Jan. 27, 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
Hailing from a state that is home to 20 different Division I programs and has accounted for 15 NCAA Championship titles since that tournament was first held in 1982, the California residents on the 2016 University of Notre Dame softball team make up a roster majority some 2,000 miles from home. Of the 18 players who will suit up for the Irish this season, nine call the Golden State home.
Since the varsity debut of the Notre Dame program in 1989, which has seen 151 different players don the blue and gold in that time, 46 have been California natives. With an additional three freshmen on the 2016 Irish roster expected to see their first college softball action during the upcoming campaign, that means nearly one third of all Notre Dame players have found their way under the Golden Dome through the California pipeline.
With such a softball-rich community, quite literally, in their own backyards, the stories of how the Notre Dame journey began for members of the California Irish have many similarities.
“I knew that I wanted to go somewhere new and have different experiences, live in a new place,” senior catcher/outfielder Casey Africano (Huntington Beach) said. “There aren’t any seasons in California and there are definitely seasons here. I really wanted a unique place where I could grow, and living in a new place is part of that growth, so that played a huge part in the process of choosing a school.”
Like Africano, junior utility infielder Dana Bouquet (Santa Maria) was in search of a college that featured an atmosphere of quality academics, softball and faith. She found that total package at Notre Dame.
“One time after my freshman year of high school, I was playing at nationals in Illinois and my dad said let’s go to Notre Dame and check it out,” Bouquet said. “After that visit I was pretty set on Notre Dame and fell in love with the softball program and the school. I liked the idea of attending a Catholic university, and here I am.”
Sophomore pitcher Sara White (San Diego) immediately saw the academic benefit that studying at Notre Dame would provide, and was anxious to test herself in the classroom and on the softball diamond. Even if that meant, essentially, flipping coasts for the next four years.
“I was looking for a school that would challenge me academically and in softball, too, so I wasn’t really thinking about the location,” White said. “That’s a sacrifice you have to make to be on a great team and at a great school.”
Along with Africano, Bouquet and White, senior first baseman Micaela Arizmendi (Huntington Beach), freshman pitcher Caitlyn Brooks (Burbank), junior pitcher Rachel Nasland (San Diego), freshman infielder Melissa Rochford (Irvine), freshman outfielder/infielder Ali Wester (Huntington Beach) and junior captain outfielder Karley Wester (Huntington Beach) all hail from California.
As Africano intimated, a large collection of talent from her home state, especially many she played softball with from a young age, did not travel as far and wide as the Notre Dame California contingent to pursue the college game.
“Everyone has their priorities and wants something out of their education that you really have to consider whether sports, academics or even faith-based schools are most important,” Africano said. “We all knew the University of Notre Dame was somewhere unlike any other. We were going to get not only the best education but also have the chance to work with one of the best coaching staffs in the nation, and being challenged academically is the cherry on top.
“We also have access to amazing people in our Student Welfare and Development office and our athletic training room, there are special people all over campus,” she said. “It’s very cool to be a part of everything here at Notre Dame.”
White summed the general idea of the challenges that Notre Dame presents to prospective student-athletes succinctly. Some are unwilling to dig in and accept the task of facing the type of opportunities that the university offers.
“Some people like to remain comfortable and not leave that comfort zone,” White said. “What this place does is push you, and we want to be pushed to be successful.”
The 49 Californians, counting the three freshmen on the 2016 Notre Dame roster, represent the most densely populated talent base of the 28 states that the Irish have recruited talent from. Irish California natives have earned a total of 83 of Notre Dame’s all-time all-conference citations, including 55 first team selections, and 15 of the 26 Notre Dame All-America choices since 1994 arrived on campus from out West.
Oddly enough, the very nature of the traveling life of a youth softball player made that aspect of assimilating to the Notre Dame team an easy transition for Africano.
“The cool thing about being from California is that the sport is so big there, you are always meeting people from all over the country,” Africano said. “You meet people from New York, Florida, and everyone mingles there especially in the summertime. I knew that California kids had come here in the past but I didn’t know the reasons why, beyond softball. I wanted to know what drew people here for more than just sports.”
Even being thousands of miles from home in central California, Bouquet’s trek to the Midwest was greeted by several familiar faces at Notre Dame.
“I had never really thought about going far away for college,” Bouquet said. “I played Casey and Sara and Karley at tournaments, and I knew a lot of the girls on this team from tournaments growing up. I wasn’t going to be going somewhere I had never been with people I had never met before.”
For White, a pair of pitching peers in the San Diego area had already forged their path to Notre Dame when it was time to announce her college decision.
“Laura Winter (’14) went to my high school (Rancho Bernardo) so I knew she was here,” White said. “I knew Rachel and played against her, so that was one of the things you asked on recruiting trips and Coach Gumpf made known to us. Don’t be afraid, we have players that make that same move (across the country) all the time.”
To anyone who has ever visited Southern California and northwest Indiana during the winter months, it is clear that each region is not quite like the other. Based on the start of the college softball calendar every January, that means that the first two months of Notre Dame practices often have to be conducted exclusively indoors.
“It can be hard (for Midwest teams) to stay motivated sometimes,” Bouquet said of the early season grind. “I love the sun and going outside, some of my favorite parts of practice when I was younger was just being outside and getting that sun. Walking to practice in the winter weather, and not playing on dirt, it’s different. It is very refreshing when the season changes and we do start playing at home. It’s a kind of rejuvenation.”
The trials of an unconventional start, in White’s mind, help Notre Dame gain an edge against the competition once the regular season begins.
“It makes us mentally tougher than some other teams because we don’t take it for granted when we are out on the field,” White said. “We are so enthusiastic when we travel, that is always fun for us. It makes us more enthusiastic and gives us some extra energy when we play.”
The recent string of success by the Notre Dame softball program illustrates that the Irish are on the right path as they venture onward toward the 2016 season. Notre Dame has earned trips to the NCAA Championship in each of the last 17 seasons, is in the midst of a run of a team-record seven straight 40-win seasons, and completed a long-term team goal of hosting an NCAA Regional at Melissa Cook Stadium in 2015.
Notre Dame’s 2016 senior class has been along for three NCAA Regional runs, 126 wins, and has played an integral role in establishing nine offensive program records during their collective tenure thus far. Reflecting on the contributions of her class, and thriving in the Notre Dame environment, Africano beamed with pride.
“Being a senior I look back on all the challenges we have faced, and it’s made me the player and person that I am now,” Africano said. “That’s not to say I personally have conquered all challenges the past three years, but I don’t think I would be the same person without Notre Dame. Challenges are a part of life and without them I wouldn’t be the same. Being a part of Notre Dame that’s what’s supposed to happen, it’s going to challenge you as you grow as a person.
“Lou Holtz said you get two educations at Notre Dame; you make a living and learn how to live,” Africano said. “It’s good to know I can succeed in other places and not just California.”
Bouquet, too, has embraced the rigors of being a Notre Dame student-athlete in stride. Shared experiences with teammates over the past three years have paved the way on her journey.
“I definitely didn’t expect the number of challenges that came with going to college and being a student-athlete,” Bouquet said. “I didn’t expect it to be as challenging as it’s been but it is all the more rewarding. It’s bonded me with my teammates.”
Battling against the odds, a key theme in the famed Notre Dame fight song, has long been a trademark of the university’s teams throughout the history of Irish athletics. That steady dedication to perseverance serves as an ongoing inspiration to White.
“It’s great that we get to carry on the tradition of being an underdog in a way,” White said. “Notre Dame represents the Fighting Irish, the underdog, and as a team we represent that. We are very proud to succeed against obstacles that not everyone has, it makes us stand out even more.”
Visit UND.com on Friday (Jan. 29) for the seventh 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.