Jan. 29, 2016
by Tony Jones
To preview the upcoming University of Notre Dame softball season, UND.com will feature the 10 things you need to know in advance of the opening Irish tournament of the spring at the Kajikawa Classic in Tempe, Arizona on Feb. 12. With insight from your favorite Notre Dame players and coaches, The Top 10 will give fans a special look at Irish softball as the team prepares for 2016.
PAST STORIES FROM THE TOP 10
#10 – The Steady Influence Over Irish Softball#9 – Two Captains, Two Thousand Sixteen
#8 – How To Build A Nationally Renowned Offense
#7 – Meet The Freshmen
#6 – Strength In Numbers
#5 – The Cali Squad
Previously in the Top 10, the long-term success of the University of Notre Dame softball offense and the strong future of the Irish pitching staff were examined in-depth. The final phase of the game left to analyze is the solid defensive base that Notre Dame has built in the field during the past 14 years.
Dating back to the 2002 season, Notre Dame has finished among the national top 25 programs in fielding percentage nine times. Included in that run were fifth place results in 2003 (.974) and 2010 (single-season program record .978), a seventh place clip in 2006 (.977) and a ninth place showing in 2002 (.971). After never reaching the .970 fielding percentage plateau in any year from 1989-2001, the Irish have exceeded that mark eight times in the last 14 seasons.
The main coaching cog in the transformation on defense has been associate coach Kris Ganeff, entering her 15th season at her alma mater after a standout career as a catcher under her maiden name McCleary for Notre Dame from 1996-99. Ganeff graduated with the best career fielding percentage (.981) ever recorded by an Irish catcher at the time, a mark that has since been passed by six different catchers she has mentored since returning to Notre Dame as an assistant coach in 2002.
“When I took over the defense, I have only been a catcher my whole life, so to me fielding a ground ball looked easy,” Ganeff said. “I didn’t really put much thought into it so there was a certain point in my coaching career that I decided I needed a philosophy. I researched and spoke with different people, did my background and tried to come up with something that I thought worked. We developed a system and routine of fundamentals that we believe in and then worked on getting the girls to buy in as well, and because everyone believed in the plan we started seeing results that it works.”
While she admitted that the mechanics of the other positions around the infield might have been a bit foreign to her at the start, Ganeff relied on the experience of playing a position that is observatory by nature. The visual eye of a catcher proved to be an invaluable tool.
“As a catcher that was the advantage on defense, you watch the game,” Ganeff said. “I knew the game very well and what was supposed to happen, it was more so learning the technique and fundamentals to field the ball correctly and make a proper throw from other positions. I felt very confident in taking over the catching aspect and relied on what I was taught at the position when I played here at Notre Dame. You know where things are supposed to be going on and what should be happening, so that was certainly a coaching advantage.”
A crucial aspect of the defensive game of softball is recording outs, but too often a premium is paid directly to the pitcher versus hitter matchup in order to attain an out. Recognizing that there are eight other players in the field at all times to aid the pitcher in accomplishing that task, Ganeff, outfield instructor Lizzy Ristano and the Notre Dame fielders have simplified their approach.
“We know that when it comes down to it, it’s our job to get outs,” Ganeff said. “There are 21 outs in the game, and we want to make sure that if there are 21 at-bats for the opponent we are getting those outs. The result we are looking for is always an out, so we try to rely on the fundamentals we have perfected in practice to get us that out. If we don’t look perfect getting an out in a game, we are still ok with achieving the outcome and will come back and fix that later. I want them to always use every opportunity as a learning moment, and we communicate a lot with that.”
Along with an improved average fielding percentage, Notre Dame has seen an exponentially lower count from year-to-year in the amount of errors committed in the field. After the 2007 (52), 2008 (74) and 2009 (59) seasons saw the Irish finish with more than 50 errors, Notre Dame set a program record during its solid 2010 defensive campaign with only 31 errors.
The Irish have managed to keep their total error number below 50 in every season since 2009, including sub-40 efforts in 2014 (37) and 2015 (39).
“What we are looking for is to keep everything simple, and that starts with perfecting fundamentals in practice so that we can rely on them in the game,” Ganeff said. “If a mistake is made, the next time a play comes at them I want our fielders to know that they will make it. We are not putting any additional pressure on them from a coaching standpoint, so we move on and go to the next play because it is so important that we don’t lose focus because of a mistake.”
Getting freshmen players up to speed can be the biggest challenge because of the inherent difficulty of mimicking game speed during preseason practice and scrimmage sessions. Recent freshmen to find regular starting roles as part of the Notre Dame infield have included Katey Haus (54 starts at third base) and Jenna Simon (47 starts) in 2012, Micaela Arizmendi (26 starts at first base) in 2013, and Morgan Reed (42 starts) and Sara White (15 starts) at shortstop in 2015.
Of the players returning in 2016, Arizmendi was a 2013 all-BIG EAST Conference third team choice during her freshman season, has been a two-time all-Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) first team selection, and enters her senior year with the ninth-best career fielding percentage in Notre Dame history at .988. Reed enjoyed similar success in her first college season, earning all-ACC second team and all-region third team accolades.
With both players, along with seasoned senior captain Carly Piccinich (second base) and classmate Casey Africano (catcher), back in the fold to share wisdom with the next generation of infield players, freshmen Melissa Rochford (third base), Ali Wester (second base), MK Bonamy (first and third base) and Maddie McCracken (catcher), the goal is for the acclimation period for the Notre Dame newcomers to remain as seamless as possible.
“We make sure that the things we rely on are what the defensive players are doing every single day,” Ganeff said. “We have our dailies in practice and they know the expectations, so once the freshmen get going on that it sort of falls into place. It’s fun to watch a freshman come in and tell them this is how Notre Dame softball does things, and as a senior they are now showing the freshmen those same things. I don’t have to do much work at this point because we do have a system that the veterans rely on. In creating a philosophy that I believed in they believe in it too, so when they saw that it works there was no sort of backlash from it.
“The hardest part for the freshmen is probably learning defensive sets, like when a slapper is up or in bunt situations knowing where they are supposed to be,” Ganeff said. “At every level infield play is taught differently, and a lot of things that I was taught when I was playing may not necessarily be what I am coaching today.”
Being consistently recognized among the top defensive teams in the Division I game serves as a point of pride to Ganeff. Along with the ability to flourish offensively to score runs, and compiling a strong pitching staff whose job it is to limit chances for the opponent to do the same, the Irish have built and stuck with a strong defensive plan on their way to playing winning softball.
“It is definitely a part of the game that we can rely on because we always feel that our play in the field will be consistent,” Ganeff said. “It might not be perfect but it will be consistent, and on the rare occasions when it’s not consistent it shows. When things are good it is sort of a given to us because we expect it, that’s the mentality that we approach every day with.”
Visit UND.com next Tuesday (Feb. 2) for the eighth installment of the Irish Top 10 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, athletics communications assistant at the University of Notre Dame, has been part of the Fighting Irish athletics communications team since 2012 and coordinates all media efforts for the Notre Dame softball and men’s soccer programs. A native of Jamestown, New York, Jones is a 2011 graduate of St. Bonaventure University, and prior to arriving at Notre Dame held positions at the University of Louisiana at Monroe and with the National Football League’s Buffalo Bills.