May 15, 2015
Dreams can take time.
When Emilee Koerner, Jenna Simon, Katey Haus and Cassidy Whidden arrived at the University of Notre Dame to embark on their academic and softball careers, their dreams included playing in NCAA Championship action that the Fighting Irish would host.
Pursuing the dream meant countless hours in the weight room, countless hours spent grinding away at practice and countless hours spent on the field in battling against rugged competition.
Through four years of sweating out intense workouts, playing in freezing weather and putting pride and passion into the letters that spell out Notre Dame on their jerseys, the Irish seniors forged the dream and it plays out this weekend.
Coach Deanna Gumpf's Fighting Irish (40-13) play host to Ball State, Kentucky and Northwestern in regional action starting Friday. Notre Dame opens regional action at 5 p.m. Friday, and the regional continues Saturday and Sunday.
Tickets are available by calling the Murnane Family Ticket Office at (574) 631-7356. Tickets are also available by visiting UND.com/buytickets.
Koerner, Simon, Haus and Whidden helped the Irish bring the regional to friendly confines for only the second time in the 27-year history of the Notre Dame softball program.
"To see their dream of hosting a regional come to them their senior year is really cool," Gumpf said. "They worked really hard. They have been committed to each other and to this team from the moment they stepped on campus. I'm so happy for them.
"The passion and commitment of our seniors really stands out," Gumpf said. "They're all in, all the time. When they are having their worst day, they're all in. When they are having their best day, they're all in. It's 100 percent about this team winning. I love that. You can't train that and you can't make that. That comes from that person inside, and they all have that."
Simon, who plays second base for the Irish, said when the players saw "South Bend Regional" flash across the screen when the pairings were revealed Sunday night, there was unbridled joy.
"It's really exciting that we get to come back and play on this field," Simon said. "We definitely have a sense of pride in this field. It's going to be a chance to show the country what Notre Dame softball is all about. We're enjoying the moment, but we're also focused on protecting our field.
"Coming in as freshmen, after our first regional, we were like, 'What do we have to do to host this?' We were told we needed to be in the top 16 (seeds). Ever since then, it's been our goal to host. It's really exciting that it's our last chance to go through the NCAA Championship, and we get to host here at Melissa Cook Stadium."
Notre Dame posted an 18-1 record at home, and the Irish were an impressive 17-6 in the power-packed Atlantic Coast Conference.
Gumpf said playing host to the regional is a tremendous advantage for the Irish.
"Hosting gives us our best shot," Gumpf said. "This is the best opportunity we're going to get to win the regional. This is everything. It gives us every possible extra benefit other than just what happens in the game. I'll take anything we can get."
According to Gumpf, the Irish are hitting their stride as they enter the tournament.
"Right now, the players are still having fun with the game," Gumpf said. "When you're 50 games into the season, sometimes it wears on you and it breaks you down a little bit. I don't know what's going to happen, but I can tell you this team is really enjoying themselves and really enjoying each other. They're playing hard. I think that, right now, this time of year, that's all you can ask for.
"We've had different days of different strengths. It hasn't been just one thing, which I think is the best part. I think we've depended on our hitting at times. We've depended on our defense at times. We've depended on our pitching at times. At different times throughout the year, they've all come through. So, right now, it's about putting it all together and making sure that we're all at our best."
Koerner, Simon, Haus and Whidden all made significant contributions during their first season at Notre Dame as freshmen. They held down their positions as their careers progressed and built the bonds of leadership.
"Hard work and passion for the game is the legacy we want to leave here," Simon said. "We also wanted to makesure we stayed hard working throughout our four years here, make sure that we stayed as team players and stayed as that constant steady force on the field, together.
"Our team chemistry is awesome. We work really well together. We push each other to be the best people and the best players that we can be. I wouldn't want to be out here with anyone else."
Center fielder Koerner agreed the Irish have great team chemistry.
"This group of girls is incredible," Koerner said. "Our team chemistry is incredible. We're stronger than we've ever been. The confidence in each other is better than it's ever been. Knowing that we can be confident in our teammates and also ourselves gives us the motivation to know we can push further than we've ever gone before.
"Our hitting, defense and pitching have gotten better as we've gone throughout the year. We've learned from our mistakes and have continually gotten better."
For Simon, who played at nearby Penn High School, playing in a regional at Melissa Cook Stadium is a highlight in a remarkable career.
"The road to the College World Series starts in South Bend, and that's really exciting for me," Simon said. "My whole family is going to be here.
-- Curt Rallo, special correspondent