Notre Dame softball survives, looks to advance on Sunday

Lewis Bagley
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — The challenge for NCAA tournament entries is to survive and advance.

Saturday, the Notre Dame softball team proved in a big way it has the survive part down. Now, coach Deanna Gumpf’s squad will look to advance from the NCAA regional Sunday.

The Irish scored a pair of blowout victories in elimination games Saturday at Melissa Cook Stadium, beating Northwestern, 14-5, in an afternoon tilt before avenging a Friday loss to Ball State with a 15-4 victory Saturday evening. Both games ended after five innings due to the mercy rule.

The victories move Notre Dame (42-14) into the championship round Sunday where Kentucky awaits. The first game is set for a 1 p.m. start. Kentucky advanced to the final round with a 5-0 win over Ball State in Saturday’s first contest.

A Kentucky win gives the Wildcats (31-24) the regional title; an Irish victory forces a second game, scheduled for 4 p.m., to decide the title and a berth in the super regional later this week.

“I love the fire and determination we showed,” Gumpf said of her squad. “After (Friday), we challenged each other to be a better team, to fight on every pitch, in every inning.”

The Irish were stunned by Ball State, 6-3, on Friday in a game in which the Mid-American Conference champion pounded out 11 hits, including two home runs.

Saturday, the Irish brought the bats right from the start and, while the pitching wasn’t spectacular, it was more than enough to help ND survive.

In the opener, the Irish scored twice in the first inning, then put the game away in the second with a five spot, highlighted by a grand slam by catcher Cassidy Whidden.

Whidden’s home run was only the second hit for ND,

despite the 7-0 lead.

The offense continued to blast away with three runs in each of the third and fourth innings and finished off with a run in the fifth, a solo home run by Morgan Reed.

The onslaught continued in game two with Notre Dame once again breaking out to a 7-0 lead in the second inning.

In a four-run first, Karley Wester led off with a triple, scored on an Emilee Koerner double and, after a walk to Katey Haus, Whidden slammed a three-run homer to give her seven RBIs for the day.

All that came off Ball State starter Nicole Steinbach, who came off a complete-game victory Friday over the Irish where she allowed just six hits and three runs.

“(Friday), it was our pitcher’s turn to start the game off,” Koerner said. “(Saturday), it was our turn. Hitting is contagious and getting our leadoff hitters on is huge for us.”

The Irish eventually led, 8-0, before the Ball State bats woke up, pinning four runs on ND starter Allie Rhodes (20-5) in the fourth inning.

Yet, the offense came back with the biggest inning of the day, a seven-run fifth to put the game away. Three runs came in on a Cardinal throwing error, while Wester, Haus, Micaela Arizmendi and Reed added RBIs.

“That was the best part of the whole day,” Gumpf said. “When Ball State scored four runs, we came back and hit the tar out of the ball. It was great to see.”

Koerner scored four runs in the game, while Wester scored three. Arizmendi matched Whidden with three RBIs against Ball State (34-25).

“We made a lot of noise Friday and we weren’t able to sustain it,” Ball State coach Tyra Perry said. “Notre Dame got hot and we weren’t able to keep up. They were very aggressive and we kind of ran out of gas.”

Notre Dame’s Cassidy Whidden (51) gets mobbed with congratulations at home plate after she hit a grand slam home run Saturday, May 16, 2015, during the Northwestern-Notre Dame NCAA Regional softball game at Melissa Cook Stadium in South Bend. SBT Photo/GREG SWIERCZ