Jan. 15, 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.
The honor of captaincy is bestowed upon a select few in the world of high-level collegiate athletics. Only the best of the best rise to the top, the cream of the crop are those called to lead. While a role of great honor and prestige, being a captain often times brings along with it added rigors and responsibilities unlike almost anything a player has ever seen.
It is hard to imagine, then, the full scope of such an honor crossing the minds of senior infielder Carly Piccinich and junior outfielder Karley Wester when each began their own softball journeys years ago on youth fields on opposite coasts. Chances are that reality had yet to blossom for the future University of Notre Dame softball stars and 2016 team captains.
“I was watching my older sister Amy, she’s five and a half years older than me, and I always threw the ball with my dad off to the side at her games,” Piccinich said of her introduction to the sport of softball. “I was probably only four or five years old at the time.”
Wester also recalled her own sisterly connection that bonded her to the sport at an early age.
“It’s actually kind of funny because when I first started playing softball, Ali started playing softball,” Wester said of the path she shared with sister Ali Wester, a freshman and teammate on the Notre Dame squad. “We are starting off together and ending together, so that’s kind of cute. I didn’t even do T-Ball, just went right to 8 and under. Ali joined me, she was a six-year-old on the 8 and under team.”
Both Piccinich and Wester were not limited to the softball diamond during their formative years in competitive sports. Forward thinking and planning for the future ended any potential superstardom on other fields and courts in each case.
“I played soccer too, soccer and softball were my main sports when I was little,” Piccinich, who also moonlighted as a tennis player in high school, said. “I played soccer for five years, and then when I was 12 I decided that soccer was boring for me. Softball was going to be my sport, so it was at 12 when I officially stopped playing soccer and devoted all of my time to softball. My sister was trying to go to college to play then (Amy played softball at Lehigh), so obviously I wanted to do what my sister did. I decided on softball.”
“I grew up playing both soccer and softball, and I stopped playing club soccer my sophomore year even though I still played for my high school (along with volleyball),” Wester said. “I think it was in fifth grade, though, that my dad sat me on the couch and said, “You’re going to play softball at Stanford.” I thought ok maybe not Stanford, but college, cool. That was when I started focusing on softball and thinking that maybe I could do this in college.”
Piccinich built her college rÃƒÆ’Â©sumÃƒÆ’Â© as a multi-year softball letterwinner at Immaculate Heart Academy in Township of Washington, New Jersey. Immaculate Heart won four conference, three sectional and regional and two state championships during Piccinich’s high school career, with the squad finding itself nationally ranked by the National Fastpitch Coaches Association (NFCA) on two occasions. She finished her high school tenure with a .478 average and 159 runs scored, earning four all-conference and two NFCA High School All-America honors as a prep player.
Notre Dame was exactly where Piccinich envisioned herself when she began the college recruiting process, finding an immediate love for the campus and university in her initial visits.
“It was a no brainer for me,” Piccinich said. “When I first started coming to camps and officially having contact with the coaches at tournaments, I felt like I was going to fulfill my dream and play here. It just feels like it is home. I remember when I visited during my junior year and I turned to my mom and told her that I felt like I was home on this campus.
“I say this all the time and it sounds corny, but I like looking at all the buildings and going to the Lakes,” she added. “I will fight with anyone until I am out of breath in saying this is the most beautiful campus, and everything that it embodies like community and being with amazing people, it is the best place on Earth.”
Unlike her teammate and captain confidant, Wester’s college softball approach took a different route. A five-year standout at Edison High School in Huntington Beach, California, Wester eclipsed the 160-hit (169), 80-stolen base (81) and 120-run career plateaus and was a multi-time all-county honoree with the Chargers. A .421 batting average, 31 runs, 20 stolen bases and a .495 on-base percentage landed her on the MaxPreps California Large School All-State team as a senior.
It was the conversation that Wester recalled from years earlier with her father, Gary, continuing to captivate her college dreams.
“Even though he had told me about going to Stanford my dad probably always did want me to go to Wisconsin, his alma mater,” Wester said with a smile. “For the longest time when my parents said you’re going to play at Stanford I felt like ok, I AM going to play at Stanford. That was my thing. A scholarship opportunity became available from Notre Dame while I was still holding out for Stanford since it was my dream school, and I fought this place at the time because of that.
“It kills me now because I could not be happier, so I guess everything happens for a reason,” she said. “I am glad that Stanford fell through because I love this place and really couldn’t be any happier.”
Echoing Piccinich’s sentiments about the Notre Dame experience going beyond top-flight academics and athletics, Wester glowed in describing the family atmosphere that awaited her at arrival on campus three summers ago. That bond of family and camaraderie has made the Orange County native a proud Midwesterner during her college years.
“I have actually gotten to play here with my real sister, but all of these girls are sisters and like family,” Wester said. “I can call Coach Gumpf or Amanda (Hall, counselor at academic services) or (strength and conditioning coach Kaitlin) Sweeney if I ever have any issues, there is a genuine care here. Once you start calling this place home is when it really clicks. When I was back in California at the end of this last break it was like, we’re going back home. I was in my actual home referring to Notre Dame as my home now.”
In her first three years as a member of the Notre Dame softball roster Piccinich has become an indispensable part of the Irish infield corps. She enters her senior campaign with 134 games played at Notre Dame, the second most on the current Irish roster, and 11 starts. Piccinich stole five bases and scored 18 runs in 45 games last season as a junior, becoming the 59th player in school history to reach the 50-run plateau for her career.
Also a standout in the classroom during her Notre Dame journey, Piccinich was tabbed as a BIG EAST Conference Academic All-Star in 2013 and was named to the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) Academic Honor Roll in 2015.
Wester has enjoyed one of the greatest offensive starts in program history during her first two seasons with the Irish, batting a program-best .441 with 165 hits, 60 RBI, 52 stolen bases and 115 runs scored in her first 111 games (110 starts). She led the ACC in batting average in each of her first two seasons, most recently batting .429 while tying Notre Dame single-season records for hits (84) and runs scored (65) as a sophomore in 2015.
Just the second freshman NFCA All-America selection in team history (second team, 2014), Wester finished as a top three finalist for that season’s inaugural NFCA Division I National Freshman of the Year award and was recognized as the ACC Softball Freshman of the Year. She has also been named to the NFCA Mid-Atlantic all-region and all-ACC first teams during each of her first two collegiate campaigns.
Putting the academic and athletic accomplishments aside, Piccinich said that actually finding out that she and Wester had been elected team captains toward the end of last semester was a unique experience itself.
“I remember that we didn’t actually know if there was another person who had gotten it because we’d had individual meetings,” Piccinich said. “Coach Gumpf finally told me the morning we had a class together and I ran down the hallway (toward Karley) like, “Come here!” I was so excited wanting to celebrate my excitement with someone else and find out who the other person was, and when I did find out it became 10 times better.”
“I was on the phone with my mom walking down the hallway and Carl was standing outside, and she’s never outside waiting for me,” Wester said. “She just runs down and bear hugs me. It was a cool feeling, especially when you go back home. One thing I want to do is make my parents proud, and my mom starts crying…”
The announcement was met with a resoundingly positive reaction from other friends and family alike when the players returned home during the holidays.
“I think my dad sent the (UND.com captains announcement) article on blast to New York City, I’m not sure,” Piccinich said. “Random people I saw would say congratulations I read the article, and my dad said that he sent it to pretty much everyone that he knew. I think for my parents and family, and being role models to our younger siblings, it’s a big thing.”
“Even the other parents like Casey Africano’s, who are like my parents because we are so close, said how proud they were,” Wester said. “It just goes to show that this is a true family and everybody cares.”
The attention for the Notre Dame captains and the entire team shifted to preparation for the 2016 season with the beginning of preseason practice on Monday. Even with time over the semester break to absorb the responsibility of her newfound role, Wester said it truly began to sink in when she returned to campus for the spring.
“It’s kind of humbling because our parents love us so much, and sometimes you feel like maybe they raise you up on a pedestal a bit too much because of that,” Wester said. “When we come back here and everyone else supports that vision and believes in us, it was kind of cool. It’s an important title but we’re all one team, it’s not one or two people, we are all in this together. I would say Carly and I are a little extra motivated but it’s just a special feeling this year, there is a vibe on this team that’s exciting. That’s what I was excited to come back to.”
Closing out her college career on a path that few players have followed before her at Notre Dame, Piccinich is also embracing the chance to lead by example. As is the case with great teams, though, the senior infielder made it clear that she and her captain counterpart are merely two of a host of players ready, willing and able to lead Notre Dame softball into its 28th season.
“Title or not we still have so many great leaders on this team that will help us, a great senior class,” Piccinich said. “Working together Karley and I both bring two different dynamics. As much as we are similarly goofy, with softball we bring two different dynamics and I think that’s great for the team.
“Having been named captain helps you to push a little more when you might be tired, knowing everyone is looking up to you now,” Piccinich said. “It is humbling and it pushes us in a good way, and I like that.”
Visit UND.com next Wednesday (Jan. 20) for the third 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.