May 17, 2015
Whether it was Cassidy Whidden smacking a ball that soared over the right-center field fence for a grand slam or Katey Haus backhanding a vicious shot down the third base line and making a bullet throw to first for the out, the University of Notre Dame softball team stepped up and made plays to turn a pair of elimination games into springboards to the title round of the NCAA Championship's South Bend Regional.
Knocked into the elimination round on the first day by a 6-3 loss to Ball State, Notre Dame fought back to crush Northwestern 14-5 and then blast Ball State 15-4 Saturday at Notre Dame's Melissa Cook Stadium. Both games ended after five innings due to the eight-run rule.
Coach Deanna Gumpf's Fighting Irish advance to the championship round Sunday. The Fighting Irish (42-14) play Kentucky (31-24) at 1 p.m. (ET) at Melissa Cook Stadium. If the Irish win, Notre Dame would play Kentucky again for a chance to win the school's first regional title in softball.
One day after falling short in their opening game, Notre Dame's players showed up Saturday with energy in the field, confidence in themselves and each other--and aggressiveness at the plate. The Irish jumped on Northwestern and Ball State from the start and never let up. As a result, Notre Dame storms into Sunday's championship round riding a wave of momentum.
"After (Friday), struggling at the plate and on the mound, we challenged each other and challenged ourselves, just to be a better team, to bring fight to every single pitch of every single inning," Gumpf said. "I'm really proud of the way the girls responded because we beat two good teams out there today. I love the fire, I love the determination and I love their fight."
Whidden highlighted the Irish effort. After she hammered her grand slam in the Northwestern game, the senior catcher belted a three-run homer against Ball State.
According to Whidden, the Irish team that showed up in full force Saturday is the Irish team that has been forging a powerful identity all season.
"We have guiding principles, enthusiasm, toughness and tenacity," Whidden said. "We got a little bit outside of ourselves (against Ball State on Friday). We played on our heels, and we were afraid to lose. We talked about that as a team. We have nothing to lose now and everything to gain.
"Today was an awesome day. We just had the mindset to attack. We had an attack-mode mentality. We had to take it inning by inning, pitch by pitch. That's our mentality from here on out, that we can't take anything for granted."
In Friday's loss to Ball State, the Irish didn't bring out the identity that earned them the privilege of playing host to the second regional in school history.
"When it doesn't happen it's really frustrating, because I know it's within them," Gumpf said of the Irish not playing up to their ability. "I know how good this team is, and I know what they can bring every day. This is a very special team. There's something about this group. They don't lie down. When we fight like this, it's a big deal. It's a difference-maker for this team."
Gumpf said Saturday's dominating performance gives the Irish a blueprint for Sunday.
"At the end of the day, we can walk out of here and say we know what we need to do to win ballgames," Gumpf said. "It's so clear. We know the energy we need, we know the at-bats we need and we know the pitching we need. It just keeps the game real simple for us. The more we keep things simple, the better."
Notre Dame unleashed a powerful hitting attack and strong pitching, and exceptional defense also helped the Irish keep their championship hopes alive.
"Katey Haus had a great day," Gumpf said. "She ate things up at third base. I thought our defense all day was real good. The teams we played . . . Northwestern, they put the ball in play, and Ball State, with their hitters, that's their game. I was really proud of our defense. Our outfield was awesome. They ran down balls and made big catches, and Jenna Simon at second base made huge plays for us in critical times."
Notre Dame jumped Northwestern and Ball State almost from the outset. Against Northwestern, the Irish scored two runs in the first inning and five in the second and owned a 10-1 lead after three innings. Against Ball State, the Irish scored four in the first inning and three in the second inning for a 7-0 lead.
When Northwestern or Ball State tried to fight back, the Irish answered with a knockout punch.
"My most favorite moment today was when Ball State scored four runs, and we came right back and hit the tar out of the ball (scoring seven runs in the fifth inning)," Gumpf said. "I loved the response. I loved the resilience. That showed me more than anything.
-- Curt Rallo, special correspondent