March 4, 2014
NOTRE DAME, Ind. - The early season tournament schedule has concluded for the University of Notre Dame softball team with positive results across the board. The No. 22/21 Irish opened the 2014 campaign with a 15-3 record, and are in the midst of their second winning streak that has lasted for five or more games with a current five-game victory swing.
Notre Dame begins its Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) slate this weekend with a three-game series against Georgia Tech (March 8-9) at Shirley Clements Mewborn Field in Atlanta, Ga. Here is a look at where the Irish stand entering the season's first conference series:
Emerging From The Tournament Grind
Prior to the start of conference play this weekend, Notre Dame appeared in four early season tournaments, the fewest tournament stops for the team since the 2009 season. The schedule change was, in large part, due to the earlier start of the ACC league schedule.
The Irish posted two perfect weekend slates, a 3-0 trip to the JU Tournament in Jacksonville, Fla., on Feb. 15-16, and a 5-0 showing last weekend at the Diamond 9 Citrus Classic at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex.
"I like the consistency that we've brought, and I like the way that we have been real confident with our game," Notre Dame head coach Deanna Gumpf said. "We have had good come-from-behind victories, we might be down early in a ballgame and it hasn't been a factor. That shows the sign of a very strong and confident team going into the ACC."
Being Battle-Tested Early On
The Irish are 2-1 this season against opponents ranked in the top 25, with an additional two victories over teams that have either reached the top 25 or received votes in the national polls since facing Notre Dame. Along with last week's Diamond 9 Citrus Classic, Notre Dame also took part in the Mary Nutter Collegiate Classic, the largest in-season softball tournament in the NCAA, on Feb. 20-23 in an elite field at the Big League Dreams Sports Complex in Cathedral City, Calif.
"Your goal going into conference is preparing your team, and I think we have done a good job of preparing our team for the type of competition they will see in the ACC," Gumpf said. "We have played a handful of top 25 teams, and going to play at tough places against good competition has prepared us well. When you get into conference, another goal is to be playing solid, consistent softball, and I think we are there. If we continue to play and get better with what we've been doing, it will put us in the best position to be successful in our conference."
An All-Around Team
Notre Dame is in the top two teams statistically in the ACC in batting average, fielding percentage and team ERA after the season's first four weekends, and the solid play in all three phases of the game has been the key to the early Irish success according to Gumpf.
"At various points thus far, we have been able to depend on each part of the game," she said. "Really, there hasn't been a time when one of the three phases has consistently let us down, either. I like where the pitchers are right now, and I think they are continuing to get better. Our defense, for not getting to practice on dirt, I like where we are at there.
"Most importantly, I think we are going to continue to improve," Gumpf added. "Offensively, there are always times when it is going to be easier and times where it will be tougher, that's softball and that's hitting. As long as we can have the majority of our lineup seeing the ball well, it really doesn't matter. We are at the point now where we have had different parts of our lineup step up, it hasn't been only two or three people, so that's a good sign."
Breaking Out The Bats
The Irish have won 15 of their first 18 games due in large part to their phenomenal offensive production. Notre Dame leads all ACC teams with a .342 batting average, 166 hits, 40 doubles, four triples and 241 total bases to begin the 2014 season.
Being the top offensive team, on paper, is a position every team would like to be in to begin a conference season, and for Notre Dame, the team's standing amongst conference peers speaks volumes about the current morale and synergy of the Irish to date.
"It shows confidence, and it shows the depth of our lineup," Gumpf said. "That's what I like, the depth of our lineup, and we haven't had to focus on two or three people carrying us. Our whole lineup has been successful no matter where they are at in the order."
Where batters are in the order is another unique feature of Notre Dame's start at the plate. Junior second baseman Jenna Simon for instance, who is the team leader with a .425 batting average (17-for-40), has batted exclusively in the nine spot of the Irish lineup this season.
"I think if you were looking at our lineup you would probably be asking, why is Jenna Simon at nine? It's because it's working," Gumpf said with a smile. "I like her there, she brings a great, strong aspect with her game, and it really changes things for Emilee and Wester when they come up to bat."
Koerner And Wester: A Formidable 1-2 Punch
The aforementioned top of the Notre Dame batting order, junior All-American outfielder Emilee Koerner and freshman outfielder Karley Wester, have been the Irish offensive catalysts throughout the season.
"The great thing about the top of the lineup is they are bringing speed, short game and power, and when you bring all three of those things it's really tough to plan an attack against them," Gumpf said. "I love that. People aren't quite sure how to face them."
As the regular leadoff hitter, Koerner leads Notre Dame in hits (24), home runs (5), doubles (8, also the most in the ACC) and runs (21). Wester holds the edge in singles (21), walks (10), on-base percentage (.485) and stolen bases (9-for-12).
"Karley has a great mindset at the plate, she's so calm and carries a very confident attitude," Gumpf said of the rookie left fielder. "I love the fact that every time she goes up I think she's going to be successful, and she thinks she's going to be successful. That's where it starts."
The Rise Of The Middle Of The Order
Production has been just as prolific from the number three spot on down, with sophomore outfielder Megan Sorlie, junior third baseman Katey Haus and sophomore first baseman Micaela Arizmendi also enjoying hot starts at the dish.
Sorlie is batting at a .385 clip and is tied for third on the Irish roster with five multiple-hit games in 15 appearances (14 starts). Haus enters the first ACC weekend with a .373 batting average, a team-high 17 RBI and seven extra base hits in 18 starts. Arizmendi, an all-BIG EAST third team selection as a freshman in 2013, ranks second behind Koerner in the ACC statistical rankings with seven doubles, and has already surpassed her RBI total from her rookie campaign with 15 runs batted in after 17 games.
"I think Micaela is seeing the ball really well, Katey is seeing the ball really well and Megan is just determined," Gumpf said. "When you see Megan and Micaela come off what was not a great year their freshman seasons, and what they're doing now, it just shows their determination."
Seniors Finding Their Way
Senior captain Chloe Saganowich and classmate Lauren Stuhr each utilized strong offensive weekends at the Diamond 9 Citrus Classic to shake early season slumps at the plate.
Saganowich batted .417 with a double, triple and three runs scored while chipping in a team-high seven assists at shortstop during Notre Dame's 5-0 weekend in Kissimmee, Fla. Stuhr saw action in four games (two starts), tying for the Notre Dame lead with a .500 on-base percentage, two doubles and a pair of runs scored.
"Lauren is the type of kid who is very steady, and she's going to fight through some things," Gumpf said. "Chloe understands what she needs to do, and it's really just about her putting ball on bat. If she does that, good things will happen for her."
A formidable stable of pitchers has vaulted Notre Dame to the second-best team ERA in the ACC to begin the season, as the Irish have held opponents to a 1.74 earned run average in 18 games. Senior Laura Winter (9-2, 2.08 ERA), sophomore Allie Rhodes (4-1, 1.31 ERA) and freshman Rachel Nasland (2-0, 1.15 ERA, two saves) have staked claim to being the most talented trio of hurlers in the ACC.
Rhodes leads all league pitchers with a .150 batting average against and eight total runs surrendered, and is second in hits allowed (17) and fourth in ERA in the league statistical rankings. Nasland is tied for second in the ACC with her two saves, and has logged a conference low three earned runs in 18.1 innings pitched.
"I love where Rachel is at, because she continues to get better every time she is out there," Gumpf said. "Allie is going to fight, she has given up too many bases at times, but she is going to make things happen. We just need her to keep throwing pitches where they need to be."
The younger pitchers on the staff rising to the occasion have helped Winter, the 2013 BIG EAST Conference Player of the Year, begin to find her groove in the circle. The Senior CLASS Award candidate has posted the second-most strikeouts (80), wins (9) and complete games (8) in the ACC through 11 appearances.
"Laura hasn't pitched her best yet, she is certainly out there battling, but I don't think we've seen her best game yet," Gumpf said. "When she has everything happening at the same time she is so tough to face, and we know that about her. There have been times when certain pitches haven't been working how Laura knows they can, so the best is still to come for her."
Welcome To The ACC
Following 18 successful seasons as a member of the BIG EAST Conference, which included 13 regular-season championships and six postseason tournament titles, Notre Dame officially debuts in the ACC on Saturday at Georgia Tech. Understanding the gravity of the series, Gumpf stressed how important it will be for the Irish to maintain their focus as the league schedule begins.
"It's honestly been business as usual, I don't want the girls to get too up for the ACC," she said. "I want them to know what's worked for them. Learn from past experiences and know what's worked for us, and stay on that path.
"We don't need to change our game now or be better than who we are, we just need to remain who we are and continue to execute all of the things that we do well. We shouldn't change our game plan or expect anything different."
-- Tony Jones, Media Relations Assistant