Noie: Winning moments still most magical for Notre Dame softball coach Deanna Gumpf

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One win for a college softball coach who’s collected 700 and counting means a little more than the rest to Notre Dame’s Deanna Gumpf.

It’s not No. 1, which arrived way back on Feb. 15, 2002 in 10 innings over Auburn. It’s not No. 378, which Gumpf grabbed eight years ago to become the winningest coach in program history. It’s not any of the four that helped the Irish win a conference tournament championship as a member of the Big East or any of the seven that clinched a regular-season conference championship. It’s not the first win as a member of the Atlantic Coast Conference. It’s not any of the nice and neat hundreds — 200, 300, 400, etc. — that helped Gumpf become only the second Notre Dame coach (along with Basketball Hall of Famer Muffet McGraw) to win at least 700.

It’s not any of those.

Which one means the most to the 47-year-old Gumpf, now in season No. 17 in South Bend? That’s easy.

“The number’s very cool and I love it,” Gumpf said on a monsoon-like Monday morning that had her juggling the team’s practice schedule before noon, “but at the end of the day, the big one is the next one that matters.”

And it’s the moments that matter most to Gumpf. Might be from her spot from the third-base coaching box. Or in the dugout of Melissa Cook Stadium. In the locker room. On the bus. At home plate after a crazy comeback win. Inside Loftus Center for a winter workout. Those times are what she most remembers about all those years and all those wins.

If it’s May, it must mean Notre Dame’s back in the NCAA tournament. It is and it is. Notre Dame is in the NCAA tournament for the 17-straight time in Gumpf’s 17 seasons. It’s consecutive trip No. 20 overall when Notre Dame (32-21) opens as the No. 3 seed against No. 2 Michigan (43-11) in the Lexington (Ky.) Regional on Friday at noon.

The teams split a pair of mid-February games in Tallahassee, Fla. It will be the 13th time that the schools separated by 177 miles meet in the NCAA tournament.

Doesn’t Gumpf get tired of having to figure out a way to beat the Wolverines? Couldn’t the selection committee pit the Irish against somebody else than a team that’s 11-1 against her group in postseason?

Nope. Bring on those victors.

“We get to play,” Gumpf said. “This is the best part.”

One that arrived after many anxious minutes — 26 to be exact — late Sunday. It wasn’t supposed to go that way. Not to end Mother’s Day weekend. Not after Gumpf won No. 700 on Friday in the ACC tournament quarterfinals against Boston College. Notre Dame was eliminated the next day by Florida State, the only other ACC school to receive one of the 64 NCAA bids. All the worrying and wondering started as the Irish made their way back from Atlanta.

Had they done enough and won enough to earn their way into the at-large field? Notre Dame annually plays a schedule loaded with Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) games to buoy its strength of schedule. This season was no exception. The Irish faced seven ranked teams, which produced one of the nation’s top 35 schedules.

In, right? Well…

As Gumpf and the Irish gathered late Sunday — the pairings show didn’t start until 10 p.m. eastern time — they kept waiting.

And waiting…

And waiting…

“It was super stressful,” Gumpf said. “It wasn’t fun at all.”

It was once the pairings reached the end. The very end. Twenty-six minutes into the selection show and 63 teams had been revealed. There was one spot left. In the Lexington Regional. To face Michigan. Notre Dame snagged it.

The room burst into hugs and high-fives and even a few happy tears. Gumpf allowed herself to feel all the waves of emotion — for all of about 60 seconds. Then it was time to turn the page. Time to put back on her coach’s hat and go back to work. Time to dive into a scouting report and start developing a game plan for the double-elimination regional. Time.

“It was so simple — we’re in? OK, let’s go,’” Gumpf said. “How lucky are we that we get to do this? It’s the greatest thing ever.”

A coaching journey

Following graduation from Nebraska in 1992, Gumpf wasn’t so sure she wanted to do this softball stuff. Certainly not coach. Not full time. She wanted to see the world. Wanted to travel. To Hawaii. To Europe. To points near and far. So she took a job with Delta Airlines. But in addition to going here and there and anywhere, she was stuck working in customer service listening to others complain about not being here and there and anywhere.

“You had to deal with people at the airport,” she said. “That doesn’t always bring out the best in people.”

Gumpf kept her foot in the softball door by giving pitching lessons on the side. She then served as an assistant coach for Long Beach State for two seasons (1996-97). She went back to school and earned a master’s in physical education and coaching. She spent the 1998 spring as Notre Dame pitching coach for Liz Miller. When Miller retired, Gumpf became the third head coach in program history.

Gumpf won 44 games her first season in 2002, the first of 12 that the Irish won at least 40, including a high of 49 in 2005.

Along the way, Gumpf and her husband, John, assistant athletic director and baseball coach at South Bend Saint Joseph, started a family. They have two kids — a boy (Brady) and a girl (Tatum). and kept racking up wins. One hundred. Then 200. Then three. It wasn’t long after Gumpf passed Miller to become the winningest coach in program history that life took a serious turn.

It was the summer of 2010. Gumpf can still remember the day the news arrived — July 20 — that then-four-year-old Tatum was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. She handled it like a mother. and like a coach.

“Coaching helped guide me through her entire treatment process,” Gumpf said. “We approached her protocol the same way we approached a season. You look at the big picture and try to figure out how to best navigate it and how it all fits.”

It fit in a way that allowed Gumpf to keep coaching through all of Tatum’s treatments. Her ups and downs. Her good days and bad. Mom’s ups and downs. Her good days and bad.

Leaving the Irish for a day or a week or a month never was an option.

“I kept praying that I didn’t have to,” Gumpf said. “We were really fortunate that we had an amazing support group around us.”

The following spring, Notre Dame raced to its best start in school history at 9-0. It won another Big East regular season championship. Won 46 games. Went back to the NCAAs. All was and is good with Tatum. All was and is good with Gumpf.

The more the years passed, the more games Gumpf won. In the Big East. In the ACC. The Irish have averaged 41 victories a year since she started as coach.

It hasn’t always been easy, though Gumpf’s made it look that way.

“You think of 700 wins and it’s amazing,” she said. “Like, Holy Cow. If you would have asked me 600 wins ago if I would be here and still be doing this, I don’t know.”

But she is. Here. Doing it. and doing it better than anyone in program history.

“You just go day-to-day and try to compete and win and make a difference in these girls’ lives,” Gumpf said. “I feel like I’m making a difference. I love it.” (574) 235-6153 Twitter: @tnoieNDI

For Notre Dame softball coach Deanna Gumpf, the next victory is the most important one.