Jan. 12, 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.
Consistency. Pride. Determination. Excellence. These are all traits that have become a key part of what the University of Notre Dame softball team has established as its culture and identity during the new millennium. Consider that since the 1999 season alone, Notre Dame has made 17 straight appearances at NCAA Regionals, earned 10 conference regular-season championships and added six conference tournament titles to its rÃƒÆ’Â©sumÃƒÆ’Â©, alongside a myriad of individual player and coaching accolades.
That success has in many ways been a testament to the longevity over the last 10 seasons of the core Irish coaching staff of head coach Deanna Gumpf and associate coaches Kris Ganeff and Lizzy Ristano, currently the longest tenured staff among all female varsity athletics programs at Notre Dame. Not only has Notre Dame earned trips to the NCAA tournament in every season during that span, the program is in the midst of a run of seven straight 40-win seasons (a team record), has seen players claim 11 All-America honors, and has led the NCAA in both batting average and doubles on two separate occasions (2010 and 2014), all while leaving its longtime home in the BIG EAST Conference for the competitive pastures of the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) in 2014.
The conference move, which may well have caught any other program across the country off guard and slowed momentum, has allowed Notre Dame to continue raising its national profile. The Irish have been a fixture in the national polls dating back to the start of the 2014 campaign, the program’s first extended exposure firmly in the top 25 since 2001. Perhaps the greatest national accomplishment under the current coaching staff saw Notre Dame secure one of 16 seeds in the 2015 NCAA Championship, ensuring that the Irish would host an NCAA Regional for the first time at Melissa Cook Stadium.
–WHERE IT BEGAN–
To find out what brought Notre Dame to the top of its game at both a regional and national level, one would have to venture back to where the modern journey of Irish softball began in 1998. Notre Dame had just completed its 10th varsity season after racing out of the gates as a new program, as the first decade on the diamond for the Irish featured three NCAA Regional bids (1994-96), five conference tournament championships and nine conference regular-season crowns.
Coming off a 1998 season that saw a fourth place BIG EAST tournament finish and second straight year outside of the NCAA bracket, members within the team felt that the time was at hand to take the vaunted “next step”.
“I honestly think, in terms of the three of us together, that our first culture shift came in late 1998 when Kris and I were players on the team and Deanna was one of our coaches,” Ristano, who was a four-time all-BIG EAST selection under her maiden name of Lemire in the Notre Dame outfield from 1998-2001, said. “That was one of the first real culture shifts for Notre Dame softball, where the expectation became reaching an NCAA Regional every year. Kris was going into her senior year, I was going into my sophomore year and Deanna was going into her second year here. We were coming off a year (1998 season) where we felt like we had failed, we had all of this talent and we just didn’t make it.
“All three of us wanted the same thing, along with a core group within the rest of the team,” Ristano said. “We’ve always wanted those same things and that was the first time that we said, “This is what we want, how are we going to get it?” With the leadership of Kris and the other captains, and Deanna as a leader on the coaching staff, they were able to set a foundation for our team that this is the standard and this is what we expect.”
The future Notre Dame softball brain trust, in differing roles from what they would assume in many prosperous years to come, began expanding on the ground work already laid in place by founding Irish head coach Brian Boulac (1989-92) and 2005 NFCA Hall of Fame inductee Liz Miller (1993-2001).
Gumpf, who served as the Notre Dame pitching coach from 1998-2001 before becoming one of the winningest head coaches in NCAA history over her first 14 seasons at the Irish helm, felt that the 1999 team set a trend by not shying away from a different approach in order to be successful.
“Part of the reason why we’ve been consistent is we’re not afraid to grow and we’re not afraid to be open and honest, even when it’s difficult,” Gumpf said. “There is always somebody checking us and making sure that if we feel like we are getting stagnant, someone is there to push the stop button. It’s different people at different times. To Lizzy’s point I think the end of ’98 was where true trust was cemented in this program.
“During hard times that’s where true trust is built, and that was when that trust was built between the three generations of us even though we were all in different places.”
For Ganeff (nÃƒÆ’Â©e McCleary), a two-time all-BIG EAST catcher and 1999 Women’s Pro Softball League (WPSL) draft pick, the ebbs and flows signaled a full circle journey as a college softball player.
“That was actually the reason I came to Notre Dame, to play softball,” Ganeff said. “That’s maybe not the traditional thing most people have come to Notre Dame for but that was what I wanted to do. To have the experiences that I did, like my freshman year in 1996 with All-American Terri Kobata as our pitcher when we went to our third ever NCAA Regional and played top 10 South Carolina. We just didn’t know at the time (how big the stage was), there weren’t all kinds of media and attention around the games. You just played softball.
“The next year my expectation was that you just always go to the regionals, and it didn’t happen, it didn’t happen for those next two years,” Ganeff added. “Going into my senior year is when that culture shifted. Things changed and it was a different standard.”
The 1999 team answered the call in a big way. With Ganeff and classmate Amy Laboe serving as senior captains, Notre Dame logged a 42-20 record, which included a perfect 16-0 mark in the BIG EAST and the program’s first tournament title in the conference, and earned a trip to that season’s NCAA Regionals in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Riding the momentum of the 1999 surge, Ristano’s class embarked on what remains the most decorated two-year stretch in team history to close their own careers. The 2000-01 Notre Dame squads posted a 101-21 (.828) mark, which included a national-best 33 straight victories during the 2001 season, the 2000 BIG EAST tournament championship, and came within a game of advancing out of the 2001 NCAA No. 7 Regional against ultimate Women’s College World Series qualifier Iowa.
Miller would retire following the graduation of that seminal 2001 class with 377 wins, a .707 winning percentage, eight combined (six regular-season, two tournament) conference championships and six NCAA Regional appearances in her nine seasons at Notre Dame. While ascending to her first head coach role in the college ranks in 2002, Gumpf welcomed a familiar face back to the fold as part of her first coaching staff.
–THE BAND IS BACK–
“Deanna is one of the most competitive people I know and hates losing, she knows which way to go,” Ganeff said. “As a player you follow that, and I always had a good relationship working with her as a catcher when she was the pitching coach. I always admired that and she is honestly one of the reasons I even got into coaching, she has always been one of my biggest mentors. When I had the opportunity to come back here after two years coaching at UNLV it was a no-brainer for me because I still loved Notre Dame and Notre Dame softball, and to have the chance to work with Deanna again was like a dream for me.”
Ganeff returned to her alma mater in advance of a 2002 season that marked a changing of the guard for the Notre Dame program. What followed was not entirely surprising. The Irish surpassed the 40-win plateau for the fourth straight year (44-17), swept top honors in the BIG EAST regular season and tournament standings for the third time in four years, and grinded out wins over No. 22 Iowa and No. 15 Oregon State during the NCAA No. 7 Regional in Iowa City.
Notre Dame ultimately repeated as the BIG EAST champion in 2003 before finding runner-up finishes at the conference tournament in both 2004 and 2005 after posting 49 and 46-win seasons, respectively. The 2005 Irish team became the first in program history to secure a home NCAA Regional, playing host to the No. 9 bracket of that year’s national tournament in South Bend.
The run of success that rose to the forefront during the final season with Gumpf, Ganeff and Ristano all in the Notre Dame fold six years earlier had continued, but there was still something missing. One last piece of the puzzle was about to be re-added to the table.
“I had no intention to coach and was living across the country, working my way up the administration ladder, but it was around the time when my mom had died and I needed good people,” Ristano said of her return to Notre Dame in the fall of 2005. “That was my automatic draw, Deanna was calling me and asking what I thought and Kris was calling saying that I should come back. My ego in my head was saying that I was working at Stanford at a great job, but when it came down to the nitty gritty my heart said to go back to where people love you and you can heal. That’s what I think brought me back here.”
Notre Dame surged back to the top of the BIG EAST in 2006, allowing a single run during a three-game jaunt to its fifth conference tournament title in eight years at that season’s BIG EAST Championship at Ivy Field. The Irish offense showed steady improvement with more hits (492-463) and runs scored (263-249) over the previous year during the inaugural campaign with its new coaching staff. When it looked as though the heights may not rise any higher…
–WEATHERING THE STORM, TOGETHER–
Entering 2007 as the reigning BIG EAST champion, Notre Dame found the defense of its crown in jeopardy by middle of the league slate. Wins in each of the first nine conference regular season games quickly flipped to seven consecutive defeats, the most conference losses ever encountered by any Irish softball team at the time. The 32 overall Notre Dame wins that season were the fewest for the program since 1990, but a challenging schedule and a strong runner-up placement at the BIG EAST tournament yielded a ninth straight NCAA Regional berth for the Irish.
A 14-8 record in BIG EAST play in 2008 slotted Notre Dame in fourth place entering the postseason, which saw the Irish eliminated for the only time in its 18 seasons as a BIG EAST member during the conference tournament’s opening round. Another at-large bid awaited at NCAA selection time, but the level of success and excellence that Notre Dame had come to expect and demand was not being met.
Notre Dame would hoist the BIG EAST tournament hardware one final time in 2009. Despite the start of the current 40-win and continuation of the annual NCAA Regional appearance streaks in each campaign since, BIG EAST third place results in 2010 and 2011 and a second place run in 2012 left the Irish in search of more.
“It was kind of a maturation process for everyone, but for the three of us we were hitting certain points in our lives at different times,” Ganeff said. “There was finally a time when we all reached the point where we appreciated each other for who we are and what we bring to the table, and we recognized that we needed all of that to be successful. It took that time to develop. I couldn’t live in Deanna’s shoes until I passed that page. The same thing for Lizzy, we all just got there and it wasn’t always easy or perfect.”
–THE ACC MOVE IS MADE–
“The conference move for us kind of trimmed the fat out in a way,” Ristano said. “Our last year (2013) in the BIG EAST the top five teams were among the top 30-40 in the nation, but where it’s changed in the ACC is that there really are no weekends off. That was a change for our players where before, against some schools they might have gone in with a lighter approach thinking that we could show up and the talent would take care of itself. Every weekend is a battle in the ACC, and it has just upped the standard that we have set.”
Arguably the most decorated softball program in the history of the BIG EAST Conference, especially dating back to the season it joined in 1996, Notre Dame closed its BIG EAST chapter with a 13th regular-season championship in 2013. An epic 10-inning tournament final defeat at South Florida made the last BIG EAST run bittersweet, but the new horizons of the ACC beckoned.
“Nobody knows how strong the ACC is until you are in the conference and you realize that there is not an easy day,” Gumpf said. “To truly appreciate the ACC is to be in it and know how good every single one of these teams are. I was so excited the day that I found out we were joining the ACC and thought it was the greatest thing for Notre Dame softball because of the challenges that it presented us. The tougher the conference is the better that we will be as a team. The better the competition is day in and day out, it makes you become better because of it.”
Notre Dame’s ACC debut in 2014 was more than stellar. A 41-13 record, a runner-up ACC Championship finish against national top 10 foe Florida State, posting the top team totals in batting average (.357) and doubles (107) in the NCAA, and an NCAA-leading three National Fastpitch Coaches Association (NFCA) All-America selections earned the Irish coaches NFCA Mid-Atlantic Region Coaching Staff of the Year honors.
“The three of us really had the same mindset the whole time that it didn’t really matter what conference you put us in, we want to be the winning team,” Ganeff said. “Our whole staff does not like losing, we can’t stand it, and our thought was that you can put us anywhere and we’re going to compete. We didn’t ever look at it that it was going to be really hard for us, we felt like we were going to succeed.”
–A THIRD CAPTAIN AND LONGTIME FRIEND JOIN THE CREW–
On the eve of the 2015 season a third Notre Dame alumna and former captain joined the Irish staff. Four-time Monogram winner Kasey O’Connor, who was one of four senior captains during her final season in 2012, re-joined the program as its director of operations. With three former captains among the current coaching and support staff, the Irish softball program is rivaled only by defensive backs coach Todd Lyght (1990 captain), director of player development Ron Powlus (1996-97 captain), defensive graduate assistant Maurice Crum Jr. (2007-08 captain) and assistant strength and conditioning coach David Grimes (2008) from the significantly larger football support network at Notre Dame.
After officially being away from softball for more than two years in stops both inside and outside athletics, O’Connor quickly found the instant kinship that she remembered from her college coaches upon her return to the Notre Dame program.
“The one approach I always tried to have as a player, and I don’t know how successful I was at it as a player but was always in the back of my mind, was to be as honest as possible with the coaches,” O’Connor said. “I think that helped to build trust over the years, and even though it might not have been what they wanted to hear at the time it was always my honest opinion. Looking back now it was easy to step into my current role and take that same approach because they knew I would bring a level of honesty with me and that they will always get exactly what I am feeling. I wouldn’t sugarcoat anything or blow smoke, and that honesty has helped.
“As far as coming back to Notre Dame, that really speaks volumes of these three because they are three of the giant reasons that I am even back at Notre Dame and why I love Notre Dame so much,” she said. “It’s a place that makes you want to be better than you are because you are surrounded by so many awesome people, it really brings you back.”
After 13 seasons as top assistant and pitching coach of regional foe Western Michigan, Jamie Spitale completed the current Notre Dame staff as its volunteer assistant prior to the 2015 season. With a wealth of experience in the college game, especially after her own long stint within one program, the transition that Spitale figured awaited her even amongst longtime friends was not as steep as envisioned.
“My initial thoughts were that this might be hard to do, coming into a program where people have been together for a long time and are really close,” Spitale said. “I came from a program that was very similar but still different, with my own thoughts and theories. Honestly, it was easier than I ever thought it was going to be. I have always been friends with them, and in the coaching world trust is a very important thing. I have always had that with them so it was really easy. They make it easy and they make you want to stick around.”
Notre Dame appeared in its 17th straight (20th all-time) NCAA Championship last season, bringing an NCAA Regional to the Notre Dame campus for the just the second time in team history. The Irish capped 2015 by clearing the benchmark 40-win plateau with a 42-15 record, establishing single-season program bests for hits (543), runs (395) and on-base percentage (.419) while batting above a .350 clip (.351) for the second straight season.
Notre Dame also earned eight victories over fellow national top 25 foes, and enjoyed a 24-game winning streak from March through the end of April that was the second longest in the nation during the 2015 slate.
–2016 AND BEYOND–
The Notre Dame softball program rolls into its 28th season this February, embarking on what is already its third ACC go round. A total of 13 Monogram winners, four all-conference honorees and two prior All-America choices are back in the fold. Leading the way from the front of the pack, as they have for so many years, are Gumpf, Ganeff and Ristano.
“I’ve never felt like we have completed what we all came here to do, so that’s always been the reason that I have never really thought about leaving,” Ganeff said. “It’s my home, I’ve made my life here and I love it. These guys are my family. We have really good times and have fun together, and I know if there was ever a moment I needed them they would have my back.
“The way that I love Notre Dame and I love softball, I have carried that into coaching,” she said. “It has changed over the years because when you’re young you might not know enough. As I’ve matured I got to the point where I wanted to be the best I could be at Notre Dame, and to me being my best is being at Notre Dame.”
For Ristano, opportunities up the ladder have arisen in the past as she established herself as a rising coaching mind in the Division I game. At the end of the day, her alma mater has always called out the loudest.
“Early on I think I followed the typical what you should be doing versus what your heart really wants to do as a coach,” Ristano said. “For me the thing I learned in the whole process at times when I went to interviews, I would always come back to not knowing who I would hire for my staff. People always said you figure that part out, but these are my people and they are who I want to work with.
“The ego of the chance to be a head coach couldn’t outweigh working with good people, and for me that is what I have learned over time,” Ristano added. “I would rather be around good people who are like my family every day than have the big salary or title.”
A mere nine wins short of her 600th career victory entering her 15th season as head coach, Gumpf echoed the sentiments of the counterparts who have been along with her throughout her entire Notre Dame experience. The strength of her coaching team, and the closeness of their bond, continues to propel Notre Dame softball on its ever-rising path.
“One thing we’ve learned through this whole time together is we value who we’re with more than where we’re at, and that’s a huge lesson that I am so grateful for,” Gumpf said. “In the big picture of life it’s all about who you’re with, where you’re at is the bonus.”
Visit UND.com on Friday for the second 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.