KAITLIN COLE: LEXIE GRIGGS

1/3/2018: Lili Thompson’s season-ending injury could open the door for more playing time for Kaitlin Cole (2), one of three walk-ons on the Notre Dame roster. (Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA)

SOUTH BEND — If Kaitlin Cole ever stops appreciating being a part of the Notre Dame women’s basketball program — and that doesn’t appear likely the way her eyes light up as she talks of the experience — all she has to do is consider her grandfather.

Grandpa Glenn Ramsay was once one of the premier goaltenders in the world, but because there were just six teams in the National Hockey League during his prime, he spent virtually his entire pro career from 1956 to 1974 in the International Hockey League.

When the IHL recognized a 50th anniversary team in 1995, Ramsay was chosen as the goalie — unanimously. Playing mostly for the Toledo Blades, the Canadian native led the league six times in goals-against average.

Yet, while Ramsay never reached his sport’s pro pinnacle, the NHL, his granddaughter is now suiting up for one of the signature programs within all of women’s college basketball.

This despite the fact that there are certainly hundreds, possibly thousands, of individuals within the NCAA’s 349 Division I programs who are better than Kaitlin Cole.

“It’s definitely been like a world shock to me to play for one of the best college basketball teams in the nation,” Cole said Wednesday afternoon at practice as the No. 5-ranked Irish (18-2, 6-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) prepared for Thursday’s 7 p.m. game at Pittsburgh (9-11, 1-6).

If it’s a “world shock” for her to play, try what it was for her parents upon learning she even made the team.

“When I told them, they didn’t believe it,” Cole said. “They thought it was a joke. They made me call them, made me show them the email I got. It was really funny.”

Cole also contacted her sister, Maddie, a junior scholarship player at Bowling Green.

“She started crying,” Cole said. “She was really happy for me.”

Cole is one of three walk-ons this season for Notre Dame, a program that never before carried that many during coach Muffet McGraw’s 31 years.

In fact, it’s a program that hadn’t carried any since Mary Forr in 2010-11.

A sophomore guard from Toledo, Ohio, Cole is joined by junior forward Maureen Butler from Livonia, Mich., and freshman guard Nicole Benz from Valencia, Calif., as the walk-ons.

Punctuating just how dire ND’s depth situation already was, and has further become, Cole and Butler were added around Oct. 1 — well before Mychal Johnson, Mikayla Vaughn and Lili Thompson each went down with season-ending knee injuries. Benz, who was a team manager, was added over the recent semester break.

“For us to have three at one time, they’ve done an amazing job,” McGraw said.

Cole is the one among those three who has even gotten into a couple games before the outcomes were already secured.

“She has given us really valuable minutes,” McGraw said, “and she’s doing a fantastic job of just really understanding what we’re doing without getting a lot of reps.”

Cole has appeared in 11 games, played 45 minutes and scored 15 points. Butler has been in eight games, played 17 minutes and scored five. Benz has been in 2 games and played three minutes.

“At first, it was really nerve-wracking because I’m new,” Cole said of receiving meaningful minutes. “I don’t know as much stuff as (the scholarship players) and I’m not in as great a shape as they are.”

Cole, a 5-foot-10 lefty, thought she was finished with basketball after averaging 18.4 points and earning second-team All-Ohio honors as a senior in 2015-16 at Sylvania Northview.

A science major who intends to go to medical school and become an orthopedic surgeon, Cole received offers from a few D-II and D-III programs to play basketball, “but Notre Dame was my dream school, so once I got in, I called those schools to say, ‘Sorry, but I’m going to Notre Dame.’”

She didn’t think she’d miss the sport much anyway.

“Coming into Notre Dame, I thought I didn’t want to play anymore,” Cole said, “but watching the games, playing intramurals, playing bookstore basketball, I realized I missed it so much.”

So last summer, she contacted the Irish to see if there was any chance of walking on.

“They said they were going to do walk-on tryouts, so leading up to the tryouts, I was at the gym every single day working out, shooting, and then when I got back here, I kept up the same thing,” Cole said.

About 10 students tried out.

“I felt like I did really well,” Cole said. “It was just fun to play competitively again, and I’m so glad I have this opportunity.”

It’s an opportunity Cole’s embracing even with her challenging pre-med course load.

“I thought it was going to be harder than it is,” Cole said. “It is hard to juggle my labs. I have to make up labs like every week, but the studying, and with the tutors, I’ve been doing well.”

Whether there will be a need for any walk-ons in the program next year is long from decided, McGraw said Wednesday.

Counting the four incoming freshmen who have signed, the Irish could have as many as 13 scholarship players next season, though Johnson and Thompson remain non-certainties.

McGraw said she typically likes to carry a roster of 12 players.

“Definitely,” Cole said of whether she would return if invited. “This has been so much fun and I love all the girls, and the coaches are so nice. I’d definitely put in the work to do it again.”

WOMEN’S BASKETBALL

WHO: No. 5 Notre Dame (18-2, 6-1 ACC) vs. Pittsburgh (9-11, 1-6 ACC).

WHERE: Petersen Events Center (12,508), Pittsburgh.

WHEN: Thursday, 7 p.m.

RADIO: Pulse (96.9 / 92.1 FM).

WEB: ACC Network Extra.

TV: None.

NOTING: Pittsburgh is led by juniors Yacine Diop and Kalista Walters. Diop’s averaging 15.7 points and 6.1 rebounds. Walters is at 10.8 points, 7.3 rebounds and 2.1 blocks. She’s also fourth in the nation in field goal percentage at 65.4. As a team, the Panthers are holding opponents to 36.1 percent from the field to rank 30th among 349 Division I teams. Their 6.7 blocks rank seventh. … Over its last seven quarters spanning the comeback win over then-No. 6 Tennessee and the 90-37 victory over Clemson, No. 5 Notre Dame has outscored the opposition 164-80. Arike Ogunbowale (20.3 ppg for the season) is coming off ESPN national player of the week honors. Jessica Shepard’s at 15.1 points and 7.8 rebounds, and Jackie Young 14.5 and 7.0. … The Irish have beaten Pitt eight straight times since an 82-70 road loss in February 2009 and lead the overall series 25-3. … The Panthers have never beaten a top-five team.

QUOTING: “It’s great to see the commitment to defense. I think we’re getting up in the passing lanes a little bit more. It’s amazing we’re forcing so many turnovers with the lack of pressure we have. We’re not able to press a lot, so we’ve got to be able to do it in the half-court.” — Muffet McGraw, Notre Dame coach, on the 23.7 turnovers opponents have averaged over the last three games.