Jan. 21, 2004
by Alan Wasielewski
Intensity. When Notre Dame head softball coach Deanna Gumpf talks about her 2004 team, that term pops up in the conversation more often than not. The loss of a signature group of players to graduation demands that the '04 team be able to overcome inexperience this season - perhaps intensity is the perfect trait the squad needs to be successful.
"Our feet are to the fire and we can either jump in and take it head on or we can stand back and wait to see what happens," Gumpf says.
"We have to know that we are capable of doing anything and beating anyone. This team can do that. We are going to surprise some people."
The surprise will come because at first glance the team's expectations might be diminished. When you lose an entire starting infield (except for the pitchers and sophomore Mallorie Lenn at catcher) and four of your top eight hitters, the softball subculture might expect Notre Dame to drop out of the national picture.
Don't count on it.
"The dynamic of the team has changed," Gumpf says.
"I am expecting more of this team than last year (which won the BIG EAST Championship and won two games at the NCAA regional). This team has a lot on the inside and they work very hard. Everyone else is counting them out. All they have to do is believe in each other."
Notre Dame will have a chance to establish itself early in the season, as Gumpf and her staff have once again established a very tough schedule during the months of February and March. California, Nebraska, Stanford, the U.S. Olympic Team, Georgia, Cal State Fullerton, Massachusetts, Florida State and Michigan are just a few of the challenging teams the Irish will face during those two months.
"I love having a tough schedule because you find out quickly what you have to change," Gumpf says.
"Our number one goal is to win the BIG EAST Conference. How do you do that? You prepare. How do you prepare? You play the best teams in the nation. I am a huge believer that you play the best teams to become one of the best. At Notre Dame, we are here to be great. That is why we play who we play."
For the Irish to be great this season, a number of role players will have to step up and become team leaders in 2004. Here is a look at the Notre Dame roster in three areas: pitching, infield and outfield.
The top three pitchers from 2003 return this season and a talented freshman, Kenya Fuemmeler, will be added to the arms in the bullpen for Gumpf.
Sophomore Heather Booth will be hoping for a strong follow up to a promising freshman season in '03. Booth earned the 2003 BIG EAST Rookie of the Year award, compiling a 21-10 record and 1.93 ERA. She won five conference games a year ago and held BIG EAST opponents in check with a 1.65 league-game ERA.
"Heather came into an interesting situation with a lot of pressure on her last season," Gumpf says.
"She handled it very well and matured a lot, which will help her raise her game to another level this season."
Junior Steffany Stenglein can identify with Booth's situation, but an injury derailed Stenglein's second season last year. After off-season surgery curtailed her progress, Stenglein struggled through the '03 campaign, but she was still able to fight through and post a solid 10-4 record. Fully healthy, Stenglein is looking to regain her '02 form.
"Steffany has the ability to be a great pitcher," Gumpf says.
"She knows what it is going to take. I am expecting her to be a huge part of our success this season."
Behind Booth and Stenglein in the bullpen is Miss Reliable, junior Carrie Wisen. Wisen has developed into a consistent spot-starter and reliever for the Irish over the last two seasons and boasts a solid 1.89 career ERA. She also has posted an impressive 24-8 career record at Notre Dame.
"Carrie's maturity and stability make her a very important pitcher for our staff," Gumpf says.
"She is consistent and non-emotional in the circle. She has one of the best change ups in the country and she can really shut the door on people when all her pitches are working."
Fuemmeler will see time in the bullpen and as a possible spot-starter as well. Also capable of contributing in the outfield and as a baserunner, she will be a valuable utility player for the Irish this season.
"I am very excited about what Kenya brings to our team," Gumpf says.
"She is willing to do whatever it takes. What people are going to see is how quickly she is maturing into one of our starting pitchers."
The key to Notre Dame's success in 2004 will be how quickly the new infield can learn to work as a cohesive unit. Work ethic is a team strength for this year's squad, however, and the Irish coaching staff is excited to see the new group in action. Junior Liz Hartmann takes over at third base, sophomore Sara Schoonaert at short stop, freshman Stephanie Brown at second base and sophomore Meagan Ruthrauff will be at first.
"This team is filled with a lot of great young athletes," Gumpf says.
"We are young and don't have a lot of experience - with so many people playing different positions. This team has guts, though. They play hard and expect a lot out of each other."
Possessing the strongest defensive arm on the team, Hartmann steps in at third after seeing time in the outfield during her first two seasons with the Irish. Seeking consistency at the plate this season is a key for the junior, who has slammed 16 home runs in her first two campaigns.
"Liz is a leader and not afraid of anything," Gumpf says.
"That is what this team needs. If she gets consistent in the batter's box, she will be deadly. She has all the tools she needs and will hopefully be a big RBI producer for us this season. Liz gives us an intensity on the field in each game."
Moving across the infield to shortstop, one of the unknowns on the Irish roster pops up. Sophomore Sara Schoonaert was somewhat lost in the rotation last season, with four four-year starters in the infield ahead of her on the depth chart. She ended up appearing in 48 games (mostly as a pinch runner) and starting a doubleheader at second base. This year, she will be the every game starter at shortstop.
"Sara is going to surprise everyone," Gumpf says.
"She was here last year but did not get the playing time she deserved. She is a stud - a great short stop who will show off those skills this season."
A rookie shows up in the starting line up at second base for Notre Dame in the form of Stephanie Brown. A three-tool hitter at the plate (bunt, slap, hit away) and solid defensive presence, Gumpf is excited for what Brown brings to the field with her attitude.
"Stephanie is everything I love about the game of softball," Gumpf says.
"She is smart, intense, coachable and loves to play the game to win. That is why she is going to be great in this program. She is not going to take second seat to anyone."
One of Notre Dame's most dependable hitters from the 2003 campaign will be patrolling first base this season. Sophomore Meagan Ruthrauff burst on the collegiate scene last year, hitting over .350 for the first half of the season. Seeing most of her action at DP as a freshman (though she did play third base and shortstop briefly), Ruthrauff will be counted on to produce strong offensive numbers in the Irish line up. She ended up with a .310 average, 11 doubles, four home runs and 24 RBI in '03.
"Meagan expects to be great," Gumpf says.
"She is very hard on herself when she is not great because she and I both know what she is capable of. She hates to lose and that helps her success. We need her to put up big power numbers at the plate this year."
Behind the dish second-team all-BIG EAST selection Mallorie Lenn returns. A great all-around player, Lenn is dangerous at the plate and capable of consistently throwing out opposing baserunners (opponents attempted just 36 stolen bases against the Irish last season). Lenn hit six home runs last season, drove in 25 and compiled a modest .238 batting average. All those numbers will take a dramatic jump this season.
"Mallorie is going to be one of our leading RBI producers if she can stay disciplined at the plate," Gumpf says.
"No one knows how to pitch her because she is capable of hitting anything hard. That is a tough thing to deal with as an opposing pitcher. She can be a huge force for us and is becoming a great leader on the field as well."
In training at catcher behind Lenn are two freshmen, Carissa Jaquish and Gessica Hufnagle.
"Carissa is an athlete that can catch while also playing the infield and outfield," Gumpf says.
"You can put her anywhere and she can get the job done. Gessica is being tutored into becoming a starting catcher. She is so good for this team because she has such a big heart for this place and Notre Dame softball."
Jaquish will be among the top options at designated player for the Irish if she is not behind the plate.
The Irish outfield might prove to be the team strength this season when all is said and done. Junior Megan Ciolli will be the leader in centerfield, flanked on her right by senior Nicole deFau and the left by sophomore Kellie Middleton. One thing the Irish outfield does not lack for is speed, as the three players combined for 32 steals in 2003.
Ciolli is one of the most talented players on the Notre Dame roster. A hard out at the plate, she currently ranks in the top-10 all-time at Notre Dame in career batting average (.350). She earned first-team all-conference honors last season with a .356 average, 24 RBI and four home runs.
"Megan is here to lead this team to the World Series," Gumpf says.
"That is her goal. She is capable of being one of the best hitters in the country and dominating the outfield. She also can develop into one of the best leaders in Notre Dame history."
DeFau spent most of last season platooning with Middleton in right field, but this season she will be the every day starter in left field. She ended up hitting .271 in 2003 with 26 hits and one home run.
"Nicole has been through it all," Gumpf says.
"She started out working hard just to get playing time. From that role, she became a starter and those two experiences are invaluable. That is why she is going to be a great leader for us. She has dealt with it all and done it the right way."
Middleton will be a key factor in Notre Dame's success this year. Capable of wreaking havoc when she reaches base, Middleton stole 15 bases and had 16 hits during her rookie campaign, including a home run in her first career at bat. She also threw out a base runner attempting to score from third in her first career defensive chance. If Middleton can raise her batting average and get on base, the sky is the limit for her success at Notre Dame.
"Kellie has really matured," Gumpf says.
"She knows how important she is to this team. She has the tools and the concentration and now she just needs to remain consistent. She is capable of being one of our best hitters."
Backing up all the outfield spots will be junior transfer Nicole Wicks. She gives Gumpf a strong pinch running option and speed where ever she might be inserted in the line up.
"Nicole is a great addition to our program," Gumpf says.
"She is a really good fit for Notre Dame. I think she has chosen a perfect school for her, because she values the hard work and intensity of this team. She will contribute this season because she is one of the best base runners in the country."
When the 2004 Notre Dame softball takes the field this spring, there is no doubt that several opposing teams, familiar with the Irish in the past, will do a double-take. At first glance, the Irish will appear much different, with four four-year starters having graduated in the last year. The second glance will provide the true answer, however. The '04 edition of the Fighting Irish will be intense, hungry and ready to prove to the nation that Notre Dame softball is here to stay.