Fourth-seeded Irish travel to Ann Arbor, Mich. for regional tourney
BY MATT LOZAR
Associate Sports Editor
In an eight-team regional featuring the fourth-ranked team in the country, the defending national champion and a host team seeded third, one would think Notre Dame coach Deanna Gumpf and the fourth-seeded Irish (36-15) would be most concerned about one of those top 15 teams.
But it's Notre Dame's first round opponent that is worrying Gumpf.
"I am not too worried about [the three top 15 teams], but I am worried about Missouri," Gumpf said. "That is all I care about. They beat a lot of top teams and are going to be very tough."
While a case could be made for Gumpf attempting to keep her team focused on its current opponent — or that Notre Dame has never beaten Missouri in five previous meetings — Missouri does bring an impressive resume to this weekend's Region VII Tournament at the University of Michigan.
The fifth-seeded Tigers (31-18) dropped both of their games in the Big 12 Tournament but collected some major wins in the regular season. Missouri, making its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1999, split doubleheaders with Oklahoma, currently ranked fifth nationally, and Nebraska, currently ranked No. 11.
With the Tigers backing into this weekend's regional tournament after a disappointing performance at the Big 12 Tournament, the Irish head to Ann Arbor, Mich. riding a full head of steam.
At last weekend's Big East Championship, the Irish won all four of their games to claim their second straight title. Third baseman Andrea Loman hit a walk-off home run in the bottom of the ninth to propel Notre Dame to a 3-2 victory over Villanova in the championship game.
Loman earned the tournament's Most Outstanding Player for the second consecutive year after hitting .500 in Notre Dame's four games. Loman also won the Big East Player of the Year award prior to the tournament. Pitcher Heather Booth was voted the Rookie of the Year at the same postseason awards brunch.
Booth, Loman, Megan Ciolli, Lisa Mattison and Meagan Ruthrauff were named to the all-Big East first-team. Mallorie Lenn and Andria Bledsoe were placed on the second-team.
The awards and impressive performance in the Big East Tournament has Gumpf feeling good, but not too good, about her team heading into this weekend.
"I think we are not playing perfectly, but very well," the second-year head coach said. "We are playing together and that is important going into the regional. We can't make mistakes in these types of games."
One major difference for the Irish heading into this year's regional tournament is the experience of its pitching staff. While Booth (19-8, 1.86), who has been Notre Dame's most consistent pitcher this year, is a freshman, the other two Irish hurlers have experienced the type of pressure the regional tournament produces.
Carrie Wisen (7-3, 1.78) has been used primarily as a reliever and Gumpf is not afraid to go to Wisen in tight, late-game situations. The one area of concern has been Steffany Stenglein (10-4, 3.76) who struggled through most of the season.
Over her past six appearances, Stenglein has rebounded, allowing six hits, giving up two runs, walking eight and striking out five in 12 2/3 innings pitched. Gumpf moved Stenglein to the bullpen to work out the problems, and it appears that decision might have worked.
This weekend, Gumpf will attempt to find the right combination of her three contrasting pitchers to keep Notre Dame's opponents off-balance.
"Steff was injured last year at the regional tournament. She is throwing better this year and that is going to be crucial for us," Loman said. "With the weaknesses of the teams we are playing, it is important to have three pitchers with different styles."
With the defense in the top five nationally, the offense ranked 14th in batting average (.301) and 15th in runs scored per game (5.25) and the pitching staff possibly finding the right mix at the right time, the Irish are looking for a consistent team effort this weekend if they are going to qualify for their first-ever trip to the womens College World Series.
"We have always been a good defensive team so we need to continue to do that," Loman said. "If we could get even more hitters to become hot at the right time at the regional tournament, we are going to be a tough team to beat."
Notre Dame and Missouri played Thursday at 10 a.m, after The Observer went to press. A win would send Irish on to a second round game this afternoon. A loss to the Tigers puts the Irish one defeat away from elimination with their next game Thursday night.
All Sports Stories for Friday, July 11, 2003