Jan. 25, 2017
by Tony Jones
NOTRE DAME, Ind. -- The journey to the start of her senior season for University of Notre Dame outfielder Karley Wester has been filled with its share of twists and turns. The active hits leaders in all of NCAA softball entering her senior campaign, and already regarded as one of the best all-around players to ever don the Notre Dame uniform, Wester was recognized for her selfless dedication and leadership prior to the start of the 2017 Irish season.
Teammates officially elected Wester captain of the current Notre Dame softball squad earlier this week, returning the Huntington Beach, California, native to a post she shared as a junior with 2016 graduate Carly Piccinich. Repeating as a captain for the Irish softball program is no small feat, with Wester just the eighth player all-time to earn a second stint with the title. She also becomes just the sixth solo captain to serve during Notre Dame's 29 varsity softball seasons.
"It's an honor, and not many people have done it so that makes it pretty cool," Wester said of returning to the captain's role in 2017. "Honestly, the title of captain doesn't mean that you're the only one who's calling shots, it's our entire senior class. Our class has developed big time as leaders, so I definitely lean on them and will always ask for their support. It will never be just me."
Learning The Ropes Along The Way
Fresh off a second straight stellar showing at Notre Dame entering her junior season last spring, Wester and Piccinich were voted co-captains by their teammates to guide the 2016 Irish team. Notre Dame returned to the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) Championship game for the second time in three years and NCAA Regionals for the 18th consecutive season as part of a 43-13 final record.
Individually, Wester was recognized as one of the 10 finalists for the 2016 USA Softball National Player of the Year award, and added her second career nod to a National Fastpitch Coaches Association (NFCA) All-America team (third team). On the strength of her résumé, Wester recently took part in a USA Softball National Team selection camp with the best softball players in the United States earlier this month.
As the younger of the two 2016 captains, Wester used the opportunity to learn the ins and outs of leadership both within herself and the Notre Dame team last season. Her will to succeed and lead by example, coupled with a strong relationship with Piccinich, made the partnership gel.
"Carly and I are really close, so it was easy to work with each other," Wester said. "I was definitely able to learn the ropes and understand what was expected of me as a captain, as a leader. Now having that year under my belt, I can better help the younger girls learn what is ahead of them. I think going into this season it was an easier transition for everyone, and whether verbally or by action I've always wanted to be a leader and show teammates a good example."
Wester also credits other former Notre Dame softball captains with not only setting the standard and trajectory of the program, but sharing their unique perspectives with the next generation of Irish leaders.
"Coach Gumpf actually reached out to some of the captains from past years and asked if they'd provide some advice, and the overpowering advice was not trying to be something that you're not," Wester said. "The person you are, and the player you are, is the one that your teammates want to follow. Don't try to do anything extra or be anything more than you are because that's who they want, and that's enough. That's what I'm keeping in mind this season."
Injuries Presented Hurdles, But Wester Persevered
Wester's road to her final Notre Dame season was littered with obstacles before her college career even began. In the summer of 2011, before she began 11th grade, Wester snapped her shin during a game at the 2011 Premier Girls Fastpitch (PGF) Nationals tournament after sliding into the opposing shortstop while stealing second base.
One titanium rod and two screws later, and after missing that year's volleyball season at Edison High School in Huntington Beach, Wester returned to form while on the soccer field. As only she could, Wester scored a goal in her first soccer game following the injury, and later reached the league semifinals as a key player for the Chargers that softball season.
Wester's Irish softball tenure also got off to a flying, but painful, start. A severe left wrist injury early in her rookie season ultimately required surgery immediately after 2014 NCAA Regionals, yet Wester did not miss a game on her way to a .455 batting average, 81 hits, 28 RBI, 26 stolen bases, 50 runs scored, ACC Freshman of the Year honors, and an NFCA All-America second team scroll. Wester also finished as one of three finalists for the inaugural NFCA Division I National Freshman of the Year award that season.
With the wrist healed in time for 2015, Wester was met with adversity once more after suffering a significant elbow injury to her non-throwing arm at the outset of her sophomore season. Once again a potentially season-ending injury was turned on its head, as Wester started all 57 games, led the ACC in batting average for the second straight year, tied a Notre Dame record for a single season with 65 runs scored, was one of 26 finalists for USA Softball National Player of the Year, and helped the Irish host NCAA Regionals for the first time at Melissa Cook Stadium.
After postseason elbow surgery was in the rearview mirror by the start of 2016 spring practice, Wester upped her game to an even higher level. Team records for hits (91), stolen bases (46) and runs (68) followed, and Wester became Notre Dame's career steals leader (98) in a little over two and a half years. Notre Dame Monogram Club Team MVP, NFCA All-America third team and USA Softball National Player of the Year Top 10 accolades followed, as well as an invitation from Team USA to fulfill Wester's lifelong goal of trying out for the national team.
Through her first three seasons and in spite of serious injuries, Wester has played in the last 167 Notre Dame games with 166 starts. She has never missed a game in her Irish career.
"My body has definitely felt it, and now I'm starting to notice it," Wester said. "In the end I don't think about any of that, I play the game for my teammates, for this University, and for my family. I have five more months of college softball, so it's been more about embracing and loving the moment and not thinking about the long run. My mom always jokes around saying I will have a 60-year-old woman's body at 25 and she may be right, but it's been worth it and will always be worth it."
Wester's iron woman tendencies have not gone unnoticed by her teammates, either. As part of the guiding principles that the Notre Dame program has adopted in recent years, Wester was bestowed the perfect moniker to illustrate her resilience.
"My teammates voted me as the `Unshakeable' caption last year," Wester said. "I was looking at it today and it says, `Showing confidence no matter how you feel.' No matter how much pain I was in (through past injuries), I was always going to show my strength and toughness."
A Leader For Our Lady's University
Wester's time as the Notre Dame softball captain has been one of multiple leadership positions she has held during her Irish career. A member of Notre Dame's cutting-edge Rosenthal Leadership Academy and Student-Athlete Advisory Council (SAAC), Wester was one of the Irish student-athletes influential in the One Shirt, One Body campaign that has spread to other SAAC chapters on campuses across the country. Varsity teams throughout the U.S. have donated countless college issued athletic shirts to persons in need within their local communities.
Wester was elected to serve as the president of Notre Dame's SAAC chapter for the 2016-17 academic year, a position that she will continue with her rapidly increasing softball workload. The opportunity to serve other peers within the broader Irish student-athlete ranks enhanced Wester's level of comfort taking charge within the softball team.
"In terms of SAAC and Rosenthal, other student-athletes also looked to me to be a leader," Wester said. "It gave me more confidence that if I could give an opinion and they all appreciated it my actual sisters, my softball teammates, probably feel the same way. It's made it easier leading in those kinds of roles and then coming back to my own team, appreciating it more and loving them even more in trying to set an example.
"The Student Welfare and Development office does a great job, and (men's lacrosse player and fellow SAAC member) Mikey Wynne also does a great job," Wester added. "When it comes down to it, similar to being a captain, being the president of SAAC is merely a title. You can't do it by yourself, and you really learn to lean on others and depend on them to put in work also. I definitely try to offer guidance and my opinion here and there, but there are plenty of other people that contribute and help guide the ship."
Bringing Notre Dame Softball To Dominance
The 2017 Notre Dame softball season is a little over two weeks away from getting underway at the Beach Kickoff Tournament in Long Beach, California, and the Irish have already been hard at work on the practice field since returning for the spring semester. A total of 13 Monogram winners, led by seniors Wester, Dana Bouquet, Rachel Nasland and Kimmy Sullivan, are looking to guide Notre Dame to its 19th straight NCAA Regional appearance and the top of the ACC mountain for the first time.
The overarching goals for the program, in Wester's mind, remain unchanged from what they have been throughout the tenure of the class of 2017. The steps to achieving those goals begin the minute Notre Dame walks on to the softball diamond.
"Winning championships, especially winning the ACC, are certainly part of it, but more of a goal for the team that's not measurable is going in full force," Wester said. "Regardless of who the team is that we're playing, we're going in full force and giving it our all. We want to be a part of the first team that wins an NCAA Regional and moves forward from there to the World Series. We want to be the team that brings Notre Dame softball to dominance after we've been inching ahead, I want to get there.
"I know we're all on the same page, and this could be a very special season. I'm excited for it."
For the latest news and updates on all things Notre Dame softball, visit www.und.com/softball, follow the Irish @NDsoftball and @NDcoachGumpf on Twitter and at Instagram.com/notredamesoftball, and Like the team at Facebook.com/NDSoftball.
Tony Jones, athletics communications assistant director at the University of Notre Dame, has been part of the Fighting Irish athletics communications team since 2012 and coordinates all media efforts for the Notre Dame softball and men's soccer programs. A native of Jamestown, New York, Jones is a 2011 graduate of St. Bonaventure University, and prior to arriving at Notre Dame held positions at the University of Louisiana Monroe and with the National Football League's Buffalo Bills.