Head coach Deanna Gumpf opens her 11th season at Notre Dame this weekend, having led the Fighting Irish to more than 400 wins, 10 NCAA Championship berths and four BIG EAST Conference titles in her first decade under the Golden Dome.

Notre Dame Spring Sports Preview: Softball

Feb. 16, 2012

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the latest in an ongoing series on UND.com, spotlighting the 2012 Notre Dame spring sports season with both written and video previews. Today, we take a look at the Fighting Irish softball team, a group that will feature a lot of new faces, but the same high goals that have made Notre Dame one of the nation’s top programs for many seasons.

Numbers don’t tell the entire story. But they tell quite a tale.

Such is the case for the upcoming Notre Dame softball season. Eight seniors departed from a record-setting 2011 campaign. Gone are 773 of 1,453 at-bats, 270 of 480 hits, 52 of 82 doubles, seven of 12 triples, 31 of 52 home runs, 186 of 291 RBI and a combined .349 batting average.

“With so many positions needing to be filled, every practice and every game will be that much more intense and competitive,” Irish head coach Deanna Gumpf says. “Every day we see the impact it has on this team, and it’s quite a positive impact.”

Charged with the task of replacing last season’s senior class – including the likes of 2011 BIG EAST Player of the Year Heather Johnson and 2010 BIG EAST Pitcher of the Year Jody Valdivia – Gumpf believes the endeavor may be much easier than many assume.

The “replacements” are ready to be unleashed.

“Graduating eight players is a huge adjustment – physically and mentally – for our team,” Gumpf says. “The interesting part of the whole thing is that I believe we’ll be better off in the long run having to adjust to such a loss. Our players are hungry. Players who may not have had the chance to step up and contribute finally have the opportunity to showcase their talents.

“This team is preparing like every player is going to start, which I absolutely love. We’ve had great depth for a while, and this season will be no different. Players are fighting for positions all over the field, and anyone could start on any given day.”

Gumpf attributes the whatever-it-takes attitude of this year’s team to a number of factors.

“We’ve lost a lot of numbers, a lot of power, a lot of games, a lot of plays and a lot of reps,” Gumpf says. “Our younger players are now receiving all of those plays, reps and swings. They feel like they can let it all hang out.

“They know that right now, this is their time. They’re acting like they’re due. They’ve got that swag.”

That swag starts at the top with seniors Kristina Wright, Kasey O’Connor, Alexa Maldonado and Dani Miller. Miller copped third team All-American honors as a junior and has been listed on a number of postseason awards list along with Maldonado over the last few years.

Wright may reestablish herself as the mainstay behind the dish, where she spent 56 games as a sophomore calling the shots for Valdivia. Valdivia went on be named the league’s top pitcher that season.

“Kristina has nothing holding her back,” Gumpf says. “No matter what happens, she’s giving it everything she’s got. She is playing like she’s got nothing to lose, and it’s always nice to see a senior playing like that. She’s not playing with a chip on her shoulder, but with a new sense of drive and determination.”

Wright will help tutor junior Amy Buntin and freshman Cassidy Whidden at the catcher position.

Miller will shoulder the same role of mentor at third base by taking freshman Katey Haus under her wing. Haus has plenty to look forward to as she’ll take note from the All-American who did not commit an error in 2011 and is the only Notre Dame player to hit double-digit home runs in each of her three seasons with the program.

“Katey is in the process of getting better each day, and her hands are fabulous on the defensive side of the ball,” says Gumpf. “You’re not going to find a harder worker than Dani, and her career at Notre Dame thus far is a testament to her efforts.”

Dani Miller

Miller was named to the USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year watch list, which includes 23 seniors, 20 juniors and seven sophomores, with freshmen ineligible for consideration. The top 25 finalists for the 2012 USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year award will be announced April 11.

Sophomore Chloe Saganowich will hold down the fort at shortstop, a spot left open by four-year starter Katie Fleury.

“Chloe is one of the best shortstops I’ve seen in a number of years,” Gumpf says. “Now that she has a year under her belt and learned the system, she’s felt her way through thick and thin to understand what will be expected of her this season.”

Expect to see second base occupied by O’Connor, who will take it upon herself to help groom freshman speedster Jenna Simon.

“Kasey has seen it all in her first three years on the team, and that experience is what we need from her,” Gumpf says. “She’s our vocal leader on and off the field and has trained herself to be a starter. Even when she’s not in the game, she still knows how to help the team win.

“Jenna has the tools to become a great second baseman and is still making the adjustment from playing shortstop in high school. When she trusts her range, she’ll be able to do anything at second base.”

Juniors Kathryn Lux and Jackie Bowe will share time at first base along with sophomore Laura Winter.

“No matter who is playing at first base, we know they’ll be able to get it done on both sides of the ball,” Gumpf says.

Winter and Bowe will also be making a few cameos in the circle along with junior Brittany O’Donnell.

“Laura received a lot of attention following a great first season but she’s added a few more tools to her game,” Gumpf notes. “She understands the college game better and makes fewer mistakes.

“Brittany is in a great spot, as she is a completely different pitcher than Laura. She’ll be able to throw a number of innings and give us the opportunity to rely on multiple pitchers. Brittany more than showed last season that we can depend on her in the big games. Jackie will be able to give us some great innings of work and adds a unique dynamic to the pitching staff.”

Beyond the infield, Notre Dame will lean on its cornerstone in the outfield in Maldonado.

“Alexa makes plays that no one else in the nation can make,” Gumpf says. “You can’t help but let your jaw drop when watching her play.”

The crafty Maldonado, who has been an all-league and all-region performer during her stint with the Irish, spent last summer playing for the USA Baseball Women’s National team. She’ll bring that experience back to the field to share with freshman Emilee Koerner, junior Kelsey Thornton and sophomores Monica Torres and Lauren Stuhr.

“I could not feel better about our outfield,” says Gumpf. “Whoever we have out there, we know they’ll be athletic, vocal and able to make big plays.”

Notre Dame will rely on each player at each position should it intend to live up to a few hefty preseason expectations.

Notre Dame was ranked 25th in the USA Softball poll, the highest of any BIG EAST Conference team. The Irish received 12 votes in the USA Today / NFCA preseason rankings, four spots outside of its top 25.

One of five teams to receive first-place votes in the BIG EAST preseason coaches’ poll, Notre Dame was picked to finish third in the league standings. DePaul was tabbed the preseason favorite by the league’s coaches. The 2012 poll marks the first time since the current conference formation was set in 2006 that five teams have split the first-place votes.

Notre Dame received three first-place votes on the heels of finishing the 2011 season as the BIG EAST regular-season champion with a 46-11 overall record and a 19-1 mark in conference play. Last season, the Irish led the league in batting average (.330), slugging percentage (.511), on-base percentage (.397), runs scored (333), RBI (291) and total bases (742).

DePaul earned three first-place votes and finished second in the 2011 regular-season standings. DePaul returns four all-BIG EAST selections, including 2011 Rookie of the Year Kristen Verdun.

Alexa Maldonado

Two-time defending tournament champion Syracuse earned four first-place votes to slide into the poll’s second spot.

“I feel very good about where we were placed in the polls,” Gumpf says. “From an outsider’s view, we lost a lot of players and many of our returners may be relatively unproven. It’s a perfect spot for us to start.

“Being ranked in the preseason polls speaks very loudly for the BIG EAST. Voters are seeing more and more league teams vying for a spot in the polls by competing with – and beating – some of the top teams in the nation. But at the end of the day, all that matters is the poll that comes out at the end of the season.”

The road to the final poll of the 2012 season begins with what Gumpf calls a “very balanced and competitive schedule.”

“This team knows that it has the ability to beat any team on any field,” notes Gumpf. “It will also be nice to be able to play so many games in front of our home crowd within the friendly confines of Melissa Cook Stadium.”

The spring starts with five games at the San Diego Classic (Feb. 17-19) with four more to be played one week later at an invitational hosted by North Carolina (Feb. 25-26).

For the second straight season, the Irish will play four games at the Diamond 9 Citrus Classic (March 3-4) held in Buena Vista, Fla., at the Disney Wide World of Sports complex.

Spring break will see the Irish play three games at an invite hosted by Long Beach State (March 10-11) with a single game at Loyola Marymount on March 13.

Notre Dame will play five games at the prestigious Judi Garman Classic from March 14-17.

From there, Notre Dame will trek all away across the continental United States to open the BIG EAST portion of the schedule with a three-game set at Georgetown (March 24-25).

Four straight home dates will pit the Irish against Toledo (March 28), Connecticut (March 31-April 1) and Northwestern (April 4).

The Irish travel to Purdue (April 5) and Rutgers (April 11) before settling in for a two-week home stretch with 11 games on the docket.

Syracuse (April 14-15) visits for a three-game BIG EAST series, DePaul (April 21-22) will be in town for three more league games and Michigan State (April 24) will make its first appearance at Notre Dame since 1994 before Seton Hall (April 25) heads to South Bend for a midweek doubleheader.

Notre Dame hits the road for three games at Providence (April 28-29) and then plays Northern Illinois (May 1) and Eastern Michigan (May 2) prior to the regular-season finale at Pittsburgh (May 5-6).

The BIG EAST Conference Championship will be held May 10-12 at Melissa Cook Stadium.

NCAA Regionals begin May 18 at campus sites with the Women’s College World Series lasting from May 29-June 3 in Oklahoma City, Okla.

— ND —