Jan. 27, 2003
by Alan Wasielewski
The 2003 University of Notre Dame softball team returns six position starters and two starting pitchers from the 2002 edition of the Fighting Irish. That team rallied back from an 8-12 start to win the BIG EAST Championship and finish one game away from every college softball team’s ultimate goal – the Women’s College World Series in Oklahoma City, Okla..
Head coach Deanna Gumpf, entering her second full season, knows what the Irish will need to do in 2003 to be handed those coveted plane tickets to Hall of Fame Stadium as a regional champion.
“We need to focus on the strengths of our team,” Gumpf says.
“The focus should be on us and to make sure that we are consistent. We have to take care of business every day.”
The Irish have a number of strengths this year, making it difficult to pick out just one that stands above the rest. Almost every player in the lineup can hit the ball out of the park at any time, demonstrated by the team record 54 home runs (hit by 10 different players) in 2002. Notre Dame can defend the infield and outfield, setting a school-record for fielding percentage last year (.971) and contributing 15 outfield assists. The pitching staff, knocked around a bit during the preseason a year ago, returns with a wealth of experience and a talented rookie to throw into the mix. Put it all together and the Irish will be a team to reckon with this year.
“I think our biggest strength is our five seniors, their experience and their goals for this team,” Gumpf says.
“They are prepared to get our team to where we want to be.”
The Notre Dame senior class, shortstop Andria Bledsoe, third base Andrea Loman, second base Alexis Madrid, first base Lisa Mattison and pitcher Jessica Sharron, represent over 700 games played in their careers. Bledsoe, Loman and Madrid have been starters since they stepped on campus (and were voted as team captains by their teammates for the 2003 season), while Mattison has been a starter at first base or DP for the past two years. It is an infield loaded with talent, experience and desire.
Loman, who earned third-team All-America honors last season, has established herself as one of the top players in the country during her career. She was at first base for her freshman and sophomore seasons before shifting across the diamond to dominate at third base.
“I believe that Andrea is the best third base in the country,” Gumpf says.
“Her strengths are unbelievable. She puts her teammates and coaches in awe daily with what she can do on the field. The best thing about Andrea this year is that she has taken on a great leadership role with the team and I think that will take her game to even greater heights. She is an amazing player.”
Amazing might be an understatement for a player that can dominate both offensively and defensively. Loman hit .377 in ’02, piling up 66 hits, 12 home runs and 43 RBI. She is a beast on the base paths (42 career stolen bases, including 16-18 last year) and stellar in the field. Despite playing the second half of the season with a broken finger on her throwing hand, Loman posted a .962 fielding percentage at one of the most challenging positions on the field. Six of her eight errors were committed with the fractured finger, but that did not keep her from taking home the BIG EAST Championship Most Outstanding Player award last year. The Riverside, Calif., native takes pride in her offense and defense and has shown the ability to take away any sacrifice bunt attempted down the third-base line.
Move across the positions of the infield and Notre Dame’s team strength will not wane. Senior shortstop Andria Bledsoe is back for another year of stellar defense and timely hitting. Bledsoe drove in 43 RBI last year, banged out a career-best seven home runs and was nearly flawless in the left side hole.
Andria Bledsoe is one of the top shortstops in the nation, excelling both offensively and defensively for the Irish.
“Andria is a rock,” Gumpf says.
“She is very solid and controls the infield in every situation. I consider Andria a dream shortstop. She commits minimal errors and is extremely knowledgeable about the game. She makes the difficult plays look easy.”
To Bledsoe’s left will be four-year starter Alexis Madrid at second base. Madrid has started every possible game since she arrived in 2000 and contributes speed and leadership to the Irish lineup.
“Alexis is a very consistent second basemen,” Gumpf says.
“She is steady and a very good leader. She is very balanced and that is a big part of what we need from her. She gets the job done every way.”
Behind Bledsoe and Madrid on the bench is rookie Sara Schoonaert. Schoonaert will see playing time this season, but she also will get an education backing up two of the best middle infielders in collegiate softball.
“Sara will see some time at second base and shortstop to prepare her for next year,” Gumpf says.
“I expect great things from her (in 2004), but this is more of a preparation year for her.”
At first base, Notre Dame features two traditional sluggers who will both see significant playing time. Senior Lisa Mattison returns after a stellar ’02 campaign (.325 avg., 53 hits, 4 HR, 27 RBI) and is coming back from a stress fracture in her foot suffered during the summer. Freshman Meagan Ruthrauff gives Gumpf the ability to ease Mattison back into the lineup, or provide Notre Dame with a hard-hitting designated player.
“At this point Lisa and Meagan will be sharing time,” Gumpf says.
“Lisa has been injured for the last six months so we are going to work her back in slowly. I think (Lisa and Meagan) work well together and help each other out. They are both tremendous hitters and I want both of them in the line up at all times.
“Meagan is the kind of player that will run through a wall for you. She is a joy because she will do anything for this program – no questions asked.”
The infield backstop this season also features two talented players. Junior Chantal DeAlcuaz and freshman Mallorie Lenn will both be catching for the Irish this season in a bid to replace All-American Jarrah Myers. Each player will bring her own personal strengths to the Notre Dame lineup.
“Mallorie is going to be a physically dominating catcher,” Gumpf says.
“She has the tools, she just needs the experience. I like the fact that she gets better every day. Chantal has trained for three years and she can bring a different kind of strength. She understands our pitchers very well and knows how we operate as a team. They will both play an important role for us this year.”
Lenn had the opportunity to sneak in some serious competition during the fall of 2002, as she landed a spot on the U.S. Junior National team. Among her highlights on with the Pan American Gold Medal-winning team, Lenn drove in the lone run during round-robin competition against future gold-medal opponent Canada, then kick-started a six-run rally against the Canadians (while catching every inning) in the gold medal game.
The Notre Dame 2003 outfield provides both a headache and a smile for the Irish coaching staff. The headache comes from attempting to find playing time for four talented players, but the smile comes from knowing that you possess that kind of luxury.
An all-region selection while playing right field a year ago, sophomore Megan Ciolli will be in the starting lineup for the Irish. Ciolli enjoyed one of the top freshman seasons in the country a year ago, piling up 67 hits, four home runs and 24 RBI. She will step into the lead off role for the Irish in 2003.
“We are very excited about Megan on offense this year,” Gumpf says.
“She will be our leadoff. She brings so much to the table with her speed and power. Teams have a very hard time defending her because they do not know what she is going to do. My goal for her this year is to become a leader in the outfield. I want her to be passionate with her leadership and take control because she has the ability to do that.”
Ciolli will be joined in the outfield by any combination of sophomore Liz Hartmann, junior Nicole deFau and freshman Kellie Middleton.
Hartmann was the starting leftfielder for the Irish last year and set a Notre Dame rookie record for home runs in a season with seven. She also provided the highlight of the year, slamming a three-run home run in the top of the seventh to knock off #4 Nebraska in Lincoln. Although that home run (which was the first of her career) was heroic, Hartmann showed even more courage to her teammates late in the season by playing through a painful leg injury to appear in every postseason game. She is still on her way back from post season surgery.
“If we can keep her healthy, Liz can be very good,” Gumpf says.
“She has a gun, one of the best arms I have ever seen in the outfield. She loves her position too. She brings so much to the table offensively and defensively. She has a rocket for an arm and offensively you never know when she is going to hit one out.”
Nicole deFau has patiently awaited her chance at a starting role for the last three years and will see a significant jump in playing time this season.
“Nicole is fighting very hard for a starting position,” Gumpf says.
“She will be starting some games in the outfield. Her speed helps her tremendously out there and her experience will benefit the team as well.”
The fourth Irish freshman, Kellie Middleton, also is making a strong push to appear in the starting lineup. Middleton brings speed, strength and desire to the Irish outfield.
“Kellie has been a pleasure because her learning curve is tremendous,” Gumpf says.
“She is very exciting to watch. She is a player that people should keep an eye on because she is going to be very good. Kellie is fast, smart and aggressive. She is not afraid to fail and has all the qualities that a great player should have.”
Gumpf also begins the 2003 season with a far different pitching staff than she had just a year ago. Entering the ’02 season, Steffany Stenglein and CarrieWisen were two freshman pitchers thrown to the wolves as Notre Dame traditionally plays a very strong early-season schedule. Both rookies battled through their learning phase to become highly effective at the end of the year. Gumpf expects even more in 2003.
“Our sophomore pitching will be a strength for us this season,” Gumpf says.
“After what they went through last year, they know exactly what to expect and they are ready to take on any team in the nation.”
Stenglein was a workhorse for Notre Dame last season, setting school records for appearances and innings pitched. She also matched the school mark for wins in a season with 27. She ended up with a 1.92 ERA, 216 strikeouts and 13 complete games (including a perfect game against eventual BIG EAST runner-up Virginia Tech). Most of Stenglein’s best work came in the last half of the season when she was battling a painful muscle tear in her right leg.
“Steff is a tough girl,” Gumpf says.
“After last year, going through the challenges she had from March (when the injury occurred) to the end of the year just proved how tough she truly is. If she maintains the level she is at now, she will improve tremendously throughout the season.”
Wisen, who used a devastating change up to baffle opposing hitters a year ago, is holding on to the other starting spot in the Irish rotation so far during the preseason.
Carrie Wisen will combine with Steffany Stenglein to give the Irish a young, but experienced, pitching staff in 2003.
“Carrie does a very good job of controlling the plate,” Gumpf explains.
“She can hit any spot at any time when she is having a great day. I am going to get some great games from her this year because she will find a way to win.”
It was just Stenglein and Wisen for the starting roles a year ago, but Gumpf has talented rookie Heather Booth to give her three starting pitchers to choose from.
“Heather can potentially be a great pitcher because of the physical tools she has,” Gumpf says.
“She will play a large role in the team’s success this year. She is very talented.” Notre Dame’s dedicated relief pitcher this season is senior Jessica Sharron. The intangibles that Sharron brings to the team go far beyond her ability to save games for the Irish starting pitchers.
“Jessica is a great person for this team,” Gumpf says.
“Every part of Jessica is important to our team. What she brings mentally and physically day in and day out for is very important. She is a leader because of her heart and desire.”
Even as the Irish return a number of talented veterans along with an exceptional freshman class, the mission to secure an NCAA Championship spot will be a daunting task. Notre Dame will play approximately 40 games (36 scheduled, plus a number of tournament championship-round contests) on the road this season, against just 16 home dates. While playing in the friendly confines of Ivy Field is always a bonus, Gumpf knows that Notre Dame’s ability to win on the road is what counts come championship time.
“I don’t ever get concerned about playing on the road,” Gumpf says.
“Our team is accustomed to doing that and our biggest games are usually on the road or at a neutral site. I think we are comfortable in that setting. We need to be able to win on the road because where ever we are in the BIG EAST tournament or the regionals, if we don’t get a bid, we have to be able to play away from campus. We need to be able to play away and win away. It is going to be tough, but we need to stay focused and concentrate on us.”
As for the team goals for the 2003 season, specific details are kept among the Irish players and coaches. Gumpf made no secret, however, about her ultimate goal every year when she was handed the reigns to the Notre Dame program a year ago. The Irish want to be playing in the College World Series.
“It goes back to our initial goal of recognizing the strengths of our team,” Gumpf says.
“We need to depend on the strength of us and everything will take care of itself. We want to win the BIG EAST, get to the regionals, maintain our momentum, stay consistent and make it to the World Series.”
The World Series has been the team’s goal for the last four years, but Gumpf just might have the right mix of veterans and talented underclassmen to make that goal a reality in 2003.