Feb. 8, 2016
by Tony Jones
To preview the upcoming University of Notre Dame softball season, UND.com has featured 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. The final Top 10 of the preseason gives fans one last special look at Irish softball as the team prepares for the official start to 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#4 – A Dynamic Defense#3 – Notre Dame Inside Its Friendly Confines#2 – Road To The Top
It is only fitting that on the final day of The Top 10 leading into the 2016 University of Notre Dame softball season, coinciding with the release of the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) predicted order of finish, the last preseason topic happens to be Irish success in conference play.
Since the inception of the varsity softball program in 1989, Notre Dame has resided in three different conferences in Division I, the Midwestern Collegiate Conference (now the Horizon League), the BIG EAST Conference and the ACC. Over the first 27 seasons of the program’s existence, the Irish have won 19 regular-season conference championships, 11 conference tournament titles, and have added a combined 12 runner-up finishes in both regular season and tournament final standings. Notre Dame begins the 2016 season with a 402-83 (.829) combined all-time record in conference play, which has included a 72-19 (.791) mark in the MCC, a 297-53 (.849) legacy in the BIG EAST and a 33-11 (.750) start in the ACC.
Notre Dame legend Brian Boulac led the Irish to the top of the MCC in the program’s inaugural 31-23 season in 1989, which included an 8-5 record in conference play. Notre Dame claimed five of its final six conference games to place first in the league standings in its debut season. Rachel Crossen represented the Irish on the 1989 all-MCC first team, while Mia Faust, Megan Fay, Amy Folsom, Missy Linn and Laure Sommerlad were each tabbed to the all-conference second team. Boulac capped the first varsity Notre Dame season as the MCC Coach of the Year.
Another triumphant season followed for the Irish in 1990, including a MCC-best 9-3 conference record to secure a second straight slot at the top of the league standings. Notre Dame followed with a perfect 4-0 performance at the MCC Tournament, sweeping St. Francis 5-1 and 4-2 on April 23, 1990 for the first conference tournament championship triumph in program history.
It was a repeat for Notre Dame the next season, as a 2-0 shutout of Detroit on May 15, 1991 notched back-to-back MCC Tournament wins for the Irish. Three players, Folsom, Fay and Christy Connoyer, claimed first team all-MCC honors while three teammates added second team recognition.
In Boulac’s fourth and final campaign in charge of the Notre Dame program, the Irish returned to the front of the MCC standings with a 7-3 conference mark in 1992. The top league finish began a 14-year streak of regular-season conference titles for Notre Dame that lasted through 2005. Freshman Sara Hayes earned the first major individual player award in team history after being named the 1992 MCC Newcomer of the Year, an award that Terri Kobata (1993) and Elizabeth Perkins (1994) would later add to the Notre Dame trophy column.
From the outset of the Liz Miller era of Notre Dame softball in 1993, it was clear that the Irish were destined to be perennial contenders every season in conference play. During Notre Dame’s final three years (1993-95) as an MCC member, Miller guided the Irish to sweeps of the regular season and conference tournament championships. Notre Dame added its first two NCAA Regional appearances, 1994 and 1995, during that span, and Miller was selected as the MCC Coach of the Year in each of those seasons. Kobata was a two-time MCC Player of the Year (1993-94) along with becoming the first Notre Dame All-American (third team) in 1994, while Hayes was chosen as the conference’s top player as a senior in 1995.
Miller and the Irish stormed through the gates of the BIG EAST during the 1996 season, compiling a 19-1 league record that included 11 straight victories to capture the BIG EAST South Division and first regular-season championship in Notre Dame’s new home. South Division repeats in 1997 (16-4) and 1998 (13-3) ushered in the Irish ascendance to the head of the BIG EAST pack for the next eight seasons.
The 1999 Notre Dame team became the first Irish squad to sweep both BIG EAST titles, posting a perfect 16-0 regular season record in the conference and winning all three games in Storrs, Connecticut to hoist the first Irish BIG EAST tournament championship. Melanie Alkire (player) and Jennifer Sharron (pitcher) also completed the first Notre Dame sweep of the top BIG EAST yearly awards in the same year that season.
Notre Dame defended its dual BIG EAST crowns in 2000, as a 12-2 conference mark in the regular season and a 17-2 aggregate run margin in three tournament games vaulted the Irish to their second straight NCAA Regional berth in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Miller was named BIG EAST Coach of the Year for the second time, Alkire and Sharron repeated as BIG EAST Player and Pitcher of the Year, respectively, and both players later landed on the National Fastpitch Coaches Association (NFCA) All-America second team.
Following a 20-0 surge through the ranks of the BIG EAST in 2001, which remains a Notre Dame team record for conference wins in a single season, Miller announced her retirement as Irish head coach after nine seasons at the helm. A 377-156 (.707) record, five conference tournament championships, nine regular-season conference titles and six NCAA Regional appearances under Miller’s charge established Notre Dame on the national scene. The reign of the Irish in the BIG EAST was destined to not miss a beat under new head coach and Miller disciple Deanna Gumpf, who had served as Notre Dame’s pitching coach from 1998-2001.
Guided by 2002 BIG EAST Player of the Year Jarrah Myers and fellow third team NFCA All-American Andrea Loman, Notre Dame stormed through the competition with an 18-2 conference record to earn the number one seed in the BIG EAST Championship during Gumpf’s first season. Following a setback to Virginia Tech in the tournament’s first game the Irish responded with four straight wins, including the final two over the Hokies, to hoist their third BIG EAST tournament trophy in four years. Gumpf and her staff were named the top coaching staff in both the BIG EAST and the Mideast Region of the NFCA to wrap up the campaign.
It was dÃƒÆ’Â©jÃƒÆ’Â vu for Notre Dame in 2003, as Loman slugged her way to BIG EAST Player of the Year and All-America accolades for the 14-3 and top-seeded Irish. Notre Dame swept the conference championship field that May in Salem, Virginia, downing Villanova 3-2 in nine innings to cap a repeat and fourth BIG EAST tournament triumph in five tries.
The Irish continued their strong play during the regular season with an 18-2 BIG EAST slate in 2004 and a 16-2 effort in 2005, claiming runner-up tournament honors in each of the years to punch their ticket to NCAA Regionals. An undefeated run as the No. 3 seed at the 2006 BIG EAST Championship, including a 1-0 victory over No. 1 seed Louisville in the conference final, re-established Notre Dame as the queens of the BIG EAST diamond.
The second-seeded 2009 Notre Dame team earned the sixth and final BIG EAST Championship tournament victory for the Irish. The Irish shut out national top 20 foes Louisville (No. 17) and DePaul (No. 19) to stake their claim to being one of the best teams to ever compete in the conference.
Notre Dame would add BIG EAST regular-season championships in 2010, 2011 and 2013 during their final four seasons as a conference member, posting runner-up tournament finishes in 2012 and 2013. Two players, Heather Johnson (2011) and Laura Winter (2013), would add to Notre Dame’s all-time BIG EAST Player of the Year tally, while Jody Valdivia (2010) and Winter (2012) were each recognized as the top conference pitcher in that span. The climb toward the next summit, the ACC, was in store in 2014.
The debut season in the ACC for Notre Dame in 2014 illustrated the strength of its new conference perfectly. The conference’s top four teams, including Notre Dame, each would ultimately earn a bid to NCAA Regionals and Florida State wound up representing the ACC at the 2014 Women’s College World Series.
Making the jump from its foothold in the BIG EAST did little to slow Notre Dame, as the Irish notched a 16-5 record that included wins in 10 of the last 11 ACC games in the regular season to clinch the number two seed in the 2014 conference tournament. A runner-up finish to No. 4 Florida State at the ACC Championship, along with tying for the NCAA lead with three NFCA All-Americans (Karley Wester and Micaela Arizmendi, second team; Emilee Koerner, third team) and featuring the ACC Freshman of the Year in Wester, provided Notre Dame with a blueprint to success in its new league.
A slow start to the 2015 ACC schedule for the Irish took an immediate turn at the end of a Spring Break series at No. 9 Florida State on March 15 of last year. A 12-0 win, in which Rachel Nasland spun the 42nd no-hitter in program history, kick started a 24-game Notre Dame winning streak. As part of that stretch, the Irish would win 17 of their last 18 conference starts to clinch the third seed in the ACC Championship. Koerner capped her stellar Notre Dame career and 2015 season as the program’s first recipient of the ACC Player of the Year award, and Notre Dame was one of seven ACC teams to qualify for the NCAA Championship by hosting the NCAA South Bend Regional at Melissa Cook Stadium.
Notre Dame received 92 voting points, including two first place votes, to finish second in the 2016 ACC Softball Preseason Coaches Poll that was released on Monday. The 92 points and two first place nods were the most for the Irish in the preseason rankings since joining the ACC, after placing second (88 points, one first place vote) in 2015 and third (80 points) in 2014.
If the projections from coaching peers in the ACC hold true after the grind of a 24-game league schedule, Gumpf and her Notre Dame club will be firmly in the mix to add another conference championship trophy to the mezzanine level of Melissa Cook Stadium. The 28th team in Irish softball history truly controls its own destiny.
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.
2016 ACC Softball Preseason Coaches Poll
1. Florida State – 99 points (9 first-place votes)
2. NOTRE DAME ÃƒÆ’Â¢ÃƒÂ¢’Â¬” 92 (2)
T3. Louisville – 74
T3. NC State – 74
5. North Carolina – 69
6. Virginia Tech – 52
7. Pitt – 51
8. Boston College – 30
9. Syracuse – 27
10. Georgia Tech – 24
11. Virginia – 13
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.