It took quite a bit longer than expected, but Notre Dame softball dropped its fifth consecutive game in its NCAA Tournament opener Friday. No. 19 Oregon edged the Irish 5-4 in game one of the NCAA Fayetteville Regional, pushing Notre Dame into win-or-go-home territory. The contest, which included a nearly two-and-a-half hour rain delay in the fourth, saw the Irish score one run in the first and three in the sixth. But a five-run Oregon second, marked by abnormal struggles from graduate ace pitcher Payton Tidd, made the difference.
“I liked the beginning and end of that game,” head coach Deanna Gumpf said. “I thought the rain delay came at a great time. We were able to collect ourselves and battle the rest of the day.”
Upon first glance, Notre Dame was seemingly all over Oregon starting pitcher Stevie Hansen. With one out in the first, senior third baseman Joley Mitchell cracked a double to the gap in left-center field. Then, junior first baseman Karina Gaskins crushed a would-be homer that Oregon center fielder Hanna Delgado robbed at the wall.
But that didn’t dash Notre Dame’s early momentum. With Mitchell at third and two down, graduate student designated hitter Lexi Orozco brought her home with a single down the left-field line. The two first-inning spark plugs went on to combine for five of the eight Irish hits.
“They’ve been [keeping us in games] all year,” Gumpf said of Mitchell and Orozco. “It’s just nice to have those two who have come up big in so many instances and circumstances for this team and have both consistently delivered for us.”
Tidd initially matched her offense’s fast start on the mound for the Irish. The experienced hurler needed only 16 pitches to record her first five outs. But then she hit a wall, issuing back-to-back four-pitch walks with two away in the second. Tidd then engaged in a 10-pitch battle with Tehya Bird — a battle in which she had seven opportunities to finish the inning with two strikes. On that seventh offering, Bird flipped the game around, blasting a three-run home run to left field.
Up 3-1 at that point, the Ducks kept the pressure on Tidd. Two batters later, outfielder Kai Luschar tripled home another run. She then crossed the plate on Allee Bunker’s infield knock, Oregon’s second of the inning. Having thrown 27 pitches without retiring a Duck, Tidd exited the game.
“I think we absolutely needed to make the pitching change when we did,” Gumpf said. “When you give them five baserunners, you’re gonna give them runs. That was all on us. Oregon came here to compete and they did a great job. We had one really bad inning.”
Tidd’s replacement, freshman Micaela Kastor, did tremendous work to keep Notre Dame in the game. She pushed the Irish out of the second, holding them within four runs of Oregon. The lengthy delay in the fourth inning would have slowed down most pitchers, but it never flustered Kastor.
“I took a power nap on a very small training bench,” Kastor said. “Then I got up and did some exploring of the indoor soccer facilities. But I just spent time with the team, laughing with the girls and getting our mindset for the game after the delay.”
After the delay, she was equally magnificent, finishing off 4 ⅓ scoreless innings. As she found a rhythm with junior catcher Carlli Kloss, Kastor struck out two and walked none.
”[Kloss] and I were just working on the outside corners, keeping things away from the batters and throwing off-speed when we saw it as appropriate,” Kastor said. “[It was about] getting ahead early in the count and finding balls on the ground.”
But on the other side, Hansen was cruising, too. She finished her start with five innings and two runs allowed, keeping Notre Dame at arm’s length.
The Irish couldn’t wait to chase Hansen from the game and immediately rallied after she exited in the sixth. Mitchell and Gaskins manufactured a run with back-to-back doubles, picking up what had been a quiet offense. Later on, with two away and two in scoring position, sophomore infielder Jane Kronenberger stepped in as a pinch-hitter. Though she had only seen six at-bats in the past month, she was ready to hit. Kronenberger attacked the first pitch, driving in both runners on an opposite-field single.
After Kastor spun a quick sixth, new life filled the Irish dugout. But Morgan Scott, Oregon’s second reliever, put out the fire. She handled the top of the Irish order, recording the Ducks’ only strikeout of the evening to retire Mitchell and end the game. With that, the regional opener concluded over five hours after it began, and Oregon moved on to the winners’ bracket.
The Irish quickly have their backs against the wall. With no time to dwell on Friday’s result, they will take the field Saturday in an elimination game against Harvard. The Crimson were shut out 11-0 by No. 13 Arkansas on Friday night.
“I expect us to come out with the same mentality that we played with in those last two innings,” Orozco said. “We had a fire lit, we believed in ourselves and that’s exactly what we're gonna take towards every game tomorrow until we fight to the end.”
Notre Dame’s path to a Super Regional berth now requires four consecutive wins in the span of two days. The climb begins Saturday evening at 5:30 p.m.