Feb. 6, 2014
By Tony Jones, Media Relations Assistant
In some cases, the easiest way to take a giant leap forward is by first retracing the steps from where you have come. For the University of Notre Dame softball team, a pair of hard-fought defeats at the Lexington (Ky.) Regional of the 2013 NCAA Championship derailed what had been a banner season on the diamond for the Irish. A 43-15 record, the program's 13th and final BIG EAST Conference regular-season championship, and a runner-up finish at the BIG EAST Championship tournament were all noteworthy accomplishments for last season's Notre Dame team.
The 2014 edition of the Irish, led by 13th-year head coach Deanna Gumpf, feel that the next step for the program will begin before the team even takes the field.
"We have to believe that we are the best team there (at NCAA Regionals), and I think last year we wanted to believe that but I don't think we necessarily did," Gumpf said. "We need to get to the point where we play so well that we know we are the best team there. Once that happens we will play the way we should be playing. I don't think we played the way we should be playing because we didn't think we earned it, so we have to win hard, early and a lot so that we know we earned it."
Playing a high-level schedule, with 10 teams who also participated in last season's NCAA Regionals, will set the bar early and often for Notre Dame in 2014.
"The NCAA tournament for us starts the very first day we play," Gumpf said. "That is going to be the focus all year, and we have to win early and win often while beating good teams. That's all it will take because it's not a question of how good we are, the girls need to believe that they earned it."
The Irish have a roster primed for success, with 13 monogram winners and seven regular starters back in the fold for the team's inaugural season in the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC). After a dominant 18-year run as the best team in the former BIG EAST Conference, the challenges of a new league are very appealing to Gumpf and her players.
"The fun thing for our team is that our players feel that we deserve to be in the conference, which is kind of cool," she said. "The girls feel that they are good and should be in the ACC battling against these teams. There is not going to be an easy game, there is just not, and that is the biggest thing we need to prepare for. There are not any gimmes at all, there never usually is, but we have to play good softball every single weekend.
"In the ACC, you can't not play good softball and still win, so we just have to focus on bringing our best game, every game, finding a way to do that every day," Gumpf added. "We are going to have to work hard at that, we are going to have to believe and trust in that, and have a pitching staff that can handle that."
Leading the way in the pitching circle for Notre Dame will be standout senior Laura Winter (29-12, 1.72 ERA in 2013), who capped her BIG EAST career as the conference's player of the year in 2013. The 6-1 right-hander from San Diego, Calif., enters her final season as the Irish ace ranked in the top 10 all-time of 12 different Notre Dame statistical categories, and became a three-time National Fastpitch Coaches Association (NFCA) Great Lakes all-region selection after being tabbed to the first team last season. Winter was named to the top 50 watch list for the 2014 USA Softball National Collegiate Player of the Year award on Jan. 29.
"Having Laura back this year is huge because of the success she has had in the past," Gumpf said. "Keeping her healthy is important, and the experience she brings to the team is something you have to have to get to the level that we need to. With her experiences and on-field success, she is right where she needs to be to help get us where we need to go."
Also returning to the Irish staff is sophomore southpaw Allie Rhodes (2-0, 2.82 ERA in 2013), who figures to see more innings during her second season at Notre Dame. Rhodes, who joined two-time All-American Jennifer Sharron ('01) as only the second left-handed pitcher to appear for the Irish in program history, posted a team-best .132 batting average against versus left-handed batters last season.
"The best thing about Allie right now is that she learned a lot from her freshman year, and because of those things that she learned, she will get innings and will really help us out," Gumpf said. "I see her more as a great pitcher to come in to mix things up because of her great changeup, and the way she has been able to move the ball around. If she can regularly make people chase her off-speed pitches, we will be in business."
The newcomer to the Notre Dame rotation is touted freshman Rachel Nasland (San Diego, Calif.), who was a four-year letterwinner at Torrey Pines High School. Nasland was a combined 54-13 with a 0.70 ERA during her career at Torrey Pines, and was honored as the San Diego Section Player of the Year and a first team all-state selection in 2013. Gumpf is expecting Nasland to contribute immediately to the Irish pitching ranks as part of the team's formidable West Coast trio of hurlers.
"We are very excited about what Rachel can bring to the team and the pitching circle," Gumpf said. "She had huge success in high school and in travel ball. She is similar to Laura in a lot of ways, but is also very different. I love her presence and demeanor on the mound, along with her confidence. Rachel knows how to win big games, and that's really important for this team."
In order to have a successful battery, solid play behind the plate at catcher is vital to any team in the game of softball. The graduation of 2012 NFCA All-American Amy Buntin opens the door for junior Cassidy Whidden (.287 AVG, 9 HR, 31 RBI in 2013) and sophomore Casey Africano (.257 AVG, 2 HR, 11 RBI in 2013) to assume the role of the starting Irish backstop. Gumpf stressed the importance of having two quality, veteran options at arguably the most important defensive position on the field.
"Catching for us will be very interesting because I feel that both of our catchers are really good catchers, and they each play the position a different way," Gumpf said. "I love Cassidy's personality behind the plate, the way she handles the field, and the way she manages the game. Along with having great composure, she's a hitter. I love Casey's fire, determination and strength. She has a great arm and will definitely throw people out."
Whichever player does not win the starting catcher battle still figures to have a place in the regular Notre Dame lineup. Whidden made a team-high 29 starts last season as the team's designated player on her way to earning all-BIG EAST third team recognition, while Africano added four starts as the DP and one start in left field during her freshman campaign.
"I expect both of their bats in the lineup, and that's very exciting," Gumpf said. "Having two catchers with big bats on our offense is huge."
A pair of young prospects at first base will compete for the starting job at one corner of the Notre Dame infield. Incumbent Micaela Arizmendi (.259 AVG, 2 HR, 13 RBI in 2013) was named to the all-BIG EAST third team as a freshman last season after making 26 starts at first base. The Huntington Beach, Calif., native led all Irish newcomers in batting average, home runs and RBI in 2013."Micaela learned a lot in her freshman year, and that is helping her immensely right now at first base," Gumpf said. "She has great power to add to the lineup, she is very cool and calm, and I think that helps our team, she doesn't get rattled easily. Her experience is going to be very helpful to both her and to the team. Her goal is to become very consistent offensively, to improve as a hitter and make an impact."
Joining the fray at first base is freshman Kimmy Sullivan (Greenwood, Ind.), who is in the process of transitioning from her natural position of third base. Sullivan helped lead Center Grove High School to four consecutive Metro Interscholastic Conference championships, and batted a scintillating .611 with seven doubles, nine home runs and 38 RBI as a senior to earn first team all-state honors.
"I love watching Kimmy hit the ball," Gumpf said. "She is powerful, explosive, and she is such a very exciting hitter because at any moment she could be a game changer. She is new to first base, so fundamentally there is some work to be done on defense. The great thing is that Kimmy recognizes that, and will continue to do whatever it takes to get the job done."
Winter could also see time at first base in any games where she is not in the pitching circle after batting .353 with five home runs and nine RBI in only seven appearances as the team's first baseman last season. Winter led all BIG EAST batters with nine home runs and 37 RBI in conference play (17 home runs and 52 RBI overall) in 2013.
Returning all-BIG EAST third team selection Jenna Simon (.316 AVG, 4 3B, 17 SB in 2013) started 55 games at second base as a sophomore last season, giving Notre Dame an extremely rangy and athletic defender at one half of its middle infield. The Granger, Ind., native also used her top-end speed as a slap hitter to reach base 12 times on infield errors and 11 times on fielder's choice plays in 2013.
Also back in the fold is sophomore Carly Piccinich (.167 AVG, 19 R, 6 SB in 2013), who paced all Notre Dame freshmen with 51 games played last season. Piccinich emerged as the top Irish pinch running threat in 2013 (43 appearances), and stands to work her way in at second base.
"Jenna has always been a solid player defensively at second base, and in her third year, I think she has a really good grasp of her strengths on both sides of the ball," Gumpf said. "She will do a great job of utilizing those skills this spring, and she realizes how important it is for her to get the ball on the ground and make something happen.
"Defensively, Carly has been amazing for us thus far, and will continue to grow as she gains experience."
A recognizable face at shortstop is senior captain Chloe Saganowich (.268 AVG, 3 HR, 18 RBI in 2013), who is in the midst of a consecutive start streak of 114 games that has spanned the past two seasons. Saganowich was named to the BIG EAST Championship All-Tournament team as a junior after batting .556 with a home run and three runs scored in three games at the USF Softball Stadium last season.
The Treasure Island, Fla., native was selected by her peers as just the fifth unanimous captain in team history, fully illustrating the role Saganowich has assumed after three seasons at Notre Dame.
"We are very excited about the way that Chloe has grown and become a leader on the team," Gumpf said. "She is definitely the leader on the field. She is the commander out there and really keeps things calm. She handles pressure well, and I think the team has learned a lot from Chloe about that.
"Watching us play, I think our style will reflect Chloe's personality, and the great thing about her is that she allows others to follow her and is a good leader like that," Gumpf added. "She is just a solid player who expects greatness from herself."
Holding down the starting role at the hot corner will be junior Katey Haus (.267 AVG, 12 2B, 5 HR, 35 RBI in 2013), the starter in 113 of the past 114 Notre Dame games at third base. Haus set career-highs in hits (46), doubles (12), RBI (35) and runs scored (26) last season, and was named to the BIG EAST Championship All-Tournament team for the second straight year. After battling injuries throughout her career, Gumpf is extremely excited for what a healthy Haus brings to the table in 2014.
"I believe Katey is the healthiest she has ever been to start a season (at Notre Dame), and that is going to help her feel that she can contribute at a high level," Gumpf said. "She is feeling good about where she is at, and Katey is probably one of the, if not the, most solid and consistent player we have. We need her to continue to be that, and I expect that she will play a great corner at third for us this year."
Freshman Dana Bouquet (Santa Maria, Calif.), a standout shortstop at St. Joseph High School, will serve in a utility capacity for Notre Dame and is expected to see time at various positions in the infield. Bouquet previously played six different positions with the San Jose Sting club team, and the depth she will provide across the diamond should work to the advantage of the Irish.
Perhaps the most complete array of talent for Notre Dame at any general position group entering 2014 is its outfield. There are a total of five players who will vie for the three starting positions in the Irish outfield, let by junior All-American Emilee Koerner (.439 AVG, 21 2B, 11 HR, 47 RBI, 51 R in 2013).
Koerner started all 58 games last season for Notre Dame, making 52 starts in center field. She led the NCAA in overall batting average for a four-week stretch during the middle of 2013 while setting a single-season team record for doubles with 21. Along with NFCA All-America second team accolades, the Tustin, Calif., native made program history by being named a top 10 finalist for the 2013 USA Softball National Collegiate Player of the Year award. Koerner joined Winter on the top 50 watch list for the 2014 USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year award in January, and was tabbed to the espnW preseason All-America first team on Feb. 4.
Last season's primary left fielder is also back in 2014, as senior Lauren Stuhr (.294 AVG, 5 HR, 20 RBI in 2013) shifts to right field for her final season after making 51 starts in Notre Dame's outfield as a junior. Stuhr set career-highs in seven major offensive categories last year, and emerged as yet another power threat in the middle of the Irish lineup.
Fellow senior Monica Torres (1 2B, 2 SB, 11 R in 2013) will provide added veteran depth in the Irish outfield corps, having appeared in 101 career games as both a pinch runner and key defensive substitute. The Winter Springs, Fla., native roped her first career double and RBI as a junior last season, and tied a career-best with two stolen bases.
Also looking to work herself into the regular rotation is sophomore Megan Sorlie (.257 AVG, 3 RBI, 7 R in 2013). Sorlie made seven starts in the Notre Dame outfield as a freshman last season, contributing a double, triple and three RBI to the Irish cause in those contests, and appeared in an additional 19 games as a key reserve.
Joining the fray as a newcomer will be freshman Karley Wester (Huntington Beach, Calif.), a talented five-year letterwinner in the outfield at Edison High School. Wester finished her career with the Chargers with 169 hits, 81 stolen bases and 120 runs scored, with 40 hits, 20 steals and 31 runs in her senior year alone. She was named to the 2013 MaxPreps California Large School All-State team in recognition of her accomplishments last season.
"Our outfield might be the best we have had in a long, long time, all the way around at all three positions," Gumpf said. "We've got five legitimate starters defensively that do a great job. They are going to push each other, and that will be really fun to see who wins it. Right now we are looking at an outfield with a lot of speed and a lot of guts."
One of the concerns for Notre Dame out of the gate might very well be how two of its top players, Winter and Koerner, respond on the field after each earned a myriad of national awards last season. Along with her BIG EAST Player of the Year crown and NFCA all-region status, Winter also became the first player in program history to win both the Louisville Slugger/Division I and USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Week awards last season, while Koerner was just the third Notre Dame underclassman in history to cop second team All-America honors.
Gumpf acknowledged that there are always concerns for any player about pressing early on following a successful season, but Notre Dame's all-time winningest coach, who became the first Irish softball mentor to surpass 500 career wins in 2013 (508-207-1 record in 13 seasons), sees only bright futures ahead for both dynamic talents.
"I am not worried as much about Laura because she has been that person already, and might be able to handle it better," Gumpf said. "With Emi, she was so big, so fast, that I don't want her to feel like she has to be the same person. She just needs to worry about having quality at-bats and keeping it simple. Emi has been very proactive in realizing that she needs to not overthink and overanalyze her game and just be who she is because who she is, that's more than enough. I don't want her to have any expectations other than just being her."
In order to keep a measured postseason mindset and focus throughout the 2014 campaign, as Gumpf and her squad want to do, the Irish skipper intimated how important it will be to impart that attitude from day one of the spring slate.
"We are going to be talking about that all year long because you can't just turn it on," she said. "You have to be consistent and great at all times. I think we are going to be prepared for it based on how many returners we have coming back in huge roles. Even the new people we have coming in, they are prepared for this type of schedule.
"The way we played in the fall, and how we got better during the offseason despite some injuries, we still handled things and we are ready for a schedule like this," Gumpf added. "We will play well, I really think we are going to do a great job."
A challenging schedule awaits Notre Dame to usher the Irish into the ACC. Four early season tournaments will start off the Irish schedule, allowing the team to see quality national opposition almost immediately.
"We have a really good schedule this year, and I honestly think it might be our best ever," Gumpf said. "I love our schedule in Palm Springs (Mary Nutter Collegiate Classic) because it's tough but winnable. I love our schedule out of the gate at Auburn (Plainsman Invitational) because it's a good mix of teams. And then, we go and hit Jacksonville, which will really resemble a regional tournament experience for us.
"In my mind, Jacksonville is our regional, where we will find out where we are at and how are we going to play against these two NCAA Regional teams (Louisville and Missouri)," she added. "That's how the team will approach Jacksonville, and we want to have fun with that experience. It can only help to play it so early, playing a team like Missouri will never hurt us, and playing Louisville will never hurt us."
The Irish open the season at the Auburn Plainsman Invitational in Auburn, Ala. Notre Dame will face Tennessee Tech and North Dakota State (Feb. 8) on the opening day of the tournament, closing the event with Morehead State and host Auburn (Feb. 9).
The first of three separate swings to Florida in 2014 will follow when the Irish appear at the Jacksonville University Tournament, facing former BIG EAST foe and future ACC member Louisville on Feb. 15 before playing a pair of games with 2013 NCAA Super Regional qualifier Missouri (Feb. 15-16).
Notre Dame then flips coasts bound for California, making its third-ever appearance at the prestigious Mary Nutter Collegiate Classic. The event features 34 of the top teams in the country, making it the largest Division I softball tournament held during the regular season. The Irish open the event with Pacific and 2013 NCAA Regional qualifier BYU on Feb. 20 before facing UC Davis on Feb. 21. A pair of games with 2013 NCAA participant California and Cal State Fullerton on Feb. 22 will set the stage for a final day showdown with 2013 NCAA Super Regional qualifier and national top-10 ranked Oregon on Feb. 23.
After returning to the East Coast, Notre Dame will play five games in its fourth straight appearance at the Diamond 9 Citrus Classic (Feb. 28-March 2) at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Kissimmee, Fla. The Irish are 10-3 all-time at the Diamond 9 Citrus Classic after posting a perfect 4-0 mark last season, and have outscored opponents by a combined 30-8 run differential at the tournament.
Notre Dame is slated to play a program-record 28 conference games in 2014, and the ACC schedule gets into full swing for the Irish with a three-game set at Georgia Tech (March 8-9) in Atlanta, Ga. Notre Dame is a perfect 4-0 all-time against the Yellow Jackets after earning a 6-2 win over Georgia Tech at last season's Diamond 9 Citrus Classic.
A two-game, non-conference twin bill against Florida International and Central Florida (March 13) in Orlando will set the stage for Notre Dame's inaugural ACC meeting with former BIG EAST rival Virginia Tech (March 15-16) in Blacksburg, Va. The Irish hold an 11-4 edge in their series with the Hokies, including a perfect 6-0 mark in conference meetings, but Virginia Tech is riding a two-game winning streak against Notre Dame after a 4-3 win in a matchup in the Lexington Regional of the 2013 NCAA Championship.
The first-ever ACC series at Melissa Cook Stadium will also have a distinct BIG EAST flavor when Notre Dame welcomes another longtime BIG EAST opponent, Pittsburgh, for a set of games on March 22-23. The Irish are 29-2 all-time against the Panthers and won 28 of 30 meetings between the teams in BIG EAST play, compiling a run differential of 188-35 with 14 total shutouts in conference games.
A pair of home midweek contests will bridge the gap leading into the next ACC weekend series when Notre Dame welcomes Northwestern (March 25) and Eastern Michigan (March 26). The Irish are 37-3-1 (.915) in non-conference games at Melissa Cook Stadium since the facility opened during the middle of the 2008 season.
Notre Dame returns to Syracuse, N.Y. for the first time since 2011 when the Irish and Orange meet in a three-game ACC series (March 29-30). Notre Dame holds a 20-5 advantage against Syracuse all-time, including an 8-2 edge in true road contests, and has not lost at the Skytop Softball Stadium since 2008.
A midweek home-road split with Michigan State (April 2) at Melissa Cook Stadium and at DePaul (April 4) will lead into the only one-day road ACC showdown of the season at North Carolina (April 9). Notre Dame is 8-2 in its first 10 meetings all-time against the Tar Heels, and has never lost to North Carolina in Chapel Hill, N.C.
The season's second five-game homestand begins with a conference set against 2013 ACC regular-season champion and NCAA Super Regional qualifier Florida State (April 13-14). The Seminoles will be making their first trip ever to the Notre Dame campus for the series. A midweek tilt with Toledo (April 16) is scheduled to follow at Melissa Cook Stadium.
Notre Dame's final ACC road series of 2014 will take the Irish to Charlottesville, Va. for three games at The Park against Virginia (April 18-19). Notre Dame is a perfect 8-0 all-time against the Cavaliers, outscoring Virginia 53-11 in those contests.
The only regular season home midweek conference doubleheader of the year will bring defending ACC champion North Carolina State to Notre Dame on April 22. The Irish and Wolfpack will meet for the first time in series history during the twin bill. A midweek non-conference matchup with Valparaiso (April 24) at Melissa Cook Stadium will follow.
The nine-game homestand continues the following weekend when Maryland (April 27-28) travels to Melissa Cook Stadium for an ACC series and the fourth annual Notre Dame Strikeout Cancer Weekend. The Irish have raised more than $75,000 to directly benefit children in the South Bend area and throughout the state of Indiana battling cancer over the past three seasons of the initiative. Notre Dame improved to 5-0 all-time against the Terrapins with a 5-3 victory last season at the Diamond 9 Citrus Classic.
A midweek contest against Western Michigan on April 29 will prep the Irish for the final ACC series of the season against former BIG EAST rival Boston College (May 3-4) at Melissa Cook Stadium. Notre Dame is 18-6 all-time against the Eagles, including a 14-5 record in conference games, and defeated Boston College 14-3 in five innings last season at the Diamond 9 Citrus Classic.
Eligible teams will qualify for the 2014 ACC Championship, which will be held May 8-10 at Robert E. Taylor Stadium in College Park, Md. Maryland will serve as the tournament host in its final season as an ACC member.
NCAA Regionals are set to begin May 15 at various campus sites, with Super Regionals to follow starting on May 22. The 2014 Women's College World Series will be held May 29-June 4 at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium in Oklahoma City, Okla.
"Something that we have worked really hard on is our culture, and if there is one thing that I want to look back on and say we have done a great job of is maintaining a program of people who want to fight, compete and believe in it," Gumpf said. "At the end of the day, if the season ends and I can say that has happened, it will have been a success."