Winter finds perfection for Notre Dame softball

COMMENTARY

AL LESAR
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — When Laura Winter finally leaves Notre Dame in a month or so, she’ll take with her two sore shoulders, an IT degree, more than 100 victories and a perfect game.

Not a bad four-year haul for a self-described “geek” who has been her own worst critic every pitch of the way.

The sturdy, 6-foot-1, red-haired ace has been more than the right arm of the Irish softball team. She has evolved into its heart and soul.

All-Big East Conference first-team each of her first three seasons and a good bet to pick up some Atlantic Coast Conference hardware this year, Winter has found a way to chill the hitters she faces.

It goes beyond a fastball clocked in the low 60s, pretty average for big-time college softball.

“I’m more known for movement rather than speed,” Winter said before Monday night’s 9-1 win over Maryland. “I’ve learned to throw pitches in different locations and mix up what I try on certain batters. I just try to be unpredictable.”

Cassidy Whidden, Winter’s catcher through most of this season, said she’ll call six or so different pitches in a game: A couple different rise balls; two variations on the screwball; and two types of curves.

“If one’s not working, we could go to another,” Whidden said.

For the most part, at least a few have been working. After Monday night’s win, Winter has a 23-4 record this season with 215 strikeouts and 25 walks over 174 2/3 innings.

Monday she was selected the ACC Pitcher of the Week for last week’s performance. It was her second such honor this season.

“She has evolved as a person and a player (over the four years),” said Irish head coach Deanna Gumpf. “Her freshman year, I don’t think she had any expectations for herself. I don’t think she had any idea she was going to pitch as much as she pitched. Quite frankly, I didn’t know.

“As a senior, she knows what she has to do to win ballgames. She has to make the hitters chase. She throws so many strikes. She does such a great job of owning the zone that sometimes it works against her. If you’ve scouted Laura, you know you have to hit her early (in the count). If you don’t hit her early, she’ll beat you.

“She goes at hitters so hard-core. She doesn’t want to stretch out the zone, she wants to attack them.”

“I went in (as a freshman) behind four pitchers, including the Big East Pitcher of the Year (Jody Valdivia),” Winter recalled of her start with the Irish. “I said, ‘You know what, I’m just going to do my job. I’m going to find a way to help this team.’ A few innings here, a few innings there; relief if that’s what’s needed.”

What was needed was a reliable arm that has endured for four seasons as the 21st-ranked Irish are 34-10 overall and 13-5 (second place behind Florida State) in the ACC. She became a leader early and has never let down.

Sometimes, Winter is concerned she doesn’t measure up.

“She’s her biggest critic,” Gumpf said. “I talk to her when she doesn’t want to be talked to. I bug her when she doesn’t want to be bugged.

“When things get rough, it’s hard to communicate. The pressure’s on. You’re trying to be perfect. Being able to communicate in tough situations (is a challenge).”

“I’m extremely hard on myself,” Winter said. “I demand perfection. I found ways to, not necessarily have perfection, but something that will work.

“I’ve been used to working things out on my own. It’s new to have someone come out and help me.”

“Laura is super-hard on herself,” Whidden said. “I wish she wasn’t. She’s a great pitcher. Once she stops being so hard on herself, softball’s going to get a lot easier.

“She’s so tough on herself. She’s her biggest critic. It’s her biggest strength and weakness at the same time.”

The highlight of this season was a 51-pitch, five-inning perfect game at Virginia on April 18, which also happened to be her 100th career win.

“(The perfect game) was cool,” said Winter, who will play this summer for the Akron Racers in the National Pro Fastpitch League. “To have a flow going with the team, that any ball that was hit you knew they were going to get, I wasn’t worried about anything.

“At the time I knew it was my 100th (career) win. After the game, I had no idea it was a perfect game. Both (the milestone and the perfect game) were team-oriented. I couldn’t have gotten either without my teammates. That’s what made them special.”

“(The perfect game) went by so fast,” Whidden said. “The speed of the game was like nothing I’d ever seen before.

“I didn’t realize ’til it was over. Laura was just lights-out.

“She’s finally found her rhythm — what works for her and what doesn’t. She’s found how to be Laura Winter. That’s such a great thing for an athlete to find out: This is who I am and this is what makes me great. We all come to it at some point.”

All that in spite of constant pain in both shoulders.

“I’ve been pretty fortunate the past three years not to have much of an injury,” Winter said. “This year, I’ve struggled with both shoulders.

“This year has been the toughest for me. At the end of last season and over summer I was having a lot of trouble with my shoulders, not really sure how things were going to work out. We didn’t really know what was wrong. It’s over-use; you name it.

“Being able to work through (the injury) has been the biggest challenge for me. It still is a question. Every day it’s, ‘Which shoulder is going to hurt today? Which pitch isn’t going to work today?’ It’s a day-to-day challenge.”

What would life be, were it not for the challenges?

Winter has settled into a comfortable niche with who she is.

“She would call herself a geek,” Gumpf said. “She’s so brilliant. She’s such a competitor. There’s a lot going on in that head of hers.

“She loves ‘Star Wars.’ She loves all the kid things.”

“She will know everything about anything that’s not popular,” Whidden said with a laugh. “‘Star Wars,’ ‘Doctor Who,’ anything not Apple products. She’s a breath of fresh air. She’s so Laura. You can’t write that for anybody.”

“I am very nerdy,” Winter said. “I love the technical aspect of things.”

Especially pitching. Which is what makes her so good.

Al Lesar: 574-235-6318

Notre Dame pitcher Laura Winter comes off the field after recording a strikeout to end an inning during Monday's game against Maryland at Notre Dame. (SBT Photo/JAMES BROSHER)