ND SOFTBALL: Irish look to exorcise last year's demons
By AARON RONSHEIM
The Notre Dame softball team (6-6) has a chance this weekend to excise some of last year's demons when they face No. 3 Nebraska at the Kia Classic during spring break. Last year the Cornhuskers ended Notre Dame's season with a 5-3 victory over the Irish in the regional final. A win would have given Notre Dame its first ever berth in the College Softball World Series.
"They know how much it hurt to lose that game at regionals last year," Irish coach Deanna Gumpf said. "I think that the girls' emotion will take care of itself in this game."
Besides the past team history on the field, which included a Notre Dame victory at Nebraska last season, Gumpf has a personal relationship with the Cornhuskers. Gumpf played for Nebraska from 1989-1992 and would want nothing more than a win against her alma mater.
"I don't think I need to say much about this game," Gumpf said. "The girls know that Nebraska is a tough team and they know how I feel about them."
The Cornhuskers are 12-1 this season, with their only loss coming against No. 1 UCLA. They've also defeated seven ranked teams.
The Cornhuskers have an explosive offense, boosting a .337 team batting average. Leading the explosive attack is senior outfielder Lisa Wangler, who is batting .432 with five home runs and 20 runs batted in.
In order to shut down the Cornhusker offense, the Irish will need their young pitching staff to step up. Inconsistency has been the biggest worry for Gumpf and her coaching staff, but she is hoping that will improve soon.
"Our pitching needs to be more consistent," said Gumpf. "I think we are ready in every other area, and I think we are very close to where we need to be."
To keep pace with the Nebraska offense, Notre Dame will have to continue the offensive tear they were on last weekend in Louisiana. The Irish hit 10 homeruns and pounded out 45 hits in their last five games. With the offense back in gear, some of the pressure is taken off the pitching staff.
"It relaxes you," pitcher Steffany Stenglein said. "It also allows you to throw your own game and you don't have to be perfect."
One of the offensive stars for the Irish last weekend was senior third baseman Andrea Loman. Loman was named Big East Player of the Week for her performance in Louisiana. Loman went 8-for-16 at the plate, which included three doubles, one homerun and two stolen bases.
Another encouraging sign last weekend was the hitting of shortstop Andria Bledsoe. Bledsoe broke out of an early season slump by blasting three homeruns and has raised her average from .111 to .306 over the last few games.
As a team, the Irish are batting .270 and have five players hitting over .300.
The Irish will begin their California trip with a doubleheader Sunday against Cal State Northridge (11-9). Even though the Matadors are only two games over .500, they have played a tough schedule, which includes a victory over No. 4 Michigan and losses against No. 22 Alabama and No. 1 UCLA.
Junior outfielder Christen Bedwell leads the Matador offense, hitting .419 with eight RBI and two homeruns. Besides Bedwell, the Irish will have to worry about sophomore pitcher Kia Fennell, both when she is on the mound and at the plate. Fennell is 6-2 in the young season and has an impressive 2.10 ERA. At the plate, Fennell is equally impressive with a team leading 14 RBI and a .413 batting average.
Besides facing Nebraska at the Kia Classic the Irish will take the field against Fresno State and DePaul in round robin play before starting tournament play.
Against Fresno State (4-8), the Irish will likely face Bulldog pitcher Jamie Southern. Even though Southern is 3-5 this season, she boosts an excellent 0.61 ERA and has struck out 79 batters in 59 innings.
The DePaul Blue Demons (6-2) are ranked No. 13 in the country because of a good pitching staff that has a great one-two punch with senior Lindsay Chouinard (3-2, 0.75 ERA) and junior Sarah Martz (3-0, 0.90 ERA).
"Against DePaul we have to play solid and hit the ball well," Gumpf said. "They have two good pitchers. We can't make mistakes against a team like DePaul. They are very aggressive and will capitalize on our mistakes."
All Sports Stories for Friday, March 7, 2003