May 11, 2002
It wasn’t the script that Irish head coach Deanna Gumpf had in mind at the beginning of the trip, but after a gutsy pitching performance by its two freshman pitchers the University of Notre Dame softball team (42-15) earned the 2002 BIG EAST Championship in Salem, Va., on Saturday afternoon. Notre Dame defeated fourth-seeded Virginia Tech 2-1 and 3-1 to claim its third BIG EAST Championship in school history and earn an automatic bid to the 2002 NCAA Championship.
A book about the weekend of softball the Irish experienced would read like a best-selling novel, lots of action, a few near-death experiences and a great finale.
Entering the day, the plot line was as follows: Two victories were necessary over the hottest team in the league, with said team enjoying a ‘home field’ advantage.
There was a BIG EAST Conference Championship record 1,264 people in attendance at the games on Saturday, and approximately 1,200 of them were Hokie fans (Salem, Va., designated a neutral site by the BIG EAST Conference, is about 45 minutes north of Blacksburg, Va. – the Hokie’s hometown).
Virginia Tech was riding an 11-game win streak which including a decisive 8-3 victory over the Irish in the first game of the tournament. The Hokies hit four home runs off the Irish pitchers in that first contest and that same Notre Dame pitching staff entered the games on Saturday having given up 16 runs in three games.
Undaunted, Steffany Stenglein took the circle once again to start game one. A 20-game winner for the Irish, Stenglein has faced her share of rookie adversity during her freshman season, but this was the first time she would be pitching with a conference championship on the line.
She started out extremely well, shaking off the effects of her outing on Friday against the Hokies. Keeping Virginia Tech off the scoreboard for four full innings, Stenglein would end up working 5 1/3, surrendering just three hits and striking out five.
The Irish offense, on the other hand, was dealing with Virginia Tech hurler Ashlee Dobbe. Dobbe has pitched practically every inning for the Hokies this year and has won 30 of the team’s 42 victories. One would think she might tire at some point, but Notre Dame was unable to get a run on the scoreboard until the third inning.
Alexis Madrid reached base on an error with one out in the third inning. Jenny Kriech followed by bouncing into a fielder’s choice and Madrid was forced out at second base. After Kriech stole second, Megan Ciolli drew a walk to put runners at first and second. Junior Andrea Loman stepped in next and drilled a single to leftfield, enabling Kriech to score the first run of the game.
Both offenses were quiet until the fifth inning. With one out, Virginia Tech’s designated player Megan Evans launched her ninth home run of the season (a new Hokie rookie record). Stenglein did not allow the big hit to shake her concentration, as she recovered to get a strikeout and groundout (sandwiched around a double) to end the inning.
The Irish offense was able to get the go-ahead run in the fifth. Madrid posted a one-out infield single to get on base and scored three pitches later when Kriech doubled into the right-centerfield gap. Kriech was thrown out a third attempting to stretch her hit into a single, but Madrid easily scored on the play to put the Irish in the lead.
Stenglein went back out to the circle for the fifth inning. Hokie lead off hitter Carmen Farmer lined out hard to leftfield for the first out and Mindi Wylie drilled a single to force Stenglein out of the game. Wisen came in for relief with a runner on first and cancelled the Virginia Tech scoring threat with a fly out and routine ground out.
Dobbe answered in the sixth by getting out of a two-on, no outs jam. Loman had led off with a double, but was called out going to third on a Bledsoe single on a close interference call. Mattison popped out and Hartmann grounded out to end the threat.
Wisen would issue a two-out walk in the top of the seventh, but induced a ground ball out to end the inning and put the Irish one win away form the championship.
Notre Dame had a feeling it could score against Dobbe in game two and the Irish would load the bases in the first and second inning. When it was all said and done, however, the Irish only got three runs and left six runners on base in the first two innings.
The first Irish run came on a bases loaded situation. Mattison bounced a routine ground ball to shortstop, but Virginia Tech’s Carmen Farmer decided to go for the force play at second. Myers hustled on the play and slid in ahead of the throw, making all the runners safe while Ciolli scored on the fielder’s choice.
Loman contributed a bases loaded single in the second inning to put the Irish up 3-0, but Dobbe escaped further damage by getting Bledsoe to pop up and Mattison to ground out.
Stenglein was back in the circle for the Irish in game two and she was equally as effective as the first game. The lone run she gave up was a home run by Shanel Garofalo that Kriech had her mit on before she crashed into the temporary outfield fence. It was a great effort by Kriech, who was down for a few minutes before popping up and continuing to play.
Even after giving up Garofalo’s big hit, Stenglein kept her composure and worked her way out of a few jams. She was helped by a great running catch by Ciolli in rightfield that saved a triple and she entered the fifth inning clinging to the 3-1 advantage.
Stenglein struck out Farmer to begin the inning, but Wylie touched her for a double to the wall in centerfield (Kriech actually crashed into the fence once again and saved the ball from becoming a home run). Gumpf immediately went to Wisen, who struck out Amy Voorhees to get to two outs. Clarissa Crowell managed a single to keep the pressure on, but Garofalo grounded out to second base to end the inning.
The Irish offense was unable to get a needed insurance run in the top of the seventh and Wisen walked back out to the circle in an attempt to close out the game and give the Irish their third conference crown in six years.
Evans reached base to lead off the inning with a single. Wisen came back to strike out Sarah Prosise. Courtney Brinkman then made solid contact on a ball to leftfield, but Hartmann had her played correctly and made a solid running catch for the second out. Wisen got Tiffany Hurt to strikeout on a 2-2 pitch to end the game.
Junior Andrea Loman, who led the Irish with seven RBI in the tournament, was named the BIG EAST Championship Most Outstanding Player after the games on Saturday. Loman was six for 17 (.353) with a double, triple and home run in the five Irish games.
IRISH RETURN HOME: Notre Dame is due back in South Bend, Ind., around 10 a.m. on Sunday, May 12 … fans wishing to greet the team upon its return should be at the circle in front of the Hesburgh Memorial Library around 10:15 a.m. … the NCAA Championship selection show is set for 8 p.m. Notre Dame time (9 p.m. eastern) on ESPN News.