Feb. 11, 2010
EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the third in a 10-part series on UND.com, spotlighting the 2010 Notre Dame spring sports season with both written and video previews. Today, we take a look at the reigning BIG EAST Conference champion Fighting Irish softball team, which set new offensive power numbers in 2009, and could be even better this season.
The defending 2009 BIG EAST Tournament champions may have lost five seniors heading into this year's campaign, but head coach Deanna Gumpf has taken the momentum from the back half of last year's drive to the league title into what could be a breakout venture for the Notre Dame softball program. Six returning all-BIG EAST performers including All-American slugger Christine Lux provide the Irish with one of the league's most decorated returning nuclei.
"We are a very experienced and talented team with an unparalleled blend of young, yet mature, student-athletes," Gumpf said. "This is a group of young ladies who approach the game with a plan. Even though the core of our lineup from last season returns to the field in 2010, this is a completely different team. Things that worked last year won't necessarily work this year. Things that we are doing differently this year, we would never have done last year. Our strengths are different, and this team is deeper position by position."
While the 2009 team set single-season school records for home runs (66), RBI (282), total bases (748), slugging percentage (.501) and walks (152), Gumpf truly believes that the Irish could trump any or all of those accolades this year.
"Our approach this year is to give our best shot to every team we play," Gumpf said. "We are playing a lot of teams from different regions around the nation, and they are going to be gunning for us. But regardless of whom we play, our team has one thing in mind - to win games.
"We did lose some big bats in the lineup, but I am expecting some of our youngsters to step up in those positions," Gumpf said. "There is a lot of flexibility on our roster. A bit of our slugging is gone but we're gaining so much speed.
"Losing a pair of all-BIG EAST players in Beth Northway and Linda Kohan takes away two big bats, but we're getting back a seasoned Dani Miller and a healthier Heather Johnson, who has gotten better every year. And of course, Lux will be a threat every time she steps into the batter's box. In that regard, we have a lot of veteran power which will fill the gaps."
Johnson's batting average has progressively improved since her freshman year when she hit at a .306 rate. An injury halted her sophomore year (.250) as she bounced back to hit .356 with 14 doubles and 39 RBI in 2009, starting each of the team's 60 contests.
"The mainstays in the corners will be Christine Lux and Johnson, who combined to start almost every game last year in those spots," Gumpf said. "They are quick on their feet and not much gets past them. They are veterans and do a great job of predicting the game. They are both big playmakers that are quick and agile."
Rounding out the infield is junior Katie Fleury, an all-BIG EAST selection as a freshman in 2008. Fleury will be a fixture at shortstop, where she has been a starter since her first game with the Irish. Fleury's experience and instincts will be counted on to anchor the middle infield.
"Katie is getting better and better every year and she is expecting more from herself, which is good," Gumpf said. "She is a lot more mature than last year. She is learning how to slow the game down. Katie can get to any ball, and now we are focusing on her defensive mechanics. I expect her to have a great year and really lead the way for the infield."
Junior Erin Marrone has played several positions throughout her career - catcher, outfield, first base and second base - and offers a versatile force for the lineup wherever she is situated. Marrone went from hitting .196 in 55 games as a freshman to a .355 average in 2009, which helped earn her all-league and all-region citations. The coaching staff should be confident putting her anywhere in the park as she also boasts a very respectable .994 fielding percentage.
Big-time playmakers in Brianna Jorgensborg, Sadie Pitzenberger and Alexa Maldonado will provide a stable corps of outfielders. Also in contention will be freshman Kelsey Thornton, a slasher from the heart of Texas.
"Having a healthy Pitzenberger, who has missed the bulk of the last two seasons with injuries, back in the lineup will be essential," Gumpf said.
Pitzenberger will make the transition from the middle infield to the outfield for the Irish this season, also bringing a solid stick to the plate with speed to burn. Maldonado, a lefty slapper at the plate, raised eyebrows across the nation last year after making a number of spectacular plays in centerfield. Jorgensborg's slugging percentage of .509 in 2009 provides an insight to what should be a promising junior campaign. She earned all-BIG EAST honors in 2008. Marrone and Miller could also spend time in both the infield and outfield.
"Jody definitely found her swagger last year," Gumpf said. "She definitely gained the knowledge and ability to know exactly how to beat teams. She is stronger and smarter than she was a year ago, and last year she was again stronger and smarter than the year before. Jody keeps getting better and I expect some dominant innings from her this year. She is able to do everything on the mound."
Joining Valdivia in the rotation are freshmen Jackie Bowe and Brittany O'Donnell, a pair that combined for 2,689 strikeouts during their high school careers. Shannon Kelly will also see time in the circle for the Irish.
"Although our pitching staff is younger this year as a whole, they are much more well-rounded," Gumpf said. "Having Shannon back in the mix is good. Also with the two freshmen, I think they bring a lot to the table, and their styles are so different which gives us more options.
"Brittany is a down-pitcher, but she's been working her corners better in the last few months and finding the college strike zone. Jackie is 100 percent pure competitor. Bringing Shannon back to the game after her injury provides a fourth dimension for us. Shannon will keep hitters on their toes and teams won't know what to expect from her. I like what she brings to the table and she'll be an excellent closer for us.
"With all of our new pitchers, teams really won't know how to scout us unless they saw Jody last year. And now Jody is different pitcher than she was last year."
"Having the addition of Amy has been very helpful for Alexia and Kristina, and each of the three have different strengths," Gumpf said. "Alexia does a great job of being a general on the field. She is very calming for the pitchers and does a great job of keeping things very calm, collected and cool. She does a great job of receiving. Kristina has grown a lot from her freshman year. She has been able to take a deep breath and just play the game. When she does that she will be very helpful from behind the plate because she has such a great arm. Amy has great physical tools and just needs to get her feet wet and get some experience back there. She will be the catcher who will continue to get better every time she is back there. All three will see plenty of action throughout the season."
"The captains have done a great job after being chosen by their teammates," Gumpf said. "They have done a great job of embracing their position, not only in the sense of the position, but also the job behind it. They are working very hard to make their team different than before, but better than before, and take care of business off the field and on the field."
The three captains will be counted on to lead the Irish back to the BIG EAST Tournament title in 2010, as the Irish were tabbed third in the BIG EAST Preseason Coaches' Poll. The Irish received two first-place votes for 125 total points. Four squads received first-place votes and topped 110 points in the poll. Furthermore, Notre Dame received votes in the NFCA/USA Today Top 25 Preseason Poll.
Louisville was named the favorite to win the BIG EAST title this season, as 2009 BIG EAST Player of the Year Melissa Roth leads a group of six returning players for the Cardinals who were all-BIG EAST selections last season. Louisville garnered six first-place votes and 137 total points to earn top billing in 2010.
DePaul was second with six fewer points than Louisville. The Blue Demons received four first-place votes and 131 points.
The final first-place vote was awarded to USF, who entered last year's BIG EAST finale as the No. 5 seed and upset No. 4 Syracuse before falling to top-seeded DePaul in the semifinals.
Notre Dame opens the 2010 season against Creighton on Feb. 12 as part of the Kajikawa Classic in Tempe, Ariz., tipping off a schedule which features trips to 10 different states and includes 16 home dates.
"Like every other season, we want to play the best teams across the nation," Gumpf said. "And as the BIG EAST Conference continues to improve every year, we have to prepare ourselves for league play by putting together a solid non-conference schedule. This schedule has it all, from the defending national champion (Washington) to a number of last year's conference champions."
Notre Dame begins the season at the Kajikawa Classic hosted by Arizona State. The Irish will face Creighton (Feb. 12), Oregon (Feb. 12), Auburn (Feb. 13), Oregon State (Feb. 13) and Washington (Feb. 14) in Tempe, Ariz. In fact, the matchup against the Huskies will mark the eighth time in the last 10 seasons the Irish have been slated to face the defending national champion (Notre Dame was scheduled to play Arizona in 2008 but the game was called off due to rain).
From Feb. 20-21, Notre Dame will take part in the Southern Miss Mizuno Classic in Hattiesburg, Miss., where the Irish will square off with Louisiana Tech, Stephen F. Austin, Alcorn State and the host Golden Eagles.
The University of Virginia Invitational in Charlottesville, Va., will feature matchups against Lehigh (Feb. 26, Feb. 28), Ohio (Feb. 26), George Washington (Feb. 27) and the host Cavaliers (Feb. 27).
Nine days in California will feature nine contests against teams from around the nation. The UC Riverside Aten Construction Tournament (March 6-7) and the Long Beach State Invitational (March 12-14) will sandwich a non-conference meeting at Cal State Northridge.
The home portion of the schedule begins March 23 against Eastern Michigan with a doubleheader versus Toledo one day later.
BIG EAST Conference play gets going at Seton Hall (March 27-28), with the first home league series April 1-3 against Rutgers. That will start an 11-game homestand - including series with USF (April 10-11) and Georgetown (April 14) - which ends April 15 against Cleveland State.
Notre Dame travels to Louisville (April 17-18), DePaul (April 22) and St. John's (May 8-9) in the regular-season's closing weeks.
Louisville will host the BIG EAST Championship (May 13-15) at Ulmer Stadium for the third consecutive season. The league's regular-season format differs for the 2010 season, as most meetings will consists of three-game series instead of the previous two-game format utilized in the past.
The NCAA Tournament starts May 20 and culminates with the Women's College World Series (May 31-June 6) in Oklahoma City, Okla.
Notre Dame will play each of its home games at Melissa Cook Stadium.