Notre Dame softball goes from hope to heartbreak as season ends

Lewis Bagley
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Notre Dame's Jenna Simon stood at third base Sunday representing the tying run with one out in the bottom of the seventh inning.

A chance to grab an NCAA regional softball championship was right there at Cook Stadium. With Notre Dame trailing Kentucky, 4-3, Simon was poised to score and tie the game.

Notre Dame had its Nos. 3 and 4 hitters — Katey Haus and Micaela Arizmendi — ready to bring Simon home.

"I was 100 percent sure I would score," the senior second baseman said. "I had all the confidence in the world."

Kentucky pitcher Kelsey Nunley said she remained calm in the situation.

"I just had to forget there was a runner on base," she said. "I just had to worry about the next pitch."

Nunley only needed two, both weak pop ups to her shortstop, Christian Stokes, and Notre Dame's season was over.

In the top of the seventh, leading 3-2, with runners two, Irish pitcher Rachel Nasland was one strike away from forcing a second game to decide for the regional title. But, Kentucky catcher Griffin Joiner slapped a single to left-center, which scored Kara Howard. Nikki Sagermann also scored on the play when the throw from the outfield got away from Simon at second base. That gave the Wildcats the 4-3 lead.

It allowed Kentucky to capture its second-straight regional title. The Wildcats await an assignment for the NCAA Super Regional round, set to begin Thursday.

"It just wasn't our's to take," Irish coach Deanna Gumpf said. "A couple of things didn't go our way. It was a pitch here, an at-bat there ... a lot of everything."

The Irish (42-15) took a 2-1 lead in the third on RBI singles by Emilee Koerner and Arizmendi.

Kentucky tied it in the fifth as Sagermann cranked a home run to left.

Then, the drama really began.

Notre Dame's Cassidy Whidden led off the sixth inning with a monster home run over the left field bleachers on a 3-2 pitch to give the Irish a 3-2 lead.

Kentucky's Howard then led off the seventh with a single and moved to second on a ground out. Sagermann bounced a singled to center, but Nasland (17-9) coaxed a pop up from Sylver Samuel for the second out.

That's when Joiner stepped up and delivered the game-winning hit.

"I was in the moment," Joiner said. "I looked at the scoreboard, saw a full count, saw it was the top of the seventh ... that's what you live for."

Simon, a Penn High School graduate, led off the Irish seventh by bouncing a single over third base, then stole second — her 76th career steal which tied a school record. After Karley Wester moved Simon to third with a ground out, the Irish seemingly were in business.

"The inning was scripted perfectly," Gumpf said. "We had the right people coming up. I think (Haus and Arizmendi) wanted it so bad, they were a little anxious."

Sagermann had three hits for the Wildcats (32-24) and scored twice. Wester had two hits for the Irish.

NCAA regional

• KENTUCKY 4, NOTRE DAME 3

At Cook Stadium

Kentucky 001 010 2 — 4 8 1

Notre Dame 002 001 0 — 3 7 1

Kelsey Nunley (W, 14-14); Rachel Nasland (L, 17-9).

HR: (K) Nikki Sagermann; (ND) Cassidy Whidden.

Records: Notre Dame 42-15; Kentucky 32-34.