Feb. 7, 2000
NOTRE DAME, Ind. – The goal for the 2000 Notre Dame softball team can be summed up in two words – confidence and consistency.
In 1999, the Irish, who finished 42-20 overall, displayed the confidence needed to finish undefeated in BIG EAST play and then capture the team’s first-ever conference tournament championship. The team also advanced to the NCAA Regionals for the first time since 1996, defeating fifth-ranked Michigan before falling in extra innings to Nebraska.
“We had some very big highlights last year particularly in our BIG EAST competition, which had been an area where we had not reached our goals in the past,” said head coach Liz Miller, who enters her eighth year with the Irish. “The team last year was very focused on BIG EAST competition and performed very well, which were really big pluses for us.”
This year, however, without the benefit of a senior class, the Irish must use that confidence if they are to repeat as champions and advance toward the program’s overall goal, the NCAA Softball Women’s College World Series.
“Maintaining consistency and understanding the importance of every game that we play are two of our goals, ” Miller said. “Every game affects our power ranking, which in the end determines any chance for an at-large bid. We just can’t afford to have bad losses.”
In 2000, the Irish return seven of the team’s nine starters from ’99 and 10 of their 14 monogram winners. Included in the group of returnees is 1999 BIG EAST Player of the Year Melanie Alkire, two-time conference pitcher of the year Jennifer Sharron and ’99 BIG EAST Rookie of the Year Jarrah Myers. Sharron and Alkire were joined last season on the all-BIG EAST first team by fellow returnees outfielder Lizzy Lemire and outfielder Jennifer Kriech.
In 2000, the Irish already have been picked by the conference coaches to finish first in the BIG EAST, garnering eight of the nine first-place votes. Individualy, Sharron (pitcher of the year) and Alkire (player of the year) earned preseason player-of-the-year accolades, and were joined by Lemire and Kriech on the preseason all-BIG EAST squad.
Here is a position-by-position look at the 2000 Notre Dame softball team:
Sharron returns after winning the conference’s award for the top pitcher for the second time in her career. During the offseason, Sharron, who went 20-10 with a 1.20 earned-run average as a sophomore, in ’99 worked hard on adding an off-speed drop ball to her pitching repertoire. With two years of experience, including starting duties in all of the team’s biggest games, Sharron also has evolved into a more intelligent pitcher.
“The last two years, she has been in the toughest pressure games coming down the stretch, so that experience will be invaluable,” Miller said. “She also is no longer trying to throw it by batters. Instead, she’s trying to work batters to force them to hit the ball where she wants them to go.”
“The area where she has gotten better and better is her maturity,” pitching coach Deanna Gumpf added. “I think that will help her become a much better pitcher, because she’s becoming smarter than the batters and not just better.”
Another change for the southpaw this season will be spending less time concentrating on her batting, despite finishing with the team’s third-best average (.336) in 1999.
“We’re going to keep having her hit, but Jen’s priority is pitching,” Miller says. “We know for us to succeed, Jen Sharron has to be the person that is going to lead us from the mound. That doesn’t mean we don’t want her to hit, that just means that hitting is not going to be our focus with her and we don’t want it to be her focus either. We’re looking for other players from the team to put their focus on offense, so Jen can concentrate on pitching. Otherwise, she starts to spread herself out too much and there aren’t enough hours in the day to try to do everything that she wants to do. “
Sharron, one of the team’s two 2000 captains, will be joined in the pitching circle by sophomore Michelle Moschel, Alkire, her sister, freshman Jessica Sharron and Jill Harris.
Moschel begins her second year on the mound as the team’s other starting pitcher after a year of learning as a freshman. She went 5-3 in ’99 with four saves in just over 50 innings. At 5-5, Moschel has good movement on her ball and can throw deceivingly fast despite her slight frame.
“Michelle’s really going to surprise people this year if they don’t know much about her or saw her throw last year,” Gumpf said. “Michelle believes that she can beat people now.”
Unlike last season, Alkire will see a lot more time on the mound with the graduation of pitcher Angela Bessolo, who started in 21 games for the Irish in 1999. In 13 appearances on the mound as a sophomore, Alkire was used mostly as a relief pitcher, coming in when the team needed to get outs.
“Mel is going to be a great role pitcher for us, especially in tournaments where we play three games in a row,” Miller said. “She is a complete opposite (from our other pitchers) as far as her style of pitching and has a tremendous ability to field her position defensively. We were limited last year, because of our changes in our infield, so Mel didn’t end up with a lot of opportunities to pitch. We have the depth this year to allow her to throw more.”
Freshman Jessica Sharron will see a similar role with the team as Moschel saw last season, coming in for short innings or when the team needs a change of pace.
“Jessica is a year away,” Miller said. “She is working very hard and is improving everytime she goes out there.”
Following the graduation of four-year starter Kris McCleary, Myers will make the move to her more natural position behind the plate after starting in all 62 games at third base for the Irish in 1999.
“Jarrah is moving behind the plate, which is where she is comfortable,” Miller said. “Last year, she was at third base because the team needed her to be, but it was not her place. She has been a catcher her entire life and that’s where she belongs, where she’s comfortable and where her strengths are.”
Myers, who was a force for Notre Dame offensively as a freshman in 1999 (.330 avg., 10 doubles, 4 home runs), offers a quick release on her throw as well as a commanding presence behind the plate.
“She’s the quarterback of our team,” Miller said. “She’s very vocal and works extremely well on getting her pitchers to throw to the best of their ability. “Another of her strengths is her command of the game. She doesn’t lose control under pressure and stays very focused and those situations.”
With Myers’ position at third base vacant and the graduation of first baseman Amy Laboe, freshmen Andria Bledsoe (third) and Andrea Loman (first) are slated to take over the corner positions.
“At the corners right now, we have two freshmen, Andria Bledsoe at third and Andrea Loman at first, who have played those positions before,” Miller said. “Last year, Amy Laboe had never played first and Jarrah had never played third, so we had no experience in our lineup at those positions. This year, the biggest difference is Andria and Andrea’s aggressiveness and confidence level. They just know what to do in situations, because they’ve played there before.”
In the middle infield, Alkire returns to claim her starting position at shortstop, while the team’s third freshman in the infield, Alexis Madrid, will start at second base.
“Alexis has great hands, great footwork and consistency is a key for her,” Miller said. “She doesn’t make a lot of mistakes and she’s smart. You know she is going to be where she is supposed to be at the right time.”
While there will be changes in the infield, all three starters in the outfield, Lemire in left, junior co-captain Danielle Klayman in center and Kriech in right, all return.
“Last year we focused on getting our outfield ready for the season,” Miller said. “This year we’re moving onto bigger things, because they’re much more confident, their communication level is much higher and they just know what to do in situations.”
Off the bench, the Irish have a variety of different options, including outfielders Angie Grimmer and Sarah Kirkman and infielders Lisa Mattison and Rebecca Eimen. Miller also expects utility player Kas Hoag to play a big role in the team’s success.
“Kas is someone who puts everything on the line,” Miller says. “Kas plays with true passion for the team and Notre Dame, which is everything you want in a player, because you know that she’s going to go out and do whatever she can to help.”
Offensively, the Irish bring back their top four hitters in Lemire (.351), Alkire (.345), Sharron and Myers. Lemire, Alkire, Myers and Kriech also contributed 18 of the team’s record 29 home runs in 1999, while the Irish led the BIG EAST Conference in both team batting average (.347) and runs per game (6.3).
“Our offense was strong last year, but we’re trying to get more variety this year,” Miller said. “We’re going to try to get more short game in with the long game and be more aggressive, because we have a lot more speed this season.”
The Irish begin the 2000 season with their usual rigorous tournament schedule. A trip to Las Vegas will be followed by tournaments in Arkansas and Bristol, Tenn., before the Irish head out west to the Kia Classic in Fullerton, Calif., which includes 11 of the country’s top 25 teams as ranked in the 2000 National Fastpitch Coaches Association (NFCA) preseason poll. A short trip to a six-team tournament at Purdue also is scheduled.
“We have a tough schedule, but we intentionally look for that,” Miller says. “Our goal is to win some of these preseason tournaments and not to just play in them. Our goal last year was to try to win one and we did. Our goal this year is to win more than one.”
Non-conference opponents DePaul and Illinois-Chicago will provide the Irish with mid-season challenges, but Miller and the Irish remain focused on their main goal, winning the BIG EAST and clinching a berth in the NCAA tournament.
“We try and mix DePaul and UIC in the middle of our schedule, but that’s not our priority. Our priority is to win a conference championship.”
In the BIG EAST, the Irish expect to receive challenges from Boston College, which returns all but one starter, Connecticut, 1999 BIG EAST runner-up Seton Hall and Villanova.
“The team has set some very high goals and they’re focused on achieving those goals,” Miller says. “Right now, they’re doing those things that you have to do to achieve those goals and make them realistic.”