation of four starters in 1997.
"The class of '97 will always be a special class in Notre Dame softball history," Miller said. "They established a tradition of excellence both on the field and in the classroom."
Despite the multiple staff changes, the Irish returned to their old winning ways of seasons past with their third-straight BIG EAST South Division title, a mid-season, 17-game win streak and another 30-plus win season. Senior Kelly Nichols, who finished second in the country in saves with six in 1998, became the NCAA career saves leader after posting her 20th against Rutgers. The 1998 season, however, was not without its noticeable speed bumps and turns in the road for the Irish. To begin 1998, the team went 5-10 in the first 15 games and lost six in a row against some of the top competition in the country.
After the tournament season, the team got back on track with a number of non-conference sweeps against Loyola (Chicago) and Valparaiso. In early BIG EAST play, the Irish received their regular challenge from Rutgers and Boston College, dropping two of three to the Scarlet Knights and splitting the two-game series with the Eagles.
Following two, season-turning losses to Purdue, the Irish embarked on their 17-game winning streak, the third longest in the country. The freshman pitching tandem of Jennifer Sharron and Melanie Alkire began the streak off by throwing three straight shutouts against Seton Hall and Indiana. After 5-3 and 7-0 wins over Butler, the team limited BIG EAST foes Connecticut and St. John's to just three runs in four games. In a perfect 5-0 week in late April, the Irish clinched their third-straight South Division title with a three-game sweep of Villanova.
Notre Dame was rewarded for its BIG EAST success with three selections to the all-conference first team, two to the second team and three to the all-rookie squad. Sharron, a first-team and all-rookie selection, was also named BIG EAST pitcher of the year, becoming the first freshman and Notre Dame pitcher to ever receive the award. Freshman Danielle Klayman and sophomore Lisa Tully, who went one-two in team batting average, rounded out the Notre Dame first- team selections. Second-team selections included senior Jennifer Giampaolo and another freshman, Lizzy Lemire. Lemire also was named to the all-rookie team along with Sharron and Klayman, marking the first time the Irish had ever placed three on the all-rookie squad.
The team's luck, however, changed going into the BIG EAST Championships on a school-record 13-game winning streak at Ivy Field. In the first game of the championships, Connecticut took advantage of four unearned runs to win 4-1. One game away from elimination, the Irish left eight runners stranded on base and gave up one run in the sixth, falling to Rutgers by a slim 1-0 margin to end their tournament hopes.
The season ended following two non-conference losses to 11th-ranked DePaul, but even though the season began much the way it ended, there were many positives for Miller and her 1998 squad. The team hit .298, just three points away from its second season with over a .300 team batting average. The pitching staff had a combined 1.74 earned-run average and limited opponents to a .218 batting average.
"Offensively, we hit the ball really well," Miller said. "We had some young pitchers who came in and did a great job of stepping up against the competition right away, but we just never maintained consistency. It was just a really up and down season."