February 8, 1999
The 1998 season felt a little like a roller coaster ride to Notre Dame head softball coach Liz Miller. There was the team’s slow beginning, a 17-game win streak in the middle and then the team’s sudden descent at the BIG EAST Conference Championships.
This season, Miller expects more consistency from her squad, which still won its third straight BIG EAST South Division title in 1998. A huge part of reaching that goal will be the ability of the team to adjust to several changes on the defensive end. To begin the 1999 season, only senior catcher Kris McCleary is expected to start in the same position as last season.
“This fall we had a tremendous growth term,” said Miller, who is in her seventh season at Notre Dame. “We’ve made a lot of changes from where we were last season in terms of personnel, and we’re very inexperienced defensively in all our positions. But I feel very good about the progress the athletes have made in adjusting to their new positions.”
Another key for the Irish is being strong at all positions on the field, rather than just at certain ones.
“Our team strength will not be in any one individual or star,” Miller said. “It will be the strength of the total team working together that will determine our success.”
One person who will be making a defensive switch is team co-captain Amy Laboe, who will play first base. Laboe spent her first two seasons with the team backing up two-time BIG EAST first- team selection Kara McMahon. Last season, Laboe spent the majority of time as the team’s primary designated player, batting a career-best .294 and improving in every single offensive category. She also saw time at third base and in the outfield.
Who would be playing next to Laboe at second base was definitely a big question mark for Miller and her second-year assistant coaches Stephenie Henderson and Deanna Mays-Gumpf. In 1998, the Irish rotated several players, including senior Dawn Cunningham and sophomore Melanie Alkire, into the middle infield position. This season, freshman Kathleen Hoag, a two-time all-state selection from Connecticut, is expected to start at second despite breaking her hand during the fall season.
“Kathleen is very committed to the team and our program,” Miller said. “She plays with great heart and it shows in her hard-nosed play.”
At the other middle infield position will be Alkire, who will also see time on the mound when she is not playing shortstop. The sophomore from Union City, Calif., ended last season at second base but also saw some time at the shortstop position, which could prove valuable for a young team with so many defensive changes.
“Mel played some shortstop last year, but she’ll have a much bigger role there this year when she’s not pitching,” Miller said. “She’s also one of our strongest power hitters and we expect her to hit in the three, four or five slot in the lineup.”
Anchoring third base will be another freshman, Jarrah Myers, who at 5-9, is a powerful player whose only weakness may be experience. Myers, the 1998 Gatorade Kansas Player of the Year, won two state softball championships at Santa Fe Trail High School where she also was an all-state selection in both basketball and volleyball.
McCleary, at the catching position, is the only Irish player in the same defensive position from the 1998 season. The team’s other co-captain ended her junior year with a .980 fielding percentage and threw out 13 runners overall and five of eight in BIG EAST games. Although her batting average (.257) dipped a bit from the .311 mark she hit as a sophomore, McCleary’s collegiate experience could be the key ingredient for the team.
“Kris is a student of the game who has gained valuable experience behind the plate every year,” Miller said. “She just loves the challenge of the game.”
The Notre Dame outfield will include only one new face but features three position changes. Sophomores Danielle Klayman and Lizzy Lemire will play in center and left field respectively after all-BIG EAST performances as freshmen. Klayman, whose speed and diving abilities were an asset to the team in left field, also will need to develop her leadership skills as she takes over 1998 grad Jennifer Giampaolo’s position in centerfield.
Lemire, meanwhile, will take over for Klayman in left after spending her freshman year in right. One of four Californians on this year’s team, Lemire committed only one error in 47 attempts last year on defense for a .979 fielding percentage, second-best on the team behind McCleary’s .980 mark.
“Lizzy has improved on her skills going back for balls and as a result reads the ball very well in the power lane,” Miller said.
Replacing Lemire in right will be the third freshman in the Irish lineup, Jennifer Kriech. Originally expected to start in centerfield, Kriech should start in right, although an off-season illness may keep the second-team high school All-American from having all of her strength back to start the season.
Other new faces opponents could see in the outfield for Miller’s squad include freshman Holly Matsuda, the first Irish softball player from the state of Hawaii, and Angie Grimmer, who is at full strength after having surgery on her ankle.
In the infield, reserves Dawn Cunningham, who is recovering from a back injury, and Rebecca Eimen will see plenty of playing time for a team that has only 12 position players on its roster.
“As long as we keep everyone healthy, that’s actually a good number,” Miller said. “That way everyone gets more playing time and experience on the field.”
One position that is not in question this year is pitcher. The Irish return the 1998 BIG EAST Pitcher of the Year in sophomore Jennifer Sharron, who became the first freshman and the first Notre Dame pitcher to ever win the award. Sharron also was named first-team all-BIG EAST and to the BIG EAST all-rookie team after going 7-1 with a 0.90 earned-run average in regular-season conference play. Overall, the Agoura Hills, Calif., native finished with a 15-8 record and a 1.85 ERA.
With Sharron, the first southpaw pitcher in Notre Dame history, the Irish pitching staff returns senior Angela Bessolo and Alkire, while it welcomes freshman Michelle Moschel. Bessolo led the team in wins during the 1996-97 campaign and was first in strikeouts last season, going 5-8 overall.
“Angela Bessolo will see a lot of pitching time this year,” Miller says. “We really will be depending on and expecting Angela to be on the field a lot for us this year.”
“We have a variety of different kinds of pitchers who can match up to our opponents really well,” Miller said. “We’re not looking for our pitching staff to strike out 14 batters a game, but I think it has the ability to hold our opponents down to minimal runs.”
On the offensive side, the Irish hit .298 as a team in 1998 with seven players hitting over .300. In 1999, Klayman is expected to leadoff and Miller will depend on McCleary, Alkire and Lemire to be the team’s power hitters. Grimmer, who stole 32 bases in 1997 for Andrean High School in Crown Point, Ind., will be used as the team’s primary pinch runner, while Eimen also adds to the team’s speed on the basepaths.
“We’re pretty solid all the way through the lineup,” Miller says. “The biggest thing is that we have some freshmen who just need some experience.”
The freshmen and the rest of the team will have plenty of time to prepare before BIG EAST Conference play begins in April. The Irish start with three tournaments in Florida, Tennessee and Arizona, followed by a game with Cal State Fullerton and another tournament in San Jose, Calif. The team could play as many as three games per day in the tournament format.
“We play the toughest competition in the country the first three weeks out,” Miller said. “Usually those teams have already been outside on the field training, while this may be the first time we’ve even seen a field.
“Last season, we played competitively, but lost a lot of close games early. We came back from that experience and were stronger because of it. That’s when we really came out and dominated.”
After the tournament season, the Irish play a number of tough non-conference opponents, including the University of Illinois-Chicago and DePaul.
In 1999, the BIG EAST alignment will change. Instead of the old North and South divisions, there will be just one, composed of the conference’s eight teams from 1999 plus Pittsburgh, which is in its first season of BIG EAST play.
“I think that this new alignment is going to put a lot more pressure on us to make every game count,” Miller said. “You only play each team twice, instead of playing teams in your division three times a year.”
Boston College returns all nine starters and 12 of 13 letterwinners from last year’s BIG EAST championship team that went 38-14-1 and advanced to the NCAA Regionals. Another challenge for the Irish in the BIG EAST will come from Rutgers and Connecticut, which both return eight starters.
Along with the new defensive changes, Miller believes that the team also has taken on a new attitude.
“The team is very focused on total team and has developed a pride and a respect that they didn’t have a year ago,” Miller said. “If they can maintain this new attitude, especially throughout the tough preseason tournaments, we can be successful.”