Notre Dame softball: Addition of Irish boosts ACC

Notre Dame has fared well vs. league

TYLER JAMES
South Bend Tribune

Donna Papa’s softball teams have been a member of the Atlantic Coast Conference since the league first started sponsoring the sport in 1992.

The University of North Carolina head coach has seen the conference grow from four teams to six to eight and now to what will be 11 in 2014.

With the conference in a state of transition, Papa will see plenty of new faces in opposing dugouts next spring.

Nearly half the coaches in the ACC will be coaching their first season in the conference with the addition of programs of Notre Dame, Syracuse and Pittsburgh with new head coaches at Virginia and Georgia Tech.

Now three new schools – and a fourth when Louisville replaces Big Ten-bound Maryland after next season – can attach the ACC brand and warm weather to their recruiting pitches.

It all adds a little more pressure to Papa, a National Fastpitch Coaches Association Hall of Famer as she heads into her 29th season at North Carolina.

“We’re still going to recruit in a lot of the same ways, but certainly now the pool of recruits for the ACC is going to be tougher and tougher just because programs like Notre Dame have that draw of the ACC as a conference,” Papa said. “It’s going to be a lot more work.”

It’s the price ACC coaches will have to pay to raise the level of play in the conference. Just like she’s seen happen in the previous ACC expansions, Papa expects the new conference to receive a boost in RPI rankings and produce more teams in the national tournament at season’s end.

“Each time, I think the teams in our conference have really tried to play strong schedules so that we can boost our RPI and we can be a respected conference,” Papa said.

A deeper conference will put less stress on those softball programs to schedule as many powerful nonconference games.

In the past, Notre Dame has been one of the teams the ACC has used to bump its strength of schedule. In the previous two seasons the Irish played five of the eight teams in the old ACC during the regular season. The Irish fared 5-1 in those games, with another loss coming at the hands of Virginia Tech in the 2013 NCAA Regionals in May. The loss to the Hokies adds a little motivation to Notre Dame during the transition.

“We’ve done pretty darn well against the conference, but we definitely have a little payback from the end of the year losing to Virginia Tech at the regional,” said Irish head coach Deanna Gumpf. “I think that the team’s pretty darn excited to get a chance to play them again and we get to play them really early in the conference next year, so that will be fun.”

The Irish, who leave the Big East following a regular season conference championship and a 43-15 overall record in 2013, hope to raise their national profile in a more competitive conference.

“The biggest challenge is playing a level of competition where everyone in your conference is pretty darn good. I think it’s a great challenge for us. That’s my favorite part about joining the ACC. We’re not going to get any team that’s not very good at softball. We have an entire conference that can beat anybody on any given day.”

Last season, the ACC placed four teams (Florida State, North Carolina, NC State and Virginia Tech) in the NCAA Tournament, but none advanced to the College World Series. The conference placed five teams in the tournament as recently as 2010. On the other hand, the Big East placed three teams in the tournament last season – South Florida plus the ACC-bound programs of Notre Dame and Louisville.

Gumpf said she expects the new ACC to compete as one of the top three or four conferences in the country.

“I really think that the ACC, if we’re as good as we can be, I think we can be really consistent with the Big 12 or the Big Ten for that matter,” Gumpf said. “I think we’re right there with those two conferences. You look at the ACC and the top five teams in that conferences, I think you’re going to be right there probably with three or four of the top conferences in the nation if we’re playing at our best.”

Last season the Big 12 placed three teams in the tournament, including national champion Oklahoma, and the Big Ten sent four. Every conference is chasing the SEC, which sent 11 of its 13 teams, and the Pac-12, which sent eight of its nine teams.

Geographical neighbors with most of the SEC, the ACC has had to battle with the nation’s top conference for a lot of recruits. Florida State head coach Lonni Alameda, whose team won the 2013 ACC regular season title, said the coaches will have a better ability to compete with the SEC on the recruiting trail with the anticipated conference RPI boost from Notre Dame and Louisville.

“As the ACC we have to combat that by adding good RPI schools,” Alameda said. “In the softball world, that’s really going to help us, and Notre Dame is definitely one of them. It’s really going to take our strength of schedule as a conference to another level.”

With the conference shift, Gumpf plans to scour the south for more prospects. Notre Dame’s 2013 roster had just three players, all Florida natives, from states with ACC softball programs. The new conference may already have paid dividends with one recruit, 2014 shortstop Morgan Reed from Birmingham, Ala., who has verbally committed to Notre Dame.

“We’re going to be able to go after those southeast kids, which we always have, but I think we’ll do it a little more consistently,” Gumpf said. “We’ve always had the Florida connection on our roster, but I think it can grow to Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee. I like that. North Carolina, South Carolina, I like that area.”

ACC programs like North Carolina have already been competing with the Irish for recruits and the shared conference will only increase those occurrences. Papa pointed to Irish pitcher Laura Winter, the 2013 Big East Player of the Year, as a recruit who picked ND over UNC.

Alameda, who hasn’t coached against Notre Dame in her five years at Florida State, said she’s excited about the quality of each program that’s making its way to the ACC.

“I think you definitely want to kick each other’s butt in conference, but you want quality. You want to be looked at as a very respectful conference,” Alameda said. “Notre Dame’s a classy program and they do things right. That’s just a nice addition, because you know you’re going to be represented well wherever you go as a conference. When you think of coaching staffs and players and the type of team they are, it’s a great addition to our softball family here in the ACC.”

The Irish return plenty of talent for their first season with its new conference companions.

Outfielder Emilee Koerner will return as a junior after leading the Irish in batting average (.439), runs (51), hits (79) and doubles (21) last season. Winter, a senior-to-be, led the Irish with a 1.72 ERA and 29 wins while also leading the 2013 squad with 17 home runs and 47 RBIs. A balanced roster has Gumpf prepared for the switch.

“It’s an exciting time. This team that we have right now at Notre Dame is probably the most prepared for this type of move,” Gumpf said. “We have a powerful, offensively-driven team. Our pitching will keep us in ball games and I like what our offense has been doing as of late. That will prepare us a ton for this move.”

The Notre Dame-Louisville rivalry will continue with the two schools moving from the Big East to the ACC.
Having the bat of Notre Dame’s Emilee Koerner available next season will help the Irish transition into the ACC.

2013 standings

Florida State 44-19 overall, 18-2 ACC; North Carolina State* 35-20, 13-7; North Carolina 40-21, 13-8; Maryland 31-26, 13-8; Georgia Tech 25-30, 10-10; Virginia Tech 38-21, 9-11; Virginia 21-28, 4-17; Boston College 14-38, 2-19

*N.C. State won the ACC Tournament

Finished in Top 25

15. Florida State (USA Today)

Top returning players

Georgia Tech SS Ashley Thomas; N.C. State P Emily Weiman; Florida State OF Courtney Senas; N.C. State SS Renada Davis; Florida State P Lacey Waldrop

Longest-tenured coaches

North Carolina’s Donna Papa — 28 years; Virginia Tech’s Scot Thomas — 18 years

Top 2014 ND home games

April 12-13 vs. Florida State; April 26-27 vs. Maryland (dates tentative)