Feb. 3, 2015
Leading up to Notre Dame softball’s 2015 season opening tournament at the So Cal Collegiate Classic, UND.com will examine the top four pressing questions facing the Irish entering the new campaign. With the team’s second official season in the Atlantic Coast Conference on the horizon, here is the latest installment in the official preseason preview series.
NOTRE DAME, Ind. – The 2014 season was a banner campaign for the University of Notre Dame softball team in more ways than one.
The Irish made their 16th consecutive appearance, and earned their 19th overall bid in 26 seasons of varsity competition, in the NCAA Championship last season, finishing with a 41-13 record after competing in the NCAA Los Angeles Regional. Notre Dame also placed second in the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) regular-season standings with a 16-5 league mark in its first season in the conference, ultimately reaching the final game of the ACC Championship tournament in College Park, Maryland.
What’s more, Melissa Cook Stadium played host to not only one of the best statistical offenses in team history last season, but also one of the most prolific in all of NCAA Division I softball. Team records set by the 2014 Notre Dame team included the highest batting average (.357) and most doubles (107, 1.98 doubles per game) in a single season in program history, figures that also led all Division I teams in the NCAA. The Irish, who also had a team-best 533 hits and a .419 on-base percentage, also finished second nationally with a .552 slugging percentage and were seventh in scoring after tallying 6.69 runs per game.
Off its slugging success, Notre Dame was ranked among the national top 25 teams over the final 14 weeks of 2014, tying a program record set by the 2001 Irish team (54-7) for consecutive weeks appearing in the national polls during a single season.
With 13 monogram winners back in the fold, 11 of whom made at least one plate appearance last season, the bar is already set very high for the 2015 Notre Dame offense.
“My favorite thing about our offensive game right now has to be the experience level in the lineup itself,” Notre Dame head coach Deanna Gumpf said. “That consistency and experience level probably won’t ever happen again, this is a special year for our offense. What we need to focus on is not looking back but what is going to be special about this offense this year, and the great thing about that is we have lots of options. We have speed, we have power, and we have playmakers.”
The Irish also return production. Of the 11 returners on offense, Notre Dame hitters combined for a .374 team batting average, 293 of the team’s 361 runs scored, 425 of the team’s 533 hits, 79 of the team’s 107 doubles, 40 of the team’s 53 home runs and 258 of the 336 total RBI from 2014.
While that experience will prove to be invaluable, Gumpf said that it is up to the 2015 edition of the Irish to forge their own identity.
“My goal is for this offense to find its own niche and what makes them special, what makes them great, and what offensive legacy this team is going to leave,” Gumpf said. “I am excited about the fact that this offense, being the most experienced we have ever had, will bring something totally new to Notre Dame softball.”
The top half of the Notre Dame lineup is expected to look relatively familiar to Irish fans. Two-time National Fastpitch Coaches Association (NFCA) All-American Emilee Koerner (.433, team record 28 doubles, 11 home runs, 51 RBI, team record 65 runs) and 2014 NFCA All-America second team choice Karley Wester (.455, 81 hits, 28 RBI, 26 stolen bases, 50 runs) shared an even split of the team’s leadoff duties at 27 games apiece last season.
Both players could again fill that table-setter role this season, but it will be calculated planning by the Notre Dame coaching staff to find the lineup that works.
“I love Emi as a leadoff hitter and I love Wester as a leadoff hitter, and I kind of have to coin flip who is going lead the way for the lineup,” Gumpf said. “I don’t want to stifle Wester’s speed at all, so that’s how we have decided to put her at the top in the past. With Emi’s power, I don’t want to stifle that either, we want her to swing the bat. I want her to have that choice always, so that’s why she is not directly behind Wester. They are kind of working together while making sure they use their own strengths every given at-bat.”
The top half of the lineup certainly did its part to spark the rest of the Notre Dame offense last season, as evidenced by Koerner and Wester pacing all other team members in runs scored by a large margin. Not only that, the consistency of the top half of the order also fostered a powerful ripple effect through the rest of the team in all three phases of the game.
“It’s a trust factor with the offense now, between the offense and the coaching staff, even with the defense and pitchers,” Gumpf said. “It makes pitching and defense a little bit easier when you have that trust in the offensive side of the game. There’s going to be days where we aren’t going to score a lot of runs and the offensive side will be tough, and that’s where we rise above it defensively and on the mound. We have been so lucky in the fact that we have been able to depend on it, and even though I don’t want us to ever think like that, it certainly gives us a comfort level.
“It’s ok for us not to be comfortable once in a while, so I am all right with the fact that it might be hard,” Gumpf added. “We have got to fight through that, that’s what is going to make us a great team.”
With all of the offensive mettle that the 2014 Notre Dame lineup showcased in the batter’s box, it was not surprising to see numerous Irish players establish career offensive benchmarks at the dish. A total of 11 Notre Dame hitters set career highs in batting average and hits last season, while Koerner finished one double shy of the NCAA single season doubles record and NFCA second team All-American Micaela Arizmendi (.382, 17 doubles, 15 home runs, 61 RBI) was just two home runs from tying the Notre Dame single season mark of 17.
Gumpf was quick to point to the acumen of her coaching staff, particularly associate coach Lizzy Ristano, in instilling a mentality that the offense could and should be among the best in all of collegiate softball.
“I attribute the successes to consistency and belief, mainly consistency in what they do every day as hitters,” Gumpf said. “I think Lizzy does a great job of keeping things consistent and keeping us working on things that are important, but also having that belief in knowing how good we really are.”
Two offensive additions to the 2015 Notre Dame roster are a pair of freshmen middle infielders currently battling for the starting shortstop role. Morgan Reed (Maylene, Alabama) and Sara White (San Diego, California) will both look to fill time at one of the few vacant positions in the Irish defensive alignment.
Reed begins her first collegiate season fresh off a tremendous year at the plate for Briarwood Christian High School in 2014, where she hit at a .434 clip with 13 doubles, 13 triples, a .530 on-base percentage and scored 53 runs as a senior co-captain. A two-time Alabama Sports Writers Association (ASWA) 5A all-state first team selection, Reed was also tabbed as a finalist for the 2014 Alabama Gatorade Softball Player of the Year award.
An all-state performer at Rancho Bernardo High School, White posted a .457 average as a senior, adding team most valuable player and league most valuable player accolades to her resume. White, who is also a member of the Notre Dame pitching staff, provides the Irish with the element of a hitting pitcher in the lineup in situations where she is in the circle.
Starting the newcomers on a path to success, Gumpf felt, was a near seamless transition in acclimating Reed, White and fellow freshman Bailey Bigler (Newtown, Pennsylvania) to Notre Dame’s offensive style of play.
“The younger players don’t know anything else, so they are stepping into Notre Dame softball the way that we play the game,” Gumpf said. “They are expecting to jump right in the lineup and do things the same way the older girls do. They definitely have a fire about them, and I want that fire and tenacity to really break through for the young kids because they can make a big bang if they have that same belief.”
Visit UND.com on Wednesday for the fourth and final installment of the Rounding the Bases with the Irish series. For the latest news and updates on all things Notre Dame softball, visit www.und.com/softball, follow the Irish @NDsoftball and @NDcoachGumpf on Twitter and at Instagram.com/notredamesoftball, and Like the team at Facebook.com/NDSoftball.
— Tony Jones, Media Relations Assistant