Jan. 25, 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.
Pitching is one of the three main components of the game of softball that, along with offense and fielding, defines the trajectory of a team’s path during a given season. Good pitching combined with established success in the other two areas can make a team great, and great pitching can just as easily make a team elite.
Returning 100 percent of its production from last season, the University of Notre Dame softball pitching corps enters 2016 with one of the most unique staff setups in the NCAA. Counting all four players back on staff from 2015, senior Allie Rhodes, junior Rachel Nasland, and sophomores Katie Beriont and Sara White, along with the addition of freshman Caitlyn Brooks, the Irish boast a diverse and legitimate five-pitcher rotation not often seen in Division I college softball.
“We’ve never approached a season quite like we’re approaching this one,” Notre Dame head coach Deanna Gumpf said. “I’ve been very comfortable in the past having one or two go-to pitchers on a staff, but it’s extremely exciting to focus on the mentality of pitching by committee. This might be the first year, if we stay healthy, that we can really effectively do that, where a team won’t know who we’re throwing against them. It is an awesome reality that other teams won’t know how to prepare offensively for Notre Dame.”
Only twice in the 28-year history of the Notre Dame softball program, the 1991 and 2011 seasons, have five different players made at least one appearance in the pitching circle for the Irish. In both cases, one or more of those pitchers were an established player at another position in the field who pitched as part of a utility role. The 2016 Notre Dame squad is breaking ground by taking five primary pitching options into a new season.
“It doesn’t happen often,” Gumpf said. “The great thing with our choices, to throw with this many pitchers, is we will be able to be prepared for anything. If one doesn’t have it on a particular day it’s really easy to go to a teammate. They need to look at it as a positive thing and decide that we are going to do this together.
“It just sort of worked out this way, we never intentionally looked to have five at one time,” Gumpf added. “It’s fun and exciting to think that there is so much that we can accomplish with these guys, and if everyone does their job and effectively works together we should have very fresh arms in April.”
Rhodes is the returning leader on the staff after enjoying the best season of her college career as a junior, becoming the 23rd 20-game winner in Notre Dame history with a 20-5 mark in 2015. She added career-highs in appearances (35), starts (25), complete games (5), innings pitched (129.2) and strikeouts (118), winning 15 of her final 16 decisions during the season. Along with being the active Notre Dame leader in wins, appearances and strikeouts, Rhodes owns the ninth-best career winning percentage (.737) in program history.
The veteran southpaw will again be counted on to play a huge role during her senior campaign, and the steady improvement shown over her first three seasons has Rhodes primed for continued growth in 2016.
“I feel very fortunate that we have Allie on staff because she rises to the occasion,” Gumpf said. “Each year she has done that more and more, and she is definitely one who always wants the ball and will do anything she possibly can to help this team win. She just keeps getting better, and it’s been so cool to watch her start off as a very good pitcher and every year evolve to become even better. I really like that in her.”
The dynamics of the deep pitching roster to Rhodes, who has already played alongside six other hurlers during her time at Notre Dame, will allow the Irish staff to showcase the unique skills that each pitcher possesses.
“We all bring different stuff (in the circle), and Sara plays pitcher but has played shortstop and hits and Cait also hits,” Rhodes said. “It’s really me, Rach and KB that are pitchers only, so we all do bring unique skills to the group.
“As a senior, I couldn’t imagine our pitching staff without any of our other pitchers,” Rhodes said. “I’ve had Rach here with me for three years, KB and Sara for two, and Cait really fit right in. I couldn’t imagine it without everyone.”
Nasland readies for her third season at Notre Dame coming off a breakout performance that saw her earn 2015 all-Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) second team accolades as a sophomore. She compiled a 17-9 record, 16 complete games, five shutouts that included her first career no-hitter at No. 9 Florida State, and 170 strikeouts against 67 walks. A four-time ACC Pitcher of the Week selection over the course of the season, Nasland limited opponents to a .207 batting average against in 36 appearances (29 starts), including a .213 clip with runners on base.
With a strong sophomore performance under her belt, Gumpf believes the sky is the limit for Nasland as she returns to full strength as a junior.
“The great thing about last year for Rachel was that she got experience and realized how effective she is in the college game,” Gumpf said. “She has a lot of confidence going into this season knowing that she is capable of dominating teams. This year for Rachel the key is going to be remaining healthy, and with the help of our entire pitching staff we will be able to do that.”
“It feels like we really are a true pitching staff,” Nasland said. “We are a full group and compliment each other differently. We each bring something new to the table.”
In a sport and at a position where one player traditionally sees the majority of game action, as most softball rosters only carry a maximum of two to three pitchers, Nasland noted that there was a period of adjustment to get used to the five-woman rotation during practices and games last fall.
“It was definitely different, but we’ve all been good about switching off during drills and helping one another,” Nasland said. “We are all here to do the same thing, to win, and we recognize that we are stronger all together. Nobody can pitch every single game, and having five pitchers there is a healthy competition with each other. Sometimes if there are too few pitchers it might be too directly competitive, but I think it has been very beneficial for us so far this year.”
Beriont was the primary Notre Dame relief option during her freshman season, as she attempted to return to form after a torn ACL robbed her of her final year of high school softball. She answered the challenge well with a 4-1 record in 26 appearances (three starts), finishing a team-high 19 games in 2015. Beriont also strung together two different stretches of six or more consecutive outings without allowing an earned run.
Working in a full offseason and preseason of preparation with the injury in the rear view mirror, Beriont is aligned for a breakout year of her own.
“She did a great job of learning her role and finishing a lot of ballgames for us as a freshman,” Gumpf said of Beriont. “KB, coming off an injury, we never got to see her at her best, and it’s exciting this spring feeling like we will see her at her best and healthiest. She has so much in the tank and is so different than most pitchers, her delivery is so different and she throws such a heavy ball that she gives us a unique look in contrast to the other pitchers.”
White was a key component and regular contributor to the Notre Dame cause herself as a freshman, just not necessarily as a pitching option. She started 40 games split between shortstop and designated player for the Irish in 2015, batting .263 with eight doubles, 14 RBI and 16 runs scored. White chipped in a 1-0 record in three appearances in the circle, walking six and striking out six in 3.2 innings of work.
As Notre Dame prepares for the new season, White’s emerging role as a primary pitcher has allowed the Irish sophomore to lock in on a single position.
“This year we have a different approach with Sara, and we decided that we’re going to give pitching a 100 percent, full-time shot and let’s see where it goes,” Gumpf said. “This will really be like Sara’s freshman year pitching-wise because she is going to get more opportunities. Now that we’re not necessarily depending on her at a middle infield position and are just concerned with pitching and hitting, she has been able to really focus on pitching.”
Brooks arrives with an abundance of momentum following a standout career at Burbank High School in California, where she was tabbed a National Fastpitch Coaches Association (NFCA) High School All-America choice in 2014 and 2015. Named NFCA all-West Region as both a junior and senior, Brooks was also a four-time all-CIF Division 3 selection and team most valuable player while surpassing both the 80-win and 1,000 career strikeout plateaus.
“I am going to ask Cait to step right in because I am asking all of the pitchers to win ballgames for us,” Gumpf said. “Cait is one that we will see get better and better as the season goes on, she is an experienced pitcher. The more comfort she has and the more she is out there, the better she gets. I’ve seen that from her this year thus far, it’s in our best interest to get her out there as much as possible because she is going to learn so much of what she needs to help this team win games.”
Keeping tabs on a stable of five pitchers for Gumpf, in her dual role as Notre Dame’s head coach and pitching coach, has been aided by the presence of volunteer assistant coach Jamie Spitale. Spitale, entering her second season on the Irish coaching staff after a 13-year stint as the top assistant and pitching coach at Western Michigan, has become an invaluable resource for both Gumpf and the pitching troop.
“Jamie being on staff has made this feel like we don’t actually have five pitchers,” Gumpf said. “She is someone to bounce ideas off and is really smart in-game in analyzing the pitchers’ and hitters’ strengths. I feel very fortunate to have her here just simply given the amount of time that it takes to train five pitchers. With Jamie, it’s really nice to have that extra person to focus in with our pitchers so that they have someone with them and aren’t throwing their individuals by themselves.”
Echoing her head coach’s assessment of what a five-pitcher rotation could look like in college softball, Nasland was direct with the challenges that opponents will immediately face when they square off against the 2016 Notre Dame team.
“(Opponents) really will have no idea what is coming at them, to be honest,” Nasland said. “It will definitely play to our advantage, the element of surprise, and if someone is struggling we have four other people that we can go to. That will play to our benefit this spring.”
As the two veterans of the pitching staff, Rhodes and Nasland have not taken lightly the responsibility of sharing the wisdom each has learned with their younger counterparts. While working to become the best pitchers that they can be, both upperclassmen have a wealth of knowledge and experience to pass along to the next generation.
“For the younger girls, I would tell them it is easiest to adapt by being themselves,” Rhodes said. “When I was a freshman I looked up to the older girls, maybe a bit too much, and tried to be them. Be yourself and use your own unique pitches and style of pitching, go with that and use it to your advantage. Don’t try to be anyone else, just be yourself and it will all work out.”
“Leadership and stability on the mound, while being a constant person and player, those are my goals for this year,” Nasland said. “I want to remain strong throughout the season and be someone that teammates can turn to on the field and other pitchers can look to when needed.”
Returning several key components to its nationally recognized offensive lineup, the Notre Dame pitching staff has the personnel, talent and drive to lift the 2016 Irish to unchartered heights. If the quintet of arms creates the symphony that Gumpf has envisioned before the start of the new season, Notre Dame will continue making music deep into the month of May.
“Every single one of them came from a team where they were the number one pitcher, so this is a whole different perspective for them,” Gumpf said. “I think they’ve handled it really well and hope that it continues, because they really appreciate each other and know how hard they have all worked to get here. If we really grow together and grow as one unit, they could be unstoppable.”
Visit UND.com on Wednesday (Jan. 27) for the sixth 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.