Softball preview: Experienced Irish ready to break through to Super Regionals in 2022
SOUTH BEND — The Notre Dame softball team has never missed an NCAA Tournament in 23 years under head coach Deanna Gumpf. It took a pandemic to keep the Irish (and everyone) out in 2020.
But in 2021, Notre Dame picked up where it left off, coming just one win away from reaching the NCAA Super Regional for the first time in program history, losing twice to host Kentucky after coming through the winner's bracket.
Gumpf, the only coach for any Notre Dame program to reach 750 victories besides Muffet McGraw, said she doesn’t need to post the box scores from that final day in Lexington to motivate her team.
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“I think that feeling doesn’t ever go away,” she said earlier this month as the Irish prepared for the start of the 2022 season. “It really doesn’t until it does come. We’ve talked a lot about it, and we’ve committed to doing things a little bit different and a little bit better.”
Could this be the year the Irish finally get over the NCAA Regional hump?
Picked to finish fifth in the ACC Preseason Coaches Poll, Notre Dame did not make the Top 25 in the major preseason polls, but did receive votes in several.
Plenty of firepower
Notre Dame returns most of a lineup that led the ACC with a .299 batting average in 2021 and was fourth in slugging percentage and seventh in home runs. Irish batters also made opposing defenses work, striking out a league-low 179 times.
Notre Dame’s bats will be led again by All-American Abby Sweet, who topped the conference with a .445 batting average. The senior center fielder said the Irish lineup is “lethal” when it gets rolling because its versatility.
“We're not all power hitters. We’re not all slappers,” Sweet said. “But one thing that we all are is pretty fast. We don’t have a lot of slow people on this team, so we’re able to cause chaos and commotion among the defense and catch them on their heels.”
Notre Dame pitchers posted a 2.41 team earned-run average last season, good for fifth in the ACC. The Irish were also eighth in strikeouts while allowing the third-fewest hits and runs.
Starting pitchers Payton Tidd and Alexis Holloway, return. Sweet and Holloway will captain the Irish for a third consecutive season.
The Irish got off to a slow start in 2021, but closed the regular season on a 14-game winning streak to finish 33-15 overall and 20-10 in the conference.
Gumpf said the improvement was partly due to getting healthy as a team, especially with availability an issue all-season long due to contract tracing.
“And I think people were just sick of the way we were playing,” she said. “I think the girls were like, ‘This is not enough.’”
Filling in the gaps
Notre Dame loses its middle infield from last season with the graduations of second baseman Katie Marino, who led the ACC in sacrifice bunts and shortstop Chelsea Purcell.
Third baseman Joley Mitchell, who missed the entirety of last season due to injury, returns. Gumpf said the competition for spots remains open and has been taking place all winter.
“We have two starters at every position in the infield, and I’m going to let them figure it out and win it out,” she said.
Karina Gaskins could be primed for a breakout season. The sophomore first baseman, often featured as designated player last season, led the team with 10 home runs, four of which she hit on consecutive at-bats during a double header at Georgia Tech.
She earned second-Team All-ACC and All-ACC Freshman honors and tied the program record for home runs in a single game with three.
Gumpf said the two-time New Jersey Gatorade Player of the Year has quieted her swing a bit and will only improve as she continues to mature in the box.
“I think she’s capable," Gumpf said, "of having record-setting numbers.”
The Irish also lost pitcher Morgan Ryan, who will play as a grad transfer in her hometown of Greenburg, Pennsylvania, at Division II Seton Hill. Ryan often entered in relief last season, leading the Irish with a 1.32 ERA in 20 appearances.
Currently, the only other pitcher on the roster besides Tidd and Holloway is freshman Shannon Becker, but Gumpf has already been impressed by Becker’s ability to attack hitters in practice.
“We lost a reliever, but we gained a starter,” she said.
Becker is a two-time New York Gatorade Player of the Year. She posted a 0.00 ERA her senior year at Mahopac High School, striking out 286 batters in 139 innings of work. During her high school career, Becker pitched 43 shutouts, 11 no-hitters and two perfect games.
Behind the infield there is zero hint of turnover. Sweet, who typically leads off for Irish, is often followed by right fielder Emma Clark, with left fielder Leea Hanks close behind. The three starting outfielders hit a combined .388 last season.
Sweet is Gumpf’s 15th All-American and could become the fifth player during Gumpf’s tenure to earn the honor twice.
“She doesn’t need quick fixes,” Gumpf said. “She watches a lot of film. She makes sure she’s technically really sound, and she attacks good pitches. Quite frankly, she simplifies things.”
The Irish begin their season Friday in Charlotte, North Carolina, when they take on Bucknell and Boston University. They begin their ACC schedule March 11 with a three-game series at Virginia.
Notre Dame's home opener at Melissa Cook Stadium is March 15 against Detroit Mercy.
“We want to win the ACC, we want to win a Regional, we want to win a Supers, we want to make it to the World Series,” Holloway said. “And every year that I’ve been here that intention and that goal has been the same. So that doesn’t change this year.”
Abby Sweet, OF
2021: .445 BA, .537 OBP, .712 SLG
ACC-leading BA was 13th in the nation. Set a program record in OBP, which was second in the ACC and 19th nationally. Led the ACC with 18 doubles, which was tied for ninth in the country. Named a 2021 Justin’s World of Softball First-Team All-American and a National Fastpitch Coaches Association Second-Team All-American. Named a 2021 USA Softball Player of the Year Top 25 finalist and ACC Softball Scholar Athlete of the Year. Named to the 2021 All-ACC First Team and was also a 2022 Preseason All-ACC selection.
Emma Clark, OF
2021: .404 BA, .434 OBP, .444 SLG
Fourth in the ACC in BA. Fifth in the ACC with 26 stolen bases. Set program record for stolen bases in a single game with four vs. North Alabama. Named 2021 Second-Team All-ACC and 2021 NFCA Mid-Atlantic All-Region selection.
Leea Hanks, OF
2021: .314 BA, .331 OBP, .490 SLG
Fourth in the ACC with five triples. Hit three-run home run in 3-2 over Miami (OH) in opening game of NCAA Regional.
Alexis Holloway, pitcher
2021: 125.1 IP, 14-7 W-L, 2.79 ERA, 111-65 K-BB
Native of Crown Point, Ind. 13th in the ACC in ERA. Tied for seventh in the conference in strikeouts. Also contributed at the plate, hitting .250 in 56 at-bats with a .288 OBP. Named to 2021 All-ACC Third Team and 2021 NFCA Mid-Atlantic All-Region Second Team.
Payton Tidd, pitcher
2021: 131.1 IP, 15-6 W-L, 2.40 ERA, 80-34 K-BB
Finished 10th in the conference in ERA. Joined Holloway and Ryan for two combined no-hitters last season. Named to 2021 All-ACC Third Team and 2021 NFCA Mid-Atlantic All-Region First Team.