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Irish Determined To Stay Among Softball Elite

Jan. 11, 2002

The 2001 Notre Dame softball season ended with the Irish one step away from the program’s first visit to the College World Series. The most successful season in Irish softball history came to an end with a loss to Iowa in the Region VII finals, running into a Hawkeye team that peaked at the perfect time and was energized by a hometown crowd in Iowa City, Iowa.

As the 2002 season approaches, a casual observer might not expect Notre Dame to get back to that same position at the end of the new season. A group of five seniors, possibly the most accomplished group in Notre Dame softball history, have moved on and graduated. In addition, the Irish lost an All-American pitcher who transferred and a Hall of Fame coach announced her retirement.

What remains is a core group of highly talented players that are determined to keep Notre Dame softball among the elite programs in the nation.

Deanna Gumpf, one of the top pitching coaches in the nation and Liz Miller’s senior aide for the past four seasons, has assumed the reigns of the program. Even with the turnover on the Irish roster, Gumpf has not changed the goals of the team in 2002.

“Our goal is to get to the World Series and to do that, you have to win at the regional tournament,” Gumpf says.

“That is our focus. We want to win the BIG EAST Championship and move on to win the regional. Every person on our team is ready for that challenge this year.”

Even though a highly talented group of seniors graduated last year, most of their spots in the lineup will be filled by very capable backups and an impressive group of freshmen. The rookies will play a major role on the team, but none more important than in the pitching circle. The loss of All-Americans Jennifer Sharron and Kristin Schmidt means that freshmen Steffany Stenglein and Carrie Wisen, along with junior Jessica Sharron, will give the Irish a talented, but unproven group of starting pitchers.

“This team is very aware of our inexperience in the pitching staff,” Gumpf says.

“They are prepared for it. The pitchers know that they cannot act like freshman and they need to be experienced without any experience. They have a great defense behind them and as long as they keep the ball in the park, our team can compete with anyone in the country.”

Stenglein, an Irvine, Calif., native, was third in the nation in strikeouts for her high school team in 2000. She is an all-around talent, capable of contributing in the batter’s box as well as the pitching circle.

“Steffany is a competitor and wants to be the best,” Gumpf says.

“She has a variety of pitches, but her strongest pitch is the rise ball. Her best quality is that she throws hard, but her delivery is very deceptive. She doesn’t look like she is throwing hard and that is going to be a strength for her.”

Wisen, 6-1 with a 0.59 ERA in 2000, brings a different pitching style than her classmate, enabling the Irish to adjust their starter for each game after analyzing the upcoming opponent’s strengths and weaknesses.

“Carrie is a finesse pitcher,” Gumpf says.

“She hits her spots very well and has good movement on all her pitches. She has a great drop and changeup. If she continues to hit her spots well and throws the ball where she wants it to be, she will be very effective.”

Sharron, who did not see much action during the last two seasons, is ready for the challenge of more innings in both a relief and starting role.

“Jessica is going to get more pitching time this year,” Gumpf says.

“The best thing about Jessica is her desire. She wants to be successful and that is going to take her to where she wants to be. Her main role will be relief at this point, but she will see some starting time as well.”

Looking at the Irish infield behind the pitchers, Notre Dame boasts one of the best defenses in the nation.

“The defense on the infield is the strength of our team,” Gumpf says.

“They all know each other very well and have played together for at least two years. The infield is going to make a great difference for us this season.”

The captain of that infield will be senior catcher and all-star candidate Jarrah Myers. Myers established herself as one of the top catchers, both offensively and defensively, in the country last season. A third team All-American in 2001, Myers led the Irish in most offensive statistical categories. The Carbondale, Kan., native drove in 41 runs, posted a .380 batting average, hit seven home runs and stole 12 bases. Myers strong arm can shut down an opposing team’s running game, as evidenced by Notre Dame’s opponents attempting just 28 steals against the Irish last year.

“I expect this to be Jarrah’s best year at Notre Dame,” Gumpf says.

“She is a big leader for us both on and off the field. Jarrah is very passionate about everything she does. She will dominate the game from behind the plate and lead the defense on the field. I am very excited to see her hit this year as well.”

Freshman Annie Dell’Aria (Fairfax, Vir.) will back up Myers at catcher. A prototypical power hitter who reached the finals of the 2000 Boulder Home Run Derby, Dell’Aria might also see some time at first base.

“Annie is ready to go in and contribute right now,” Gumpf says.

“Fortunately and unfortunately, she is behind an All-American. She will use this season as a training year and prepare to step in next year and pick up where Jarrah will leave off.”

Sophomore Chantal DeAlcuaz also is in the mix at catcher. DeAlcuaz plays a key role on the team preparing pitchers both in the bullpen and before the second game of a doubleheader.

“The great thing about Chantal is that, although she has not received a lot of playing time, she is invaluable to the program,” Gumpf says.

“She does a great job with our pitchers. She is very knowledgeable about pitching and she understands what a pitcher needs to do to be successful. She is very good in that role.”

At first base, Notre Dame will need to find a replacement for Andrea Loman, who has shifted to third. While Loman might still see some limited time at first base, all-BIG EAST designated player Lisa Mattison is the top candidate to see the most playing time. Freshman Liz Hartmann, who is talented enough to backup every defensive position (except catcher) for the Irish this season, also will see time at first base.

Lisa Mattison

“As long as Lisa continues to hit the ball, she will find a place in the lineup,” Gumpf says.

“She had a great season in the BIG EAST last year and if she can duplicate that production she will be a great asset to our team.”

Hartmann, although just a rookie, will play a crucial role for Notre Dame this season. Whether in the outfield or infield, the Novato, Calif., native will be ready to make an immediate impact.

“Liz can play anywhere, but once she finds a spot and stays there she can be an all-star candidate,” Gumpf says.

“I see great things in her future. She is beyond her years on the field and is ready for anything. I am very excited about her career at Notre Dame.”

Alexis Madrid

Now a three-year starter, Alexis Madrid will patrol her usual spot at second base for Notre Dame in 2002. Madrid did it all in 2001, hitting .303, driving in 14 runs (including four game-winning hits) and laid down seven sacrifice bunts.

“Alexis is going to continue to surprise people,” Gumpf says.

“She is not flashy, but she is the most steady, consistent and reliable player out there. She will always surprise people (Madrid is just 5-1) because no one expects the production that we get from her day in and day out.”

Andria Bledsoe

Gumpf is looking forward to seeing the new Irish shortstop in action this season. Junior Andria Bledsoe has moved from third to short and is poised to have a break out season after a stellar effort in the NCAA Region VII tournament last season. Bledsoe hit over .500 in the NCAAs last year, capping off a 30 RBI season in which she posted 14 doubles and 44 total hits.

“Andria is going back to where she started (at shortstop),” Gumpf says.

“Playing third base was new to her and to step in and do what she did over the last two years has been great. At shortstop she is phenomenal. Every day she gets better and better – and she is already a great player. She is the strongest she has ever been in her career right now.”

One of the most intimidating Irish hitters of all time returns to play third base for Notre Dame in 2002. Junior Andrea Loman has shifted across the infield from first to third and will be an immediate All-America candidate on the hot corner. After a slow start to the 2001 season, Loman surged to hit .335, drive in 32 runs and smack five home runs.

“As a corner player, Andrea can do it all. She will make plays that will amaze you. She will be a dominate force at third base.”

The outfield will be anchored by senior All-American Jenny Kriech in centerfield. Kriech has played right field throughout her career, but also is a natural centerfielder that can dominate defensively. The Irish leadoff hitter last year, Kriech was an unstoppable offensive force, hitting .369 with 72 hits, leading the country in triples with 10, knocking in 27 runs, scoring 50 runs and stealing 19 bases. Kriech also spent 20 games hitting above .400 last season and was perfect in the field with 42 putouts and three outfield assists.

“Jenny’s mental strength is amazing,” Gumpf says.

Jenny Kriech

“She is intense, determined and exactly what you want to solidify a lineup. Jenny is a born leader and just a great all-around player.”

The other outfield positions are not quite settled yet, but Gumpf is sure that freshman Megan Ciolli will be in either right or left field for Notre Dame when the lineup card is turned in. The Indiana state home run champion in 1999 (Ciolli is from Terre Haute, Ind.), the rookie boasted a high school batting average over .500 and stole over 70 bases.

“Megan is going to turn some heads this year,” Gumpf says.

“Her speed is a huge part of her success. She also has both a power and short game and will contribute in many different ways this season.”

Senior Kas Hoag also will see time in the outfield, as well as designated player for Notre Dame in 2002.

“Kas is a very determined player who can fill in a lot of different spots for us,” Gumpf says.

“You need a person like Kas on your team because she is a go-to player. She will pull through when the game is on the line.”

In addition to Liz Hartmann adding depth in the outfield, sophomore Nicole deFau can add her speed and defensive prowess to the lineup.

“Nicole’s transition from freshman to sophomore has been tremendous,” Gumpf says.

“She is expecting to do well and when a player thinks that way, they are usually successful. She brings a strong defensive game to our lineup.”

In keeping with the tradition Liz Miller started many years ago, Notre Dame will play a highly competitive early season schedule in 2002. The Irish will take part in the perennially tough NFCA Leadoff Classic and Kia Klassic Tournaments, as well as a first weekend trip to Arizona.

“The best thing we could do is to start with the schedule we have,” Gumpf says.

“Except for the freshmen on our team, everyone knows exactly what we are facing this season. They know that we are stepping into the fire and will be ready for it. All our early season schedule will do is make us a better team at the end of the season. In order for us to accomplish our goals, it is crucial for us to have a very competitive preseason.”