May 19, 2015
After the tears were wiped away following the University of Notre Dame's heart-wrenching 4-3 loss Sunday to Kentucky on the final day of the NCAA Championship's South Bend Regional, the vision of the Fighting Irish program came clearly into focus.
Although Notre Dame fell short in its quest to reach the NCAA Super Regional level for the first time in program history, the Irish made great strides in their pursuit of softball's gold standard. Playing at home in the tournament is an important part of that picture.
Spurred on by the spirit of an enthusiastic crowd at Notre Dame's Melissa Cook Stadium, the Fighting Irish fought their way from an opening-round loss into the championship round. As a record-setting 2015 season came to a close Sunday, the Irish established a blueprint for building on further success.
Notre Dame finished the 2015 season with a 42-15 record and earned the program's second opportunity to play host to a regional, which are awarded to the top 16 teams in the nation. Head coach Deanna Gumpf hoped the returning Irish players understand the advantages of playing regional showdowns in front of passionate home crowds.
"We talked about how good it was to be at home and how much you have to earn it," Gumpf said of her words to the team after Sunday's loss to Kentucky. "There are 16 teams out of the whole country that are able to host. You're putting yourself in a very small percentage and a really good percentage."
Graduating senior co-captain Jenna Simon said the returning Irish will use the understanding of how important it is to earn a home-field edge in the regional as drive to work hard in the off-season.
"It's huge to be able to play on our home field, in front of our fans, when there are big games because we feed off the energy," Simon said. "We know how our field plays, we know what our field is like. It's a huge advantage. I think the younger girls got a little taste of that, and hopefully they want it bad enough to do it again next year. This will be a big motivator for the next few years."
Classmate Cassidy Whidden said she fully expects to see regionals more frequently on Irish home turf.
"I think it all comes back to preparation and having a purpose behind everything that you do," Whidden said of what it takes to stay among the nation's elite. "If you set your mind to something and you work hard every day, good things will come.
"There are going to be tough days, but those tough days are supposed to happen. They teach you a little bit about yourself. Those tough days are often the best days, because you dig a little bit deeper, you try a little bit harder and you dig in. Our underclassmen know that, and I'm fully confident that this team, next year, will do even better things because they have the fight, they have the work ethic and they know how to do it."
Notre Dame can be that team that hosts a regional year in and year out. The Irish have emerged as a force against rugged Atlantic Coast Conference competition the past two seasons. The ACC landed a league-record seven teams in the NCAA Championship this season, and the Irish were 17-6 in ACC action. Much of a 24-game Irish winning streak came against conference rivals.
On Sunday, against perennial power Kentucky, the Irish showed they can compete against the nation's elite and make playing host to a regional a more common occurrence.
"We have to play like today every day," Gumpf said. "To be able to bring that every single day is important, because that determines where we are today. How we play all year long will determine if we have another shot at doing this soon. If Rachel Nasland can throw the way she threw today, every day, we have a really good shot at that. And if our hitters can do what they did today every day, then it's going to bounce our direction and we're going to win that ballgame. They know how important it is, and they have to bring it.
"They played their butts off," Gumpf said of the Irish effort in the regional championship round. "A couple of things didn't go our way. There are so many parts to that ballgame that could have been different, a pitch, an at-bat. . . . I thought the team did a great job of fighting. I'm proud of them. It wasn't ours to take."
Seniors Emilee Koerner, Jenna Simon, Katey Haus and Cassidy Whidden provided the leadership that ushered in a new era for the Irish. The four seniors were upperclassmen for Notre Dame's first two seasons in the ACC, and they brought a regional to the Notre Dame campus.
"These four seniors have been through so many parts of the program that are big changes for us," Gumpf said. "They were determined the minute they stepped on campus to leave a really lasting impact. They were determined to make this team the best we've ever been."
Simon was grateful for the Notre Dame experience academically and athletically. She praised her classmates, teammates and coaches for the encouragement and support she received wearing Irish colors.
For Whidden, the bonds of a team stood out as the emotions swept across the Irish on the conclusion of the 2015 season.
"We love our teammates," Whidden said. "I wouldn't want to be with anybody else in this moment.
"You could feel that love and that heartbreak because of how much we love each other as a team. You can't buy that, you can't recruit that. That's the great thing about coach Gumpf, and coach Kris Ganeff and coach Lizzy Ristano and coach Jamie Spitale. They fostered that sense of love from Day One. It's a family here".
-- Curt Rallo, special correspondent