May 23, 2014
By Renee Peggs
In its inaugural year of Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) membership, the Notre Dame softball team went 41-13, qualifying for NCAA Regionals for the 16th straight season. As a team the Irish ended their season leading the NCAA in batting average, had a team record seven players named to the National Fastpitch Coaches Association (NFCA) Mid-Atlantic all-region teams, and boasted five all-ACC selections. Undeniably, the foundation of their success was the standout leadership, attitude, and character of the team's four graduating seniors: Chloe Saganowich, Lauren Stuhr, Monica Torres, and Laura Winter. Here is a retrospective on the class of 2014:
"They didn't [give up their] time for stupid stuff," says Notre Dame head coach, Deanna Gumpf. "That's how these girls have set themselves apart from other graduating classes. If there's been any drama on the team, I didn't know about it, which means that they've done their job," she explains matter-of-factly. "They focus only on what matters. When you think about a group of girls barely into their 20s, with that much pressure and responsibility, it's pretty amazing."
Softball actually ranks among the most grueling of the Division I collegiate sports. In a three-and-a-half month season, the team practices every afternoon, lifts and conditions at least two to three times per week, and travels across the country about three days out of every seven. To say their schedules are hectic is an understatement. And that's not even considering their course load.
"Between the four of them," Coach says of her seniors, "with their different strengths and personalities, they covered the gamut to handle anything and everything that needed to be taken care of. Everybody knew what was going on, where we needed to be, and what needed to happen. They've done a great job leading this team."
Their collective leadership wasn't always a given, though. Coach discloses "two years ago I never heard a peep from their entire class. They were really quiet."
With time and experience, though, these four women stepped up to the plate and found their voices. "They had to learn how to communicate," Gumpf states plainly, "and they did. Their confidence grew as a result, and they became even better communicators and better players. They really matured into their roles. It's been great to watch them develop," she says proudly.
~Kenneth Blanchard, management expert/consultant
A sociology and computer applications major from Treasure Island, Fla., Saganowich made her first trip to Notre Dame when she was just 14.
"Cassidy Whidden and I came up here that summer for softball camp. I was actually a pitcher at that time, which is pretty funny to think about now,” Saganowich says. “They say there's something almost magical that happens as soon as you set foot on campus, and it's true. I knew immediately that this is where I wanted to come."
Saganowich family members are long-time Fighting Irish fans, cheering with all their might from way down in Florida. Her mom, Lara, cannot say enough about the University and what it has meant to have Chloe fulfill this dream.
"My husband and I and our whole family think Notre Dame is the greatest university in the country,” Lara intimated. “We absolutely love it and we are so thankful to God that Chloe has been here. The people are amazing, the sense of family is amazing, the support and love are amazing, the softball team and coaches are amazing... we love Notre Dame! And we are so, so proud of our daughter."
Chloe, who began playing softball at age seven, is grateful for the rare opportunities she's had through the sport to do things many of her peers are still dreaming of. "I have been to some incredible places, both through travel ball and then with Notre Dame," she says. "To have those experiences at such a young age was really something I tried not to take for granted."
Among her favorites was the ND softball team's trip to Australia two years ago, and a particularly memorable stop in Philadelphia. "We got to run up the steps of that building [The Museum of Art], like in Rocky," she grins. "That was awesome."
What she appreciated most about her time at ND is also the thing she initially had to struggle with. "Notre Dame is one of the only places that has sports at this level AND academics with the highest standards. That's one of the things that really drew me here, but the combination of those was hard to balance for awhile during my freshman year," Saganowich confesses.
"Softball travels more than any other team on campus. Finding what worked for me meant that I had to know who I was and what I'm able to do. Putting those together is what allows any of us to succeed. We all have to figure that out, as athletes and students, but the struggle really pays off."
The oldest of four, Saganowich strives to be a role model for her siblings. "They all play sports, and we take school very seriously in our house," she says. "My family defines me: there's no way I'd be who and where I am today without them. I just always try to make my family proud of me and show my parents that they raised me well and shaped who I am."
The family aspect of Notre Dame is high on the list of things Saganowich will miss most. "I think it's awesome to be part of something that is so much bigger than I am," she says humbly. "The legacy here, the family, the team... we all hear those speeches when we first show up here but it's all true! The people I've met here, the relationships and memories: those are going to last my whole lifetime."
Though she's not yet locked in post-graduation plans, Saganowich would love to work with a professional baseball or softball team so she maintains a connection to her sport.
She's reluctantly looking forward to more free time than she's had in awhile, though. "Back in Florida, free time was different: we were at the beach every day, in the water, not like you guys up here!" she laughs. "Finding fun indoor activities was not something I had thought much about."
What she has considered is how fortunate she's been to make her Notre Dame dream a reality. "Notre Dame far exceeded all of my expectations," she says, practically glowing with gratitude. "To come here, to learn, to play, I will always treasure this time."
Jack Welch, former chairman/CEO of General Electric
If the Huntington Beach, Calif., native had had her own way at a young age, though, she might have thwarted her own dream without even knowing it.
"My parents played slow-pitch softball, and when I was five they thought it would be fun to get me onto a team," she explains. "I was adamantly opposed and told my mom that just because she played didn't mean I wanted to!" Despite her precocious protestations, Stuhr's best friend's father signed her up and put her on his team.
"They just brought me to practice one day and that was that."
It wasn't all bad. By the time Stuhr was 11 she was playing community league travel ball with a group of girls from her school who became her best friends. "All the families were really close; we'd go to the beach and spend lots of time all together," she remembers. "It was a great sense of community.
"And... we were good. The summer before junior year, our team was so stacked..." She's not the least bit arrogant as she says this; it's with awe and pride in her teammates that she recollects.
"When you look at where those girls are playing now: Washington, Arizona, Tennessee, Oklahoma... we just rolled through the summer, winning every game. We had so much fun, which was great because we had to travel to a lot of not-fun places in order to play teams who were as good as we were." Stuhr grins as she looks in her mind's eye.
[For the travel-savvy readers out there, or anyone who's just curious, "not-fun" places include South Dakota, Oklahoma, and Kentucky. No offense...]
Transitioning from high school ball - where she played every game and was always high in the lineup - to Division I at Notre Dame, was Stuhr's self-identified biggest struggle.
"Everyone here was just as good if not better than I was," she acknowledges. "I had to learn to take a step back and sit on the bench because that's what was best for the team. But that pushed me: I never really had to fight for a spot until college ball, and suddenly I had to be very intentional about my practice and trying to prove myself.
“It definitely made me a better player," she says. "Even though it was a hard adjustment to know that I wouldn't start every game, I learned how to participate by providing moral support."
Coach Gumpf corroborates that. "Lauren really takes care of everybody: she made sure everyone knew what's going on and was where they needed to be. When Lauren took charge, we were good. Her strengths are her consistency, her great communication, and she really helped in the drama-department."
Pretty high praise for someone whose softball career began 17 years ago with a tantrum.
A marketing and international business major, Stuhr demonstrated maturity far beyond her years with a Santa Monica advertising agency where she interned last summer.
"The project I was assigned to had a huge pitch for a certain campaign that we'd been working really hard on," she begins, "but as soon as 5 p.m. hit, people were out the door even though we weren't finished putting it together." She was shocked.
"As a Notre Dame student, you go until you're finished. You practice until it's perfect. You stay up all night until you're ready for your test. It blew my mind," Stuhr admitted, "that people wouldn't commit to finishing what needed to be done. This was their job that they were paid to do; I was only a summer intern but I took it more seriously than they did!"
Such realization helps Stuhr feel more prepared to enter the business world after graduation. "I'm sure this difference will be a very real possibility among my colleagues," she says with insight now borne of experience. "The expectations of being an ND student and an ND athlete are so high, but we fulfill them. I just never thought about how other people wouldn't have that same work ethic in what they're doing."
While her future plans are not yet confirmed, Stuhr says her dream job would be to work for Under Armour on the Notre Dame account. "It would be so neat to maintain my ties to the University and its teams, and to maybe see things I design or produce come to life on other ND athletes," she says.
For now, she's planning to spend the summer in South Bend or Chicago so she's centrally located for interviewing purposes.
Stuhr attributes her potential for future - and continued - success to her extensive athletic participation and the lessons inherent therein.
"There's an essential and intangible skill set that naturally develops through high-level athletics," she says. "So much of what I talk about in job interviews has to do with softball; it's hard to talk about anything else because it has been my life for so long.
“But," she continues, "being able to work with a team, solving problems together, the competitiveness and drive to succeed: all of these will obviously be able to carry over to my professional life. As an athlete, I always have my eye on the prize and strive to be my very best."
One of Stuhr’s favorite "very best" moments from her tenure at Notre Dame came during her freshman year. "I pinch-hit in a pretty big game against Louisville and hit a walk-off home run. I had been in and out of the lineup and didn't get a lot of playing time but it was cool as a freshman to be able to do that, especially since we had eight seniors that year," she recalls.
Her parents could not be more proud of the way their daughter has completed what is now a third generation Notre Dame legacy.
"The fact that as a family we were able to make this dream come true is so incredibly thrilling, and to this day her mom and I are still pinching ourselves," says Greg Stuhr. "From the youngest age, Lauren knew this was what she wanted. We have nothing but great feelings about all that's taken place over the last four years. She has accomplished so much both academically and athletically, and we are so obviously proud of her and grateful for her hard work and dedication."
She also pushed hard through the very end. "The fact that she came up to her very last at-bat and got a base hit was just absolutely the cherry on top of her career,” Greg says. “Her mother and I think things have just played out so perfectly all the way through, and this was a perfect way to go out."
Stuhr's father has been particularly pleased to call forth an appreciation for the Fighting Irish from several of his eight siblings and his wife, all of whom hold an affinity for certain unnamed universities in Southern California.
"Whenever we set foot on campus, something almost magical happens, and I've finally been able to get some of my other family members to see that," he laughs. "It's really bittersweet to leave campus [after graduation], but we know we'll be back."
“What she gave to this program is tremendous." Gumpf speaks with undeniable conviction. "Though she didn't get a lot of playing time, I'm so impressed by her and I really respect her. Players like Monica don't come along that often; we definitely wouldn't have been as good without her."
Hailing from Winter Springs, Fla., Torres says what she's most proud of during her four years on the team is the culture that her class has built.
"It's a combination of all the good things that we have to offer," she begins. "It revolves around trust, respect, friendship, and - I know it sounds corny, but - love. We all love each other and it's just a really remarkable culture on this team and I'm so proud of that."
As a political science/Arabic double major, Torres knows a bit about culture. Two summers ago she was in Ecuador with other collegiate interns working in micro consignment and development at various NGOs.
She spent last summer in Jordan, speaking Arabic with her host family and concretizing her desire to make a difference in the realm of Middle East politics. She has aspirations of someday being addressed as "Madam Secretary," and toward that end she is pursuing an opportunity to work for Senator Marco Rubio from her home state of Florida.
"I've always loved languages," she says, "and being in the College of Arts and Letters opened up incredible opportunities that I likely wouldn't have had if I were in another department. I feel really blessed to have had these experiences."
Torres has come a long way. "I was always that kid who was running around outside and never wanted to come in and take a bath... gross!" she says with an appalled look at the recollection. Quickly it transforms into a grin. "I was a little bit of a tomboy," she confesses. "I loved it."
Prior to her introduction to softball, Torres had been a competitive swimmer. Credit her parents with a brilliant decision on behalf of their eight-year-old daughter: Torres liked softball so much that she gave up the pool for the ball diamond.
"It was a time when you could just play the sport for fun," she recalls of her early days in Little League. "You had Capri Suns and Rice Krispy treats and you were friends with everybody and life was good.
"This is the level of play that every little girl aspires to," she says knowingly of ultimately ending up playing collegiately. "And Notre Dame offers the complete package: academics, athletics, both at the highest levels, plus an amazing sense of community and really wonderful people."
She adds, "I feel incredibly blessed to have had this opportunity. I'm kind of unusual around here in that I'm the first one in my family to have an association with the University."
Her parents, however, definitely made the most of their daughter's Irish adventure. "We had our Senior Day a few weeks back," Torres shares, "our last home game of our collegiate careers. All our parents threw out the first pitches. When my dad threw out the pitch to me," her voice softens, "I could tell that he was struggling not to cry. That was the best moment of the last four years."
Hector Torres grew up in Puerto Rico hearing about Notre Dame from time to time, but never would have dreamed that his daughter would one day graduate from the University.
"From the beginning, I've been so impressed with everything at ND," he says. "I am so very glad that Monica chose Notre Dame over the schools she had been considering, because it's true that there's something very special about Notre Dame. I have been continually amazed at the opportunities she's had, both academically and through softball. She has traveled to so many places to study and play and learn about other cultures. Everything the University has to offer was phenomenal and I'm so proud of her for taking full advantage of it.
“All throughout her life Monica has been very successful at whatever she's decided to do, at a very high level,” Hector adds. “She accomplished her dream to play Division I softball and did it at one of the best universities in the world. I am so very proud of her and know she is well prepared for anything that comes in the future."
Martin Luther King, Jr.
Laura Winter did not have a particularly auspicious beginning to her softball career.
"I was seven-years-old when I first did try-outs. I had brand-new cleats, I was running down a hill and I tripped on the cement and scraped my legs up really bad. I was crying and bleeding and I didn't want to be there at ALL," she remembers emphatically. "I got up to bat against the machine, I'd never swung a bat before, and the first pitch hit me. At that point I thought, this is the worst day of my life."
She could have given up right then and there. Many kids would have. But not Winter. "I ended up finishing [the try-outs], but almost hoping I wouldn't make the team because I just thought it would be impossible to endure a whole season after I had barely made it through that one day. Eventually it grew on me and started to get more fun," she says. "I didn't get hit as often."
Coach Gumpf has seen Winter be very hard on herself, "but she's also matured and really evolved as a pitcher and a player. She completely understands her strengths and weaknesses, and when you know yourself like she does, you can become the absolute best."
For Winter, that evolution toward becoming the one of the ACC's best was the result of a very intentional plan. "As a pitcher, the challenge is to come in every year with a different approach," she explains. "My first year, there were four pitchers in line ahead of me, including the 2010 BIG EAST Conference Pitcher of the Year (Jody Valdivia), so I told myself, if you get a few innings, that's great, just do what you need to do to prove yourself."
As time went on, she was given more of a starting role. "I would have to re-evaluate: ok, now I'm not just filling in, finishing out a game with a couple innings. I was starting, so it took me a little bit to reassess and figure out how to get to the next level.”
“Every year," Winter continues, "I tried to determine what I needed to do differently than the previous year, because people now know me. Junior year I had to figure out how to adjust and bring a different game because all those girls had seen me pitch before. I had to figure out new ways to be effective. It was nice coming into the ACC this year because it's a new group of teams and most of them had never faced me before and didn't know me as well."
That very fact has often been the source of a common misconception about Winter.
"People freaked out when they saw me on TV. I've got my sunglasses on and I'm really intense on the mound, and they assume I'm that way in real life. So many people come up to me all intimidated to start out and then they act surprised when they find out I'm not mean!" She smiles a huge warm smile. "I'm really, really nice." [She's right. I want to hug her.]
On the heels of that shocker comes one more disclosure. "I'm a big nerd!" There's the smile again. "I started out in engineering and took a lot of elective IT courses before changing my major to IT management. I love all the geeky things like Star Wars and Dr. Who and coding. I really like coding."
Winter, who hails from San Diego, has been drafted by the Akron Racers, a National Pro Fastpitch (NPF) softball team, but she's also looking for graduate assistant or assistant coaching positions, AND hoping to use her degree "to bring better technology into the game of softball. I'm really interested in finding ways to make recruiting easier, and to help with analysis of pitching and hitting."
Maybe she'll end up working on pitching-machine calibrations, becoming even more of a hero for little girls everywhere...
No matter where the road leads, Winter's parents are nothing but proud of her.
"It starts with what she did before Notre Dame that gave her the opportunity to play there," says her dad, Kirt, "and I am also especially proud of how she has taken that opportunity and made the most of it. As far as softball goes, I knew Notre Dame would leave a mark on my daughter, but I think there are very few kids that get to leave a mark on Notre Dame the way she has. No parent would have a right to expect something like that, and it's just incredible that she's done what she has."
Her parents were also aware of the challenges she faced. Kirt explains that "Laura was such a homebody growing up, I knew there would come a time when she would be overwhelmingly homesick. It hit in the fall of her freshman year, and it was really hard for her to fight through that and not give up, but she hung through and I was very proud of her."
With her senior season was winding down, Winter had a slow start early against Virginia Tech in a semifinal game of the ACC Championship earlier this month, giving up five runs in the first inning. "But she stayed there and handled it, got out of the inning, gathered herself up and they turned it around and won. To have that kind of inning this late in the season and in her career could have really shaken her, but she showed her true character, under adversity. That game," Kirt insists, "was awesome."
The family atmosphere that characterizes Notre Dame softball is among the things Winter has valued most across the past four years. "My teammates are not only the best athletes in the country but they're also the best people in every way," she asserts. "I will forever cherish the friendships that we have had on and off the field."
Chloe Saganowich, Lauren Stuhr, Monica Torres, and Laura Winter have been loyal daughters of Notre Dame, and together they march with the strength and truth that make us proud to send them forth from Our Lady's University. Onward to victory in your next ventures, ladies!