Nov. 12, 2000

By Alan Wasielewski

The plans called for a sturdy foundation capable of handling an enormous amount of expectations. To build the program Notre Dame head softball coach Liz Miller envisioned, she needed to choose the correct materials for its construction.

In 1998, four of the building blocks strode onto campus and the Notre Dame softball program was permanently transformed. Shortstop Melanie Alkire, outfielder Danielle Klayman, left-handed pitcher Jennifer Sharron and outfielder Lizzy Lemire matched the specifications of Miller’s plans perfectly, and Fighting Irish softball has taken a giant leap forward as a result.

After three years, Notre Dame has produced a BIG EAST regular-season championship (’98), two BIG EAST titles (’99 and ’00) and a 123-56 overall record.

“It has been a steady progression since we arrived on campus,” Klayman says.

“Our sophomore year we wanted to belong. Towards the end of our junior year, we discovered we can get to where we want to go. This season, we know we can get to where we want to go. It is just a matter of us going out there and playing our game.”

The place the Irish want to go is the promised land for all top collegiate softball programs in the nation: the 2001 Women’s College World Series in Oklahoma City, Okla.

“There is no question the team is at the point where that kind of goal-setting is in place,” Miller says.

“We are in position to reach that ultimate goal, the World Series, because this group of players has the necessary talent, focus and commitment.”

It has been a long road for seniors Alkire, Klayman, Sharron, Lemire and Sarah Kirkman. They have been the ultimate team leaders for two years, as Notre Dame did not have any seniors on the roster last season.

The leadership role is not an alien notion to the five seniors. Four of them have been in the Irish starting lineup since their first game and were tasked with leading Notre Dame to the place they are today – one of the best teams in the nation.

“We asked them to come in as freshmen, get on the field and lead us to the next level,” Miller says.

“The classes behind them have followed their lead and carried on that mission.”

The players knew that they had to perform at the highest level possible early in their Notre Dame careers.

“It was made clear that we needed to perform in our freshman year and set the course for where we want to go,” Sharron says.

The list of honors and awards the 2001 senior class has amassed over the last three years is immense. Alkire earned second-team All-America honors last season. She also is a two-time BIG EAST Player of the Year (’99 and ’00), a two-time first-team all-BIG EAST selection (unanimous in 2000), and the 2000 BIG EAST Tournament Most Outstanding Player. One of Notre Dame’s best hitters, she boasts a .346 career average with 25 home runs and 137 RBI.

Sharron, a second-team All-American as well in 2000, has been named BIG EAST Pitcher of the Year three times (’98-’00), won the ’99 BIG EAST Tournament Most Outstanding Player award, and carries a 1.26 career ERA and 61-25 career pitching record into the 2001 season.

Lemire is a two-time all-BIG EAST pick with a .333 career average, while Klayman made the all-BIG EAST first team last season and is a GTE academic all-district first team member as well.

“They are competitors,” Miller says of her senior class.

“They know what it means to compete. They have dedicated their lives to softball and love everything about playing the game.”

The senior class also shares a drive to wipe away the memories of the way the season ended for the Irish last year. Playing in the NCAA regional in Ann Arbor, Mich., the Irish lost 1-0 to DePaul, a team they had defeated just a few weeks earlier, and fell to Central Michigan 2-1 to be eliminated from the tournament. The loss to the Blue Demons was the first and only shutout loss of the 2000 season for Notre Dame and something that left a bad taste in the mouths of the Irish seniors.

“We didn’t live up to our potential,” Lemire says.

“As a team, we looked around at the regionals and realized we can beat these teams. We can move on. Up to that point, we might not have believed that. This year we are starting from the first day of practice knowing we have the ability to move on to the World Series.”

Alkire and Sharron received a bit of extra motivation after attending the World Series All-America banquet in Okahoma City last year.

“Members of the other teams were coming up to us and saying, ‘We thought you were going to be here,'” Alkire says.

“The rest of the country knows how good we are. We know how good we are. It is just a matter of us going out and proving it to ourselves.”

The foundation has been set and the cornerstone has been labeled. The class of 2001 has set the tone for the future of Notre Dame softball and they are determined to enjoy themselves in their final campaign.

“Our theme last year, as it will be again this year, is ‘just play,'” Sharron says.

“Last year I think we had a hard time doing that. This year we feel comfortable with that philosophy and are ready to achieve the goals we have set.”