March 11, 2009
By Laura McCrystal
Notre Dame Sports Information
Student-athletes choose to come to Notre Dame for the mixture of athletics, academics, and tradition. Yet for four Notre Dame softball players, Notre Dame has always been part of their lives.
Erin Marrone, Christine Lux, Stephanie Mola, and Heather Johnson have a variety of connections to the University.
These connections range from becoming a batgirl for the Fighting Irish at the age of 12 to watching a father throw the game-winning touchdown at Fantasy Football Camp. They include a grandfather who put the gold on the Golden Dome to one whose ashes are on the 50-yard line of the football stadium.
When Deanna Gumpf, Notre Dame head softball coach, recruits players across the country, she said she pays special attention to players who already have connections to the University.
"Walking into Notre Dame, they already respect what it's about," Gumpf said about these players. "They will knock down a wall for this place."
Sophomore outfielder Erin Marrone comes from a family of Notre Dame alumni. Her father Nicolas ('81) and mother Stephanie ('83) met while they were students at Notre Dame. Both of her grandfathers also attended Notre Dame, as well as five of her aunts and uncles. Two of her cousins are currently Notre Dame students.
"Because it's my whole family, I've grown up loving this place," Marrone said.
Playing softball for the Fighting Irish is the fulfillment of a lifelong goal for Marrone, who grew up in Alexandria, Va.
"A lot of my friends dreamed of being on the Olympic team when they were little kids, but for me it was just being on the Notre Dame softball team."
Marrone said that she realized her dream of playing college softball could become a reality when she was a freshman in high school. In addition to Notre Dame, she looked at Virginia Tech, where her old brother is currently a senior, Villanova, and Princeton.
"As soon as Notre Dame became an actually possibility, I was 100 percent for coming here," she said. "I came on my recruiting trip and it was like a dream just to be here on the field and everything, and still every day I just think about how special it is to be here."
Marrone lives in Lyons Hall, the same dorm that her mother lived in at Notre Dame. She said that this placement occurred by chance, but her mother was excited that Erin lives in her old dorm.
Marrone's maternal grandparents live in Chicago. Her grandfather, Notre Dame class of 1956, and grandmother frequently travel to South Bend to watch the Irish softball team. Last Thanksgiving, two teammates even accompanied Erin to her grandparents' home.
"They come to tons of our games and they love our team," she said about her grandparents. "They're two of our biggest fans."
Although Marrone has realized her childhood dream of playing Notre Dame softball, she continues to set new goals for herself. "I'm here to win games. It's exciting to be here, but the purpose is more than that. I want to go to the World Series and win BIG EAST."
Junior Christine Lux, much like Marrone, comes from a Notre Dame family. Her father Tom graduated from Notre Dame in 1978. Her paternal grandfather also attended Notre Dame, as did an aunt and uncle. Lux, who plays first base for the Irish, said she always wanted to play softball at Notre Dame.
"I was coming here to Notre Dame football games since I was little," Lux said. "I can remember just walking around the campus and soaking in everything about Notre Dame."
Although no one on her mother's side of the family attended Notre Dame, Lux's maternal grandfather has a unique connection to the Golden Dome. Before Lux was born, her grandfather was in the marble business, and he once had the job of putting the gold on the Dome.
Lux said she began attending Notre Dame softball camps when she was a sophomore in high school because she knew she wanted to play softball for the Fighting Irish.
This fall, Christine's younger sister, Kathryn, will enter Notre Dame as a freshman and will also join Christine on the playing field.
"It will be really exciting because we only got to play together one year in high school, so we'll get to play together one more year while I'm in college," Christine said. "It'll be really cool just to be able to be at school with my sister and spend a little time with her."
Unlike Lux and Marrone, senior Stephanie Mola is the first member of her family to attend Notre Dame. But Mola, who plays first base, grew up loving Notre Dame.
"I'm the fourth of five generations that loved the school, but I'm the first one to actually go here," she said. "I always wanted to come here. I didn't really have a choice. It was instilled in me at birth."
Mola met Gumpf when she was 12-years old and she had the opportunity to be a batgirl for the Notre Dame softball team at a tournament near her home in Florida. The next year, she attended Notre Dame softball camp for the first of five times.
After Mola visited Notre Dame's campus for the first time, she said that she knew it was where she wanted to go to school.
"I didn't really consider any other schools," she said. "If I didn't get into Notre Dame I wanted to go to Saint Mary's and transfer."
Yet Mola, who will graduate this spring with a degree in marketing, said that coming to Notre Dame was not her final goal.
"It was a huge step and accomplishment to get here, but it wasn't enough," She said. "There was always one more: trying to get a starting position, winning games, contributing to the team, doing well in the classroom, and leaving some kind of mark at Notre Dame. The dream is not over just because I'm here."
Like Mola, junior infielder Heather Johnson is the first member of her family to attend the University, but comes from a family of Notre Dame fans.
Her grandfather applied to Notre Dame for college, but began a career as a police officer instead. Yet he remained a Notre Dame fan throughout his life, and Heather's father has also always been a Notre Dame fan.
Johnson's grandfather formed a close friendship with Roberto Parisi, the owner of Parisi's Restaurant in South Bend. Parisi always traveled to see Johnson's family in California when Notre Dame played at USC, and when USC played at Notre Dame, Heather's grandfather traveled to Notre Dame.
When Johnson's grandfather passed away in 1999, her father and grandmother came to Notre Dame to spread his ashes on the football field.
"It's just something that my dad and grandma wanted to do because they felt like Notre Dame was such a big part of his life," she said. "There were connections with Roberto and at the time it was much easier to get on the field...so they were able to get in and they spread them all over the 50-yard line."
Johnson said that her father followed in her grandfather's footsteps and was always a Notre Dame fan.
Johnson's father participated in the 2008 Football Fantasy Camp last summer. She was on campus for summer school at the time and was able to see him play in the stadium.
"He just decided to do the camp because he wanted to live out his dream of playing football for Notre Dame," Johnson said.
In the final game of the camp, Johnson's father threw the winning pass.
"It kind of tipped off another guy and one of his teammates caught it and I guess they said it was the best game in all six years of the fantasy football camp," she said. "And he was number eight on ESPN's top 10 SportsCenter plays of the week."
Unlike some of her teammates, Johnson said that her family connections to Notre Dame made her hesitant about playing softball for the Fighting Irish.
"I actually didn't want to come here just because they were such big fans," she said. "I wanted to start my own thing somewhere else."
During her junior year of high school, Johnson said she changed her mind about Notre Dame when she came for an unofficial visit with the softball team.
"I think it was really just the essence of Notre Dame," she said about her decision to attend Notre Dame. "Everything fit - the tradition of the school and the coaches and the team. When you know where you're supposed to be you just kind of know, and it just fit."
Johnson committed to playing softball for the Irish so soon after her visit that she did not even have a chance to look at many other schools.
The Johnson family has also maintained their friendship with Parisi. When Johnson's parents come to visit her at Notre Dame, her family eats at Parisi's Restaurant every night, she said.
These four players came to Notre Dame for different reasons, but Gumpf values the connections that each of them bring to the University and to the playing field. She said that each recruiting class usually has one or two players who have strong connections to Notre Dame, although she would love to have more.
"They really appreciate everything they're given here because they've been brought up and raised to understand how special this place really is."