Feb. 14, 2008
Any college softball coach will tell you that it takes a series of steps to build and maintain a successful program.
Irish head coach Deanna Gumpf thinks her 2008 team is ready to take the next step.
Gumpf did not miss a beat after taking over for predecessor and mentor, Liz Miller, six seasons ago. In fact, she has led Notre Dame to six NCAA Tournament appearances in as many seasons at the helm of the program. While many programs would be content with a conference title or an NCAA Tournament bid, Gumpf wants to keep her troops hungry and driven.
"We've been to the (NCAA) tournament, and now our goal is to not only return, but advance to the World Series," said Gumpf. "Ultimately, I can see this program being in a position to compete year-in and year-out for a spot in Oklahoma City."
The road to Oklahoma City will begin with the engines blasting as Notre Dame matches up with a pair of top teams in the season's first weekend of play. No. 1 Arizona and No. 3 Texas A&M highlight the field at the Kajikawa Classic (Feb. 15-16) in Tempe, Ariz. The road keeps winding as 10 teams on the schedule are ranked in the USA Today/National Fastpitch Coaches Association's preseason top-25 rankings. Four participants from the 2007 NCAA Women's College World Series make up that 10-team field, including defending national champion Arizona.
"Once again, we've put together a tough schedule to not only prepare us for a run at a BIG EAST title, but to get us into the NCAA championship game," said Gumpf. "We play some great teams early, which will allow us to gauge where we are and where we need to be come tournament time."
No. 13 Florida will host the Aquafina Invitational (Feb. 22-24), with Notre Dame joining Gardner-Webb, North Florida and the Gators in the four-team field.
The Irish not only get the chance to accumulate their share of frequent flyer miles, but will also face a stiff field of competition over a nine-day West Coast swing. Pacific, UC Davis and host No. 21 Cal State Fullerton comprise the assemblage of opponents at the Worth Invitational (March 3-2), and a single game at UC Riverside on March 4 will be ensued by five contests in the Long Beach Invitational (March 7-9).
Charleston Southern will roll out the carpet for Notre Dame, Towson and Campbell in its round-robin invitational March 14-15.
Non-conference games at Western Michigan (March 19) and Illinois-Chicago (March 27) will sandwich Notre Dame's first-ever showdown in the newly constructed Melissa Cook Stadium, with IUPUI slated as the guest team on March 26.
The official stadium dedication will take place over the course of the April 12-13 BIG EAST doubleheader with Rutgers and Villanova.
The BIG EAST portion of the schedule kicks off at DePaul on March 30, followed by out-of-conference home dates with Ball State (April 1) and Toledo (April 2). Road trips to St. John's (April 5) and Seton Hall (April 6) will set the table for the christening of league play at home against the Scarlet Knights and Wildcats.
The Irish visit perennial power Northwestern for a single match on April 15 and host Wisconsin the following day. They will also travel to challenge instate foes Purdue (April 22) and Valparaiso (May 1).
Louisville's Ulmer Stadium will be the host site for the 2008 BIG EAST Conference Tournament, which will be played from May 5-10.
This season's battalion includes two seniors and 10 monogram winners that have each played key roles throughout their tenure in the blue and gold.
The senior class - comprised of Katie Laing and Sarah Smith - has earned a combined record of 120-60 (.667) over three seasons. During that time this class has participated in three NCAA Tournaments while winning both a BIG EAST regular season and tournament crown.
Laing will be making her return to second base this season after spending last season at shortstop. She saw action during her first two campaigns at second before undergoing the move to the left side of the field, though she has emerged once again as a catalyst
at second base. Laing finished the 2007 season second among the team leaders in runs scored (27), RBI (26) and home runs (2). She will be the leader of the middle infield tandem, joining forces with freshman shortstop Katie Fleury. Newcomer Erin Marrone could also work her way into the middle infield spots.
"We've moved her (Laing) back to second base because of her footwork, quickness and her mind," Gumpf noted. "I've believed that your smartest infielder, game-wise, needs to be your second baseman and she has that quality. She's mentally quick, sharp and she's a leader. She'll be a huge factor to the success of our infield."
"Fleury has a beautiful arm," Gumpf noted. "She gets in the hole with great footwork. She is the type of shortstop who gets the job done and finds a way to make the play."
Smith and all-BIG EAST returnee Beth Northway will anchor the Irish outfield. "Smith again has great speed, dominating speed," Gumpf explained. "With her added consistency, I expect her to be on the field as much as possible.
"When Beth isn't starting, she'll be our first bat off the bench. We had her pinch-hitting in the fall due to an injury. She is so focused and I believe she is the one person who will be able to overcome all that she's been through over the past few seasons (in terms of her sustained injuries). I'm very excited for her future because she is in a situation where she's going to get better."
Also tracking shots in the outfield will be junior Stephanie Mola, sophomore Ashley Ellis and freshman Brianna Jorgensborg. Stephanie Mola and Ashley Ellis look to improve on their roles from last year and see their playing time go up as well. Mola and Ellis combined for 37 starts last season.
A talented nucleus of pitchers annexed with two gritty catchers will provide Notre Dame with the batteries needed to get through its formidable schedule. The return of junior Brittany Bargar and emergence of classmate Christine Farrell complement the rotation with Jody Valdivia, a highly touted West Coast recruit.
Bargar, who recorded a 23-15 record with a 2.06 ERA in 2007, will be the ace in the hole for the Irish. She fanned 243 batters in 252.0 innings while tossing 28 complete games as a junior.
"I believe Bargar is at that point in her career where she's ready to lead the team. She expects more from herself than she's ever expected before," Gumpf stated. "In her younger years she expected to stay in ballgames and compete. Now she's expecting to dominate and win every game.
"Farrell is physically and mentally stronger than she's ever been before. She's found through her experiences that she's quite the competitor, and that's beginning to come out in her style of play.
"Jody is a very exciting freshman. Her mental game is beyond her years. The great thing about that is that she can make one mistake and then immediately fix it."
Calling the shots from behind the plate will be freshmen Shannon Kelly and Sadie Pitzenberger after Notre Dame loses seasoned veteran Gessica Hufnagle to graduation. Kelly was an accomplished pitcher as a prep, and Pitzenberger possesses the athletic prowess to succeed as a catcher or outfielder when called up.
"Shannon has worked very hard behind the plate to solidify her skills and the pitchers love to throw to her because she's such a positive reinforcement back there," commented Gumpf.
"Sadie has done a great job of understanding her role on this team. Her role will change more than anyone in her four years. Right now she's training as a catcher. She really has a lot of experience behind the plate and she has very good instincts back there."
Sophomore transfer Alexia Clay - who was an essential component to Tennessee's run in the 2007 Women's College World Series - will redshirt in the upcoming campaign.
Second-year players Christine Lux and Heather Johnson look to be the two options for the Irish squad at first base. Lux comes off a strong showing in the latter stages of the 2007 season and Johnson's power at the dish will surely keep the runs crossing the plate for the Irish offense this spring.
Johnson could also share time at the hot corner with junior Linda Kohan. Kohan will slide over after spending last season at second. Her patience and endurance are key elements to the Irish corps - in 2007 she drew a team-high 20 walks and started each of Notre Dame's 56 contests.
"Linda really added a lot of quickness when we moved her to second base and her footwork got a lot better," said an encouraged Gumpf. "That will put her a prime position to excel at third. And with that, I expect our infield to be much quicker this year. She has great glove work and is again a leader on the field."
Glancing Back at 2007
A schedule featuring 12 nationally-ranked foes and 14 teams with a top 50 RPI ranking awaited Notre Dame heading into the 2007 season. The Irish sliced their way through and came out with their ninth consecutive NCAA Tournament bid before bowing out to No. 25 Illinois State.
With its 32-win total Notre Dame secured its 19th season with at least 30 wins, dating back to the program's inaugural 1989 campaign.