Feb. 8, 2014
AUBURN, Ala. - The end of the team's first day of play at the Auburn Plainsman Invitational at Jane B. Moore Field Saturday left the University of Notre Dame softball team with a pair of mixed results. The Irish claimed game one 9-1 over Tennessee Tech before falling to North Dakota State in the nightcap 4-1.
More important in the background of the day one split was the return of one of Notre Dame's key players from injury, junior catcher Cassidy Whidden. During the first game of the 2013 NCAA Lexington Regional against Virginia Tech last spring, Whidden suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) attempting to steal second base, ending her season and requiring surgery. The devastating turn derailed what had been a breakout season for Whidden as an all-BIG EAST third team performer.
After nine months of rehabilitation, hard work, and most of all, heart, Whidden triumphantly returned to the Notre Dame lineup against Tennessee Tech, smashing the second pitch she saw over the wall in left center field for what was ultimately the game-winning three-run home run.
"Awesome, I just feel so awesome, and I'm speechless right now," Whidden said after the morning's win over Tennessee Tech. "For nine months it's all you think about, just getting back on the field. It was awesome to have the faith of my teammates and the faith of my coaches behind me, and I think that's what made me want to come back the way I did."
Whidden added that readjusting to the speed of the game, especially with the Irish on an actual softball diamond for the first time since the fall, was something that went on throughout the opening contest against the Golden Eagles.
"A little bit (fast) with the tempo and pitch calling, that was the only thing I really felt I can improve on," Whidden, whose three-run blast was the 12th home run of her 35 career hits, said. "And dropping and blocking in dirt, it's great to be back in dirt and not in Loftus, so that's the biggest challenge, just getting back on a softball field."
Starting quickly, with no immediate setbacks, was best case scenario for both Whidden and the Irish. As the designated player in game two against North Dakota State, the Parrish, Fla., native added a base hit and stolen base. The focus, now, is moving onward and upward.
"It's great to have a good starting point so you can build from there," Whidden said. "A good foundation to keep going."
Junior Katey Haus added a two-run triple and a run scored on day one of the Plainsman Invitational, while senior Laura Winter chipped in two RBI. Sophomore Allie Rhodes (1-0) earned the game one win after throwing four scoreless innings against Tennessee Tech, allowing two hits and striking out three Golden Eagle batters.
Winter (0-1) struck out 11 North Dakota State batters in game two, walking only three Bison during the contest. It was her 22nd career game with 10 or more strikeouts, and the right-hander from San Diego, Calif. moved past Brittney Bargar into third place on the Notre Dame all-time strikeout list with 821 career punch-outs.
The Irish return to action at the Auburn Plainsman Invitational Sunday, with first pitch against Morehead State set for 9 a.m. (CT). Notre Dame and Auburn will square off with a tentative 11 a.m. (CT) start.
Game One - Notre Dame 9, Tennessee Tech 1
Freshman Karley Wester got the Irish offense started in the bottom of the first by working a one-out walk, stealing second base with junior Katey Haus at the plate for her first career swiped bag. After a Notre Dame out left Wester at second, senior Laura Winter drilled a 2-2 pitch off Tennessee Tech starter Taylor Ketchum (0-2) into left field for an RBI single and a 1-0 Irish lead. Junior Cassidy Whidden made a triumphant return to the Notre Dame lineup following a Lauren Stuhr hit by pitch, crushing the second pitch she saw deep and gone to left center to up the Irish cushion to four (4-0). It was Whidden's first at-bat since suffering a major knee injury in last season's NCAA Regionals.
The Golden Eagles threatened in the top of the second, as Madison Taylor ripped a one-out double to left center and took third on an Allie Rhodes wild pitch. Rhodes bounced back from first and third with one out, striking out Kayla Floyd swinging and inducing Kendall Hooper to ground out to senior captain Chloe Saganowich at shortstop to shut the door on Tennessee Tech.
Haus kept the Notre Dame offense rolling in the bottom of the second inning, roping a two-run triple down the right field line off reliever Hannah Weaver to score junior All-American Emilee Koerner and Wester, vaulting the Irish in front 6-0. An RBI groundout by Winter scored Haus and upped the Irish lead to 7-0.
Rhodes picked up her second strikeout of the contest with two outs in the top of the third, getting Angi Sakamoto to chase a 2-2 pitch to strand a Tennessee Tech runner and keep Notre Dame in front by seven (7-0).
The Irish threatened again in the bottom of the fourth inning, as Koerner reached on a bunt single, stole second and Wester drew her third walk of the day. Weaver forced three straight outs to keep both Notre Dame runners stranded on base.
Freshman Rachel Nasland made her Notre Dame debut in the circle in the top of the fifth inning, and after allowing a leadoff single to Hooper retired Olivia Bennett, Alyssa Richards and Hannah Eldridge in order to blank the Golden Eagles in the frame.
Tennessee Tech (0-3) broke through in the top of the sixth, as pinch hitter Christian Gibbs drilled a two-out double to center field, bringing the Golden Eagles within six runs (7-1). Senior Monica Torres made a tremendous play in right field with pinch hitter Gabby Perez at the plate, diving for to snag a hard liner that robbed Tennessee Tech of a base hit and ended the inning.
Koerner added her second hit of the game, an RBI triple, down the right field line in the bottom of the sixth inning, scoring sophomore Carly Piccinich all the way from first base to put the Irish in front 8-1. A triple by Wester plated Koerner from third and gave Notre Dame the walk-off win.
Game Two - North Dakota State 4, Notre Dame 1
Laura Winter came out of the gates blazing on the mound, retiring the first three batters she faced on strikes in only 11 pitches. Alex Sobrero, Logan Moreland and Cheyenne Garcia all went down swinging in the North Dakota State half of the first inning.
The Bison (3-1) broke through in the bottom of the second frame, when Amanda Grable blasted a 1-0 pitch over the left field wall to give North Dakota State a 1-0 advantage. After a walk issued to Jenina Ortega, Winter sat the next three batters down in order on strikeouts to halt the Bison momentum.
A leadoff single up the middle by sophomore Megan Sorlie and a bunt single by sophomore Casey Africano gave Notre Dame two on with nobody out in the top of the third inning. Three straight outs forced by North Dakota State starter Krista Menke (2-1) held the Irish at bay in the inning.
Back-to-back singles from Katey Haus and Winter got the Notre Dame offense in motion in the top of the fourth, and a fielder's choice grounder by Cassidy Whidden moved Haus further into scoring position at third. A full-count walk drawn with two outs by Sorlie loaded the bases for the Irish, but a grounder to North Dakota State first baseman Brandi Enriquez stranded all three Notre Dame runners.
A heads-up defensive play by captain Chloe Saganowich to catch Enriquez in a rundown after she tried to leg a two-out single into extra bases in the bottom of the fourth stranded a North Dakota State runner at third.
An RBI single into right field from Garcia in the bottom of the fifth inning scored Presley Glaser to extend the Bison lead to 2-0. A Winter strikeout and a pop out to Saganowich at shortstop held North Dakota State in check.
A five-pitch walk to Haus and a later five-pitch free pass drawn by Whidden gave Notre Dame runners at first and second with one out in the top of the sixth. A groundout by freshman Kimmy Sullivan moved the runners over, where an infield single by Sorlie scored pinch runner Monica Torres and brought the Irish within one run at 2-1. Menke forced Africano to pop out to second base to strand Whidden at third base.
-- Tony Jones, Media Relations Assistant