Despite an up-and-down season and a frustrating three-game losing streak late in the season, Notre Dame rebounded to win the Big East tournament and earn a berth to the NCAA Tournament, which will begin today against UC-Santa Barbara in Evanston, Ill.
The Irish (40-19) won the conference championship with a 1-0 victory over No. 18 Louisville Sunday at Ivy Field. Notre Dame scored the only run of the game in the first inning on a suicide squeeze by catcher Mallorie Lenn that drove in center fielder Stephanie Brown.
"We set goals throughout the year, but one of the biggest goals we set is to win the Big East tournament, because if we win that we go to the postseason," Irish head coach Deanna Gumpf said.
The Cardinals had beaten the Irish in two regular season meetings in Louisville, 10-3 and 2-1.
Those two games, a doubleheader on May 1 and a 6-4 upset home loss to Loyola-Chicago May 2, formed a stunning losing streak that Gumpf said forced the Irish to refocus in time for the postseason.
"It was very frustrating because it was at a crucial time in the year, but I think it made the girls realize how easy it is to lose focus and control of games," Gumpf said. "They worked their tails off to regain confidence and get control of the games again."
One of the players who refocused was starting pitcher Heather Booth. The senior won three games in the Big East tournament, allowing just two hits along the way.
Booth became Notre Dame's ace in April of 2005, going 23-8 with a 1.59 ERA her junior season and 25-10 with a 1.39 ERA her senior season.
"April of her junior year was Heather's turning point," Gumpf said. "She's been on a mission to get us to the College World Series ever since."
Offensively, the Irish have been led in 2006 by Brown, Lenn and senior first baseman Meagan Ruffrauth. The three have combined for 26 home runs, 100 RBIs and 90 runs scored. Brown leads the team with a .396 batting average from her leadoff spot.
"They're seeing the ball well, they're having good at bats, and when you do that, good things will happen," Gumpf said of the three sluggers.
Freshman infielder Linda Kohan has also been a force at the plate in her first season, hitting .287 with five home runs and 27 RBIs. Freshman pitcher Brittney Barger has also made a quick transition to the college game, going 15-9 on the season with a 2.99 ERA.
With the Big East title in hand, Notre Dame will begin its quest for the College World Series Friday with a three game series against the Gauchos. The winner will go on to play the winner of Southern Illinois and Northwestern May 26-27 in Evanston.