Jan. 20, 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.
A total of 29 school records established dating back to 2006. Since 2010, it boasts the only lineup in the NCAA to lead the Division I ranks in doubles twice and finish seventh or better in the final national batting average standings four different times. Of those top seven placements, the 2010 and 2014 campaigns featured the top average in college softball.
The construction and evolution of the offense for the University of Notre Dame softball team came about in a unique way. Consider that prior to the 2006 campaign, the first year that associate coach Lizzy Ristano joined the Irish staff as the primary hitting coach, Notre Dame had surpassed the .300 team average mark only five times in 17 seasons. Three of those .300 or better Irish lineups, 1999 (.300), 2000 (.307) and 2001 (.318), were anchored by the four-time all-BIG EAST choice and team captain under her maiden name of Lemire.
Notre Dame logged a .291 batting average in Ristano’s first coaching season in 2006, slid back with a .268 effort in 2007 and rebounded at .280 the following year in 2008. It was at that time that a fundamental shift in the way the Irish coaching staff, specifically Ristano and fellow associate coach Kris Ganeff, approached instructing the offensive game.
“I remember having my hitting “ah ha” moment during the 2008 season, in terms of working with hitters and learning more about the swing,” Ristano said. “Early in my coaching years when I would work with hitters I was using someone else’s spiel, telling hitters what was told to me my whole life without really figuring it out for myself. We finally developed that through the help of talking to other coaches, Kris and I hit the road and went and talked with a number of different coaches, and through the use of film.”
The film study proved to be an invaluable research technique in changing the Notre Dame offensive culture. In the process of breaking down video, Ristano made a big discovery.
“I realized, this is what we’re not doing and this is what we need to be doing.” Ristano said. “That was the first year we implemented changes in what we’re teaching and how we teach it. A lot of it has to do with more weight-shifts to generate power in swings, mainly just the changing of mechanics, and that’s where you saw our surge in power. You didn’t really see the effects in the 2008 season, but in 2009 and 2010 you saw it starting to take over.
“What we do is no secret really,” she said. “There is style and there is mechanics, and we don’t try to create a cookie cutter hitter here. We don’t want everyone to look exactly the same, so when our freshmen come in we don’t try to change their swings at all. What we do is let them take their style and combine it with the mechanics that we feel are the most important, and by hammering those mechanics consistently that is what has allowed our batters to hit more moving pitches.”
The 2009 Notre Dame team posted a .297 average, its best in six seasons, and crossed the 300-run plateau (310) for just the fourth time in school history. The number of overall hits went up slightly (440 in 2008 to 455 in 2009), but an increase of 23 doubles (67 in 2008, 90 in 2009) and 24 home runs (42 in 2008, 66 in 2009) showed the power yield that the Irish were in search of.
“There is not one right and one wrong way to hit the ball, there are a million different hitting styles out there and no one is better or worse,” Ristano said. “What our philosophy gives us is the ability to hit lots of different pitches, whether it’s in, out, up, down, change. Some other styles out there might be more power focused in that when you connect that ball is going to go, but there are more holes in that swing. We can watch those types of hitters and coach pitchers on how to get them on an up pitch or bust them in hard. What we try to do is minimize those holes to give our batters the best ability to hit all pitches.”
Notre Dame put its new ideology on full display during the 2010 season, compiling what arguably remains the greatest offensive season in program history. The Irish led the NCAA with a .343 batting average and 103 doubles that season, also establishing single-season records for runs (369), home runs (75), RBI (337), total bases (878), on-base percentage (.409) and slugging percentage (.590). Six players from that Notre Dame team finished the 2010 season with a .335 average or better, five players clocked in above the .340 mark. All-Americans Christine Lux (’10) and Heather Johnson (’11) hit 17 home runs each and both cleared 60 RBI, a first for Irish softball.
The proof at that point was in the pudding, as in only five short years Notre Dame had taken a solid, consistent offense and entrenched itself as one of the nation’s best. Keeping an open mind in regard to tweaks and changes was crucial for both hitters and coaches during the early seasons of the new approach.
“From becoming a hitter to a hitting coach that was a big transition for me, instead of just doing it I had to learn so I could teach the correct way,” Ristano said. “That was a challenge in the early years like 2006, 2007, I was sort of going off anything I read on the Internet or in a hitting book instead of truly trying to understand it. I don’t expect the hitters to totally understand everything either, sometimes it clouds the mind when you think too much. Keep it simple, their job is to see the ball and hit the ball.”
The 2010 season ushered in a still active string of consecutive .300 and above seasons for Notre Dame that the program had never experienced through its first 20 years at the varsity level. A .330 effort in 2011, a .306 team clip in 2012 and a .314 combined average in 2013 closed out the Irish era in the BIG EAST Conference.
A success story of the expanded Notre Dame offensive philosophy during that time was four-time National Fastpitch Coaches Association (NFCA) all-region pitcher and 2013 BIG EAST Conference Player of the Year Laura Winter. A career .174 hitter in her first two college seasons with the Irish who batted sparingly in the Notre Dame lineup, Winter exploded with a .338 average, 12 doubles, a team-high tying 17 home runs and 52 RBI as a junior in 2013, adding a .755 slugging percentage and .423 on-base percentage. Along with a 29-12 record, a 1.72 ERA and 306 strikeouts in the circle, Winter staked her claim to player of the year honors in the conference.
It was a dramatic transformation that not only provided an additional lineup option where its ace could hit in a power slot, it made Winter one of the feared dual-threats in the circle in the country. With the looming challenges of the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) on the horizon in 2014, that final BIG EAST year set the stage for the Notre Dame returners to make their move at the plate.
What followed were a pair of seasons that, in terms of overall offensive production, vaulted above and beyond the fantastic 2010 Notre Dame output. The Irish returned to the top of the NCAA standings with a .357 batting average and 107 doubles in 2014, adding a team-high 533 hits and .419 on-base percentage in their ACC debut season. It was more of the same in 2015, as Notre Dame went over the .350 average plateau (.351) for the second straight year while establishing team records in runs (395), hits (543) and RBI (345), while tying the 2014 on-base percentage record at .419.
The first three-time NFCA All-American (2013-15) in Notre Dame history, Emilee Koerner (’15) batted above .400 in each of her final three seasons, including a career-high .439 as a sophomore in 2013. Koerner owns three of the top nine single-season batting averages in the Notre Dame record book, along with the top three doubles totals (including a program record 28 in 2014), three of the top seven runs scored counts and two of the best 10 single-season hit outputs in Irish history.
Joining Koerner as All-Americans in 2014 were then sophomore Micaela Arizmendi and then freshman Karley Wester. Arizmendi is responsible for the third (18 in 2015) and fifth (17 in 2014) highest doubles totals, the fifth most home runs (15 in 2014) and fifth (61 in 2014) and 10th (54 in 2015) most RBI in a single season at Notre Dame. Wester has the numbers two (.455 in 2014) and six (.429 in 2015) spots on the all-time Notre Dame average list, ranks first (65 in 2015) and eighth (50 in 2014) in runs scored and is first (84 in 2015) and fourth (81 in 2014) in hits for the Irish.
The fact that the sophomore season, 2013 for Koerner, 2014 for Arizmendi and 2015 for Wester, was the jumping off point of production was not surprising to Ristano.
“You usually don’t see the full buy-in until sophomore year, freshman year a lot of players are still skeptical and go off what they have been taught their whole lives,” Ristano said. “They ultimately realize we are not changing them at all, we are just trying to get them to approach hitting in a different way and work on different things. I don’t even think they honestly realize some of the transformations they are making, I don’t know if they ever will at all. As a hitter sometimes when you don’t understand it you just do it.”
One of Arizmendi’s fellow senior classmates, Megan Sorlie, has followed a steady upward trajectory herself during her first three seasons at Notre Dame. Sorlie raised her batting average 38 points from her freshman (.257) to sophomore season (.295), adding another 15 points as a junior to log a .310 clip and additional career-highs with 39 hits, 16 RBI, a .383 on-base percentage and 26 runs in 51 games (48 starts) in 2015.
“On all of our high school and travel ball teams we all were one of the studs, and then you get to college and everyone is as good as you or even better,” Sorlie said. “It was a good transition and it’s been a good challenge coming from high school to college. It still challenges you every single day.”
As a left-hander batter with great speed, Sorlie presents opponents with true triple-threat ability when she is in the batter’s box. Given the situation, there are three very different ways that the Notre Dame outfielder can attack to reach base.
“I am utilizing all aspects of the game whether I need to bunt, slap or hit,” Sorlie said. “If my hitting isn’t great I always have slapping to rely on, it’s a great way to get on base. Coach Gumpf always tells me, “You make everyone else look good in the lineup when you’re on base,” so I just try to do my job to get on and be as selfless as possible.”
Much like Wester did the prior season, Morgan Reed adjusted nicely to the college game during her freshman campaign in 2015. The left-handed hitting Reed led all Irish newcomers last season with a .325 batting average, 41 hits, 10 doubles, 31 RBI and 27 runs scored in 53 games (46 starts). She added a .468 slugging percentage and .407 on-base percentage to earn all-ACC second team and NFCA Mid-Atlantic all-region third team honors.
“I was a little nervous that it would be faster paced because the ball moves more and there are faster and better pitchers than you see in travel ball,” Reed said about the transition to college softball. “I was nervous coming in but you get so many reps in practice, and we hit off our pitchers almost every day once we get back from break. You get a lot of extra swings and can even stand in just to watch extra pitches to prepare yourself to be in the best position possible once the season starts.”
With the second season earmarked by Ristano as the year she expects Notre Dame hitters to make the leap to the next level, Reed’s experience already has her ahead of the curve entering her sophomore slate as the Irish shortstop.
“Lizzy wants us to be comfortable in the box, staying nice, loose and relaxed,” Reed said. “She is really good about not trying to change your swing dramatically, instead giving you tips about things to improve your swing. She does not want everyone to look exactly the same.
“It’s great to know that your teammates have the confidence in you when you’re up in the box, and you have that same confidence in all of your teammates if it is anybody else,” Reed added. “I think we all have worked so hard in the offseason and so far in the preseason that we know we can do it.”
Accountability one through nine in the Notre Dame lineup, even one through 18 as you travel down the entire Irish roster, and the belief in where the road ahead leads has the team on the right track in the eyes of an experienced player like Sorlie.
“It doesn’t put pressure on one single person,” Sorlie said. “We all can carry that pressure. At times when it doesn’t work out for one person, you always know there are always 17 other girls there to back you up that you have 100 percent confidence in.”
Entering her 11th season as an assistant coach and the primary hitting instructor at her alma mater, Ristano has helped create a bustling and ever-improving game plan that has allowed Notre Dame to continue to reach new heights. Offense as a calling card is something that the Irish pride themselves on.
“It makes me really happy for our program that it is something we can always do,” Ristano said. “We’ll hit, that’s what we can always lean on, and it really throws me for a loop during games when we don’t hit. When we don’t hit it really does throw me off because that is something you always can count on from this program. When there are struggles, we always seem to grind, change up the plan and work our way out of it.”
Visit UND.com on Friday (Jan. 22) for the fourth 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.