Feb. 16, 2011
EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the sixth in an ongoing series on UND.com, spotlighting the 2011 Notre Dame spring sports season with both written and video previews. Today, we take a look at the Fighting Irish softball team, which will be led by a talented senior class that has paced Notre Dame to three NCAA Championship appearances and nearly 43 wins per year in their first three seasons.
When asked to give a comparison for her 2011 softball team, head coach Deanna Gumpf listed the following: favorite pair of jeans, fine wine, '57 Chevy and a jukebox that still works like a charm.
"This team has gotten better with age," Gumpf said. "Each year, it gets better and better."
The luxury of having a seasoned eight-person senior class to lead the Irish into the upcoming fray is one that Gumpf had not planned for four years ago. An injury to third baseman Heather Johnson afforded her an additional season of eligibility and Alexia Clay, who transferred to Notre Dame from Tennessee after leading the Volunteers to a Women's College World Series appearance, is also exercising a fifth year.
While it is no stretch that each of the eight seniors could routinely appear in the lineup throughout any given seven-inning affair the rest of the roster is pretty good, to boot.
"I've never been around such a veteran and accomplished team than the one we have this season," Gumpf said. "But it's not just the seniors who are stepping up to lead the team. From top to bottom, everyone has pulled their weight."
Such a balance has given plenty of optimism for Notre Dame's full force of steady progression over the last three seasons to possibly culminate in - and hopefully continue to improve after - 2011. Records of 38-22 (2008), 43-17 (2009) and 47-12 (2010) have, on paper, shown the on-field maturation of this year's senior class.
But to see the NCAA batting average plaque in the office of the Irish staff that recognized the 2010 team's nation-leading .343 average, or to experience the thrill of having 13 different players round the bases after hitting a combined 75 home runs last season, there is little reason not to believe that this team could go deeper into the NCAA Tournament than any squad to don the blue and gold.
"The loss of Christine Lux to graduation was certainly a big blow to the team, but we know we have the firepower to replace her, whether it comes from one or more players," Gumpf noted. Lux, an All-American both on the field and in the classroom, had more home runs (50) and RBI (174) and boasted a higher slugging percentage (.654) than any player in program history. "We can offset the loss of Christine with our depth. This is a seriously deep team, and perhaps its biggest strength is its competitiveness. They're going to be fighting and scrapping for playing time, and that's going to bring the best out in every one of them.
"No decisions have been made in regards to the starting lineup, and game one will be different from game two, and game three and so on. We've never had this depth and these many options at each position across the board. We seek to have the best combination of players on the field: mentally, physically and in terms of communication. When you have this many options, you're going to get great results."
And those lineup options and combinations will revolve around Valdivia's efforts in the circle.
However, as she was counted on to shoulder the pitching load in 2010, Valdivia will likely share more time in the circle with development of sophomores Brittany O'Donnell and Jackie Bowe and freshman Laura Winter.
"We have five pitchers who are very worthy of spending time in the circle for us, so you could see a lot of combination games and split time," Gumpf said. "There are several proven starters, and all five of them do things very differently. I have enough confidence in each of them to throw at any time while logging a healthy amount of innings.
"Jody definitely wants the ball in big games, and Brittany is coming off a very successful postseason as a freshman. She makes hitters do what she wants them to do, and we know we can depend on her. With Jackie's growth, she has completely prepared herself to be in the starting rotation. Shannon Kelly continues to get healthier and has done a great job of finding her strengths to keep hitters off balance. Laura set the tone in the fall to earn the confidence and trust of her teammates. She has great focus and is very unpredictable from a hitter's standpoint."
Notre Dame has utilized six catchers behind the plate since 2008, but Wright emerged as the go-to backstop with 56 starts last season.
"Kristina's arm is deadly," Gumpf said. "She is such a calming asset behind the plate. Alexia is the healthiest she has been since coming to Notre Dame, and her leadership on the field is priceless. One of the best receivers of the three may be Amy, who also has a quick release and will surprise a lot of baserunners with her strong arm."
Going around the horn, first base duties will be held by sophomore Kathryn Lux (younger sister of Christine), Bowe and Winter. All three saw time there during the fall season, and each should see time there throughout the spring. Lux was utilized primarily as a pinch hitter during her freshman season, managing to hit .333 in 14 contests.
One of the most sought-after positions may be second base, with juniors Kasey O'Connor and Dani Miller comprising the mix with senior Erin Marrone. An off-season knee injury may set Marrone back several weeks, but O'Connor and Miller each had standout sophomore seasons, which could make them a great 1-2 combo.
Johnson will dig her cleats into the same ruts at third base where she has been a fixture since her sophomore campaign. Despite putting up gaudy numbers last season - .379 batting average, 12 doubles, 17 home runs, 68 RBI, .746 slugging percentage - the team captain missed out on a number of potential postseason awards.
"Heather is the rock and stabilizer of the infield," Gumpf said. "She is calm, confident and keeps it all together. She needs to know how important she is to this team, and I'm glad she'll be playing with a chip on her shoulder this season."
Fleury will help groom freshman Chloe Saganowich, who Gumpf says has a cannon for an arm with a strong release, which fits Fleury's description during her inaugural season.
The Irish outfield did not commit a single error in 2010, and each of the three everyday starters return. Seniors Sadie Pitzenberger and Brianna Jorgensborg will anchor the corners as junior Alexa Maldonado holds down centerfield. All three players have earned all-league or all-region recognition throughout their careers.
"Simply put, our outfield is stacked," Gumpf said. "I would put their speed, arm strength and glovework up against any outfield in the country. They did not commit an error all of last season, and we shouldn't expect them to commit one this season. Last year, it was a guaranteed out when the ball was hit to the outfield.
"This season is in our hands," Gumpf added. "We will be as good as we choose to be. This team has been through some extreme highs and lows. They know what they want and they have big expectations."
The road to fulfilling those expectations includes a schedule that includes 10 participants from the 2010 NCAA Tournament - including WCWS contestant Washington - as the Irish will scratch the dirt with four first-time opponents (UCF, Delaware, College of Charleston and Fordham).
"This is a very competitive yet balanced schedule," Gumpf said. "We certainly have the explosiveness in this team to compete well against the upcoming slate, which will provide great challenges from top to bottom.
"We also wanted to play in areas with strong ties to Notre Dame, as in the past we've been able to attract some huge crowds to watch our team compete. As opposed to settling for a regional non-conference schedule, our staff has worked hard to expose our players and program to several different areas of the nation."
Notre Dame stays in the southeast for the College of Charleston Invite (Feb. 26-27) while playing the host Cougars, Iowa State, Marist and Liberty.
Another trip to Florida comes one week later with the inaugural Diamond 9 Citrus Classic (March 4-6) in Kissimmee, which will showcase the bulk of the nation's premier collegiate softball programs. The Irish will face Longwood, North Carolina, Maryland, Alabama and Fordham in the Sunshine State.
An invitation to one of the nation's most recognized preseason showdowns (Judi Garman Classic) highlights a West Coast swing from March 13-19. Oklahoma, Cal State Fullerton, Louisiana-Lafayette, New Mexico, Washington and Michigan await the Irish for the event in Fullerton, Calif.
The first of six straight home games will be March 23 against Eastern Michigan, followed by non-conference bouts with Northern Illinois (March 25), Western Michigan (March 29) and Purdue (March 31).
Notre Dame will play each of its home contests at Melissa Cook Stadium, a facility in which the Irish posted a flawless 19-0 record in 2010.
The BIG EAST portion of the schedule kicks off April 2-3 with a three-game series against Providence.
Midweek non-conference contests with Wisconsin (April 5), Butler (April 7), Bowling Green (April 12), Loyola-Chicago (April 13) and Eastern Michigan (April 19) will be scattered throughout the penultimate month of regular-season competition.
Notre Dame hits the road for three games at Syracuse (April 9-10) before beginning an eight-game homestand.
A third trip to Florida for an April 27 doubleheader at USF will be sandwiched by a pair of three-game series with Villanova (April 21-23) and St. John's (April 30-May 1).
The regular season concludes with a trio of games at Connecticut (May 7-8) before the BIG EAST Tournament (May 12-14), which will be held at Ulmer Stadium in Louisville, Ky.
NCAA Tournament action kicks off May 22 and spans all the way to the WCWS (June 2-8) in Oklahoma City, Okla.
After claiming a share of last season's BIG EAST Conference regular season title, Notre Dame has taken top honors in the 2011 edition of the preseason league coaches' poll. The Irish earned an impressive 10 first-place votes and 141 total points.
DePaul, which shared the league's 2010 regular season championship, was picked second with three first-place votes. Louisville garnered the third spot while Syracuse, the reigning BIG EAST champion, was picked to finish fourth.