Jan. 13, 2014
NOTRE DAME, Ind. - Less than one month before its inaugural tournament as an Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) member, the University of Notre Dame softball team held its first official practice of the 2014 season Monday afternoon. The Irish began the day with a run test and team work in the multi-purpose Loftus Sports Center before transitioning to the indoor batting cages at Frank Eck Baseball Stadium for afternoon hitting.
In spite of the wintry weather conditions that prevent the team from physically returning to the diamond this early in the year, Notre Dame head coach Deanna Gumpf was very optimistic after the first full team practice since October.
"I liked the way we look because typically on the first day the game looks fast for the team," Gumpf said. "Today it didn't look fast for the team. The girls were on it and weren't behind. After their run test they still had good legs underneath them, so they came back very prepared for the first day. I like the way we look."
Being able to essentially pick up from where the group left off at the end of the fall season and hit the ground running figures to give Notre Dame a huge jump on season preparation. The Irish will have less than one month of practice time before opening the 2014 season on Feb. 8-9 at the Auburn Plainsman Invitational in Auburn, Ala.
"We don't have to waste the first week playing catch up, we are moving forward," Gumpf, entering her 13th season at the helm of Notre Dame, said. "Starting with practice number two, we will be getting a lot more done because the girls were so prepared to come back."
Unlike a number of opponents who are scattered across the country in warmer locales with year-round access to outdoor facilities, the Irish softball team regularly spends the first few months of the season in indoor training centers like the Loftus Center and the Eck Stadium batting cages. In most years, it's not uncommon for Notre Dame's inaugural tournament game of the season to be the first time the team has collectively stepped foot on a field in more than four months.
The challenge of early season practice is something that comes with the territory at the start of every campaign, and is something Gumpf does not overanalyze.
"In my mind the weather can't be a factor, and in (the players') mind the weather can't be a factor," she said. "That can never be a crutch, and we can never allow it to be, so it's something we don't even talk about. We just prepare ourselves to play the same way that we would on a normal field."
A crucial positive for the Notre Dame squad is the health of the team coming out of fall ball and the extended break that followed. The recovery period proved particularly beneficial to the Irish as a whole, with no major injuries from last season expected to carry over onto the 18-player roster to start 2014.
"We have 18 players that are playing." Gumpf said. "Everybody did what they needed to do in the fall to prepare themselves so that right now, we can have all 18 players ready to play."
Monday's opening practice session was the first official in-season team workout for Notre Dame's freshman class, who unlike their counterparts from fall sports, have already had an extended acclimation period to life as both a college student and student-athlete. The comfort level with the college experience, combined with the experience of fall practice, has the five Irish newcomers ahead of the curve according to Gumpf.
"The freshmen didn't look like freshmen, I think they just blend right in now," Gumpf said. "Sometimes in the fall, they looked like freshmen. I think they have transitioned very well, and they realize that they can't act like freshmen for very long. They have done a nice job at jumping on, getting their feet wet and going to work."
Over the next three weeks, Notre Dame will resume its normal in-season practice routine, with time split working on team defensive fundamentals and regular hitting sessions. Developing more consistency on offense, Gumpf said, is the ultimate goal prior to the season opener against Tennessee Tech on Feb. 8.
"I don't think we are necessarily there yet, we've got to get our swings in," she said. "Other than that, I think we look good. It is mainly about getting the reps and seeing live pitching, that is something they haven't seen in a while."
Last season marked the first time in its history that Notre Dame had ever taken the field prior to Feb. 10 of a given year, when the Irish traveled to Charlotte, N.C. to take part in the Charlotte Fast Pitch Classic on Feb. 9-10, 2013. Working through last year's quick start should be to the team's advantage prior to its opening tournament in Auburn, an even tighter window from the first day of practice this time around.
"This is the fastest preseason we have ever had," Gumpf said. "We have never only had three weeks, so this a whole new experience for us, and I think it will be a piece of cake for us to keep rolling. It is easier to stay focused.
"I love playing on the first weekend because I feel like we don't start behind, and I think that is a really good transition that we've made," she added. "Changing that schedule was big for us. I love playing in the first weekend because it is just like everyone else and we are all starting at the same time."
For the latest news and updates on all things Notre Dame softball, follow the Irish @NDsoftball and @NDcoachGumpf on Twitter, and Like the team at Facebook.com/NDSoftball.
-- Tony Jones, Media Relations Assistant