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Monday, Feb. 26, 2024
The Observer

Notre Dame prepares for tough weekend schedule at NFCA Classic

With a double-header Friday kicking off a five-game weekend, the Notre Dame softball team is preparing to launch their 2020 campaign at the NFCA Leadoff Classic in Clearwater, Florida. 

The Irish will look to build on a strong fall campaign as they set their sights on a deep run this season. Notre Dame, coached by Deanna Gumpf, went 37-18 last year, including 18-6 in ACC play, but they failed to advance very far in either postseason tournament; the Irish won just one game between the ACC and NCAA tournaments. Having qualified for the NCAA tournament an astounding 23 consecutive years, making the tournament isn’t enough for the Irish, and they’ll turn to both old and new faces to lead them further into the postseason this year. Notre Dame was Florida State’s ACC semifinal victim last season en route to the Seminoles’ tournament victory.

The Irish lost some significant firepower from last year’s lineup, most notably Cait Brooks, who bashed her way to an All-American selection — the first in Notre Dame softball history. Brooks hit .416 with a .523 on-base percentage and walloped 20 home runs, powering Notre Dame’s offense for much of the season. The Irish also lost MK Bonamy, speedster Ali Wester and Melissa Rochford from their potent 2019 lineup.

That’s not to say Notre Dame will enter this season with a barren lineup, as they still boast a bevy of strong returners, and they restocked their roster with some exciting freshman talent. 

Irish senior catcher Madison Heide steps up to the plate during Notre Dame's 8-0 win over IUPUI on Apr. 3, 2019.
Irish senior catcher Madison Heide steps up to the plate during Notre Dame's 8-0 win over IUPUI on Apr. 3, 2019.

Leading the returners will be senior infielder Katie Marino, an All-ACC preseason selection. Marino has been starting since her freshman year, which was highlighted by a game-winning home run against eventual national champion Oklahoma, and a spectacular catch that earned a spot in ESPN’s Top 10 plays. Entering her fourth year as a mainstay in the Irish lineup, Marino is coming off a spectacular 2019 campaign in which she hit .344 with 10 home runs, 43 RBI, and eight stolen bases. She also posted her best defensive effort, with a .967 fielding percentage. 

Marino will not be alone in leading the Irish’s offensive exploits, as sophomore outfielder Emma Clark and senior outfielder Alexis Bazos are talented returners looking to contribute some big numbers to the Notre Dame lineup. They’ll also expect a boost from Joley Mitchell, a switch-hitting infielder who was named the 2019 All-USA High School Softball Team Player of the Year.

On the mound, Notre Dame boasts another preseason ACC selection in sophomore Payton Tidd, who burst onto the scene as a freshman last year, recording a 3.01 ERA over 31 starts and 41 total appearances. She was the ACC pitcher of the week on two occasions, and at the end of the year, Tidd was named to the ACC All-Freshman squad. She’ll headline the Irish rotation this year, with junior Alex Holloway following her up after posting a 4.15 ERA last season. Junior Morgan Ryan was mainly a depth and bullpen piece last year, but Gumpf has expressed confidence in her ability to be a major contributor out of the pitcher’s circle this year.

As for its season-opening slate, Notre Dame is sure to face some stiff competition at this weekend’s tournament, as the five-game schedule includes matchups with No. 23 Auburn and No. 21 Ole Miss, as well as a tough matchup against the SEC’s Missouri, who the Irish have won just two games against in eight all-time meetings. First-time opponents in Missouri State and South Alabama round out the Classic schedule for Notre Dame. 

Although the year is just beginning, the Irish are just three weeks away from starting ACC play against Duke on Feb. 28, making this weekend an important set of games to put their squad to the test ahead of what is sure to be a grueling conference schedule.

Notre Dame’s opener will be played at noon against Missouri.