April 28, 2015
A white numeral 3 was chalked into the green grass of center field Sunday at Melissa Cook Stadium, home of the University of Notre Dame softball team, to honor Fighting Irish star Emilee Koerner on Senior Day.
By the time the Fighting Irish polished off a 17-9 victory against North Carolina in the second game of an Atlantic Coast Conference doubleheader, Koerner had left a more lasting mark on the Notre Dame program.
Koerner drove in seven runs — tying a Notre Dame softball single-game record — giving the Irish a seismic surge of momentum heading into the final week of the regular season.
Head coach Deanna Gumpf’s Fighting Irish boast a 39-12 record overall and 17-6 mark in the ACC. Notre Dame won 17 of its last 18 ACC games to finish the regular season.
Koerner has played a key role in Notre Dame’s ACC success. She leads the league with a .493 batting average and added five home runs, 26 RBI and 28 runs scored in 23 ACC games.
On Sunday Koerner stepped on the Tar Heels, slugging a grand slam, a two-run double, and a one-run double in the 17-9 rout that sent North Carolina packing early after five innings.
“Emilee was huge,” Gumpf said of Koerner’s impact against the Tar Heels. “The RBI record is crazy, because we’ve had some amazing hitters in this program.”
Tying the RBI record on Senior Day marked a significant moment for Koerner, a left-handed hitting center fielder from Tustin, California.
“I didn’t even know until I got back in the dugout after the game I tied the record,” Koerner said. “That’s so cool, because this is potentially the seniors’ last game on this field, so to accomplish something like that is a huge honor.
“We’re not focused on personal records though. We’re focused on winning games for our team. But it was a fun, special day, and we’re really hopeful that we can be back out here for the (NCAA) regionals.”
According to Gumpf, Koerner is able to command exceptional focus at the plate, and keep the game simple.
“I attribute her success to having such a great mental approach,” Gumpf said of Koerner emerging as the ACC’s top hitter. “She’s been on fire. I love what she looks like at the plate. I love her swings. She swings at the right pitches. She’s working counts well. I’m really proud of her approach.
“Emilee keeps things as simple as possible. She doesn’t over-think the pitcher. She doesn’t over-think the count. She doesn’t over-think anything. That totally attributes to who she is at the plate.”
Confidence and maturity are hallmarks of great hitters. Gumpf said Koerner has the ability to clear her mind and concentrate on the matter at hand, hitting the ball in pressure situations.
“You want someone who is really quiet at the plate,” Gumpf said. “She’s quiet. She’s calm.”
Koerner’s focus allowed her to deliver when the Irish put runners on base ahead of her against North Carolina. Notre Dame jumped on the Tar Heels for 10 runs in the bottom of the first inning.
“We were up by so many and we were playing for the run rule, so I was really relaxed at the plate,” Koerner said about her grand slam. “I was just trying to find a pitch I could hit and swing at it. I took the first-pitch strike, so I knew they were coming at me with another strike pretty soon. I was looking for a good pitch to hit and put my bat on it.”
Koerner has shown remarkable development in her Notre Dame career. The two-time National Fastpitch Coaches Association (NFCA) All-American, and 2015 All-America candidate, has gone from a .320 hitter her freshman season to a .400 or above hitter in each of the past three seasons. Koerner was drafted by the USSSA Pride of the National Pro Fastpitch (NPF) league earlier this month, and will continue her softball career professionally this summer for the Kissimmee, Florida, based franchise.
“Emilee takes it year-by-year and doesn’t make anything bigger than it really is,” Gumpf said. “She’s done a really good job with that. She’s a dynamic player. She came in as a really good hitter, but she keeps getting better. She’s just one of those players who every year finds a way to get better. It’s impressive. It’s hard to do.”
Koerner’s goal for this season was to develop more discipline at the plate. Instead of swinging away at pitches she can’t hit, Koerner has honed a patience to select a pitch she can hit. She also has worked on not dwelling on previous at-bats.
“Mental toughness is probably the biggest thing, especially if you haven’t done as well earlier in the game,” Koerner said. “Staying mentally tough is important because it only takes one at-bat to change the game. Getting that extra focus in, especially with runners on, is really important.
“I’ve definitely grown with the amount of practice that we do. We take so many swings, so many more than I have my entire life, so it almost becomes second nature to be able to see live pitching and work on a good at-bat. You have good days and you have your really bad days. It goes back to that mental toughness of knowing good days will come again when you’re not doing your best–that’s what I’ve learned as a hitter.”
Gumpf said Koerner has been a difference-maker for the Irish.
“Everybody wants Emi up to bat, and they’ll try to find a way to get her up because they know how hard she’s working for them,” Gumpf said. “She’s the kid you want up all the time because she’s got speed, she’s got short-game and she’s got power. She’s tough.”
— Curt Rallo, special correspondent