Skip to Content, Navigation, or Footer.
Tuesday, April 16, 2024
The Observer

Irish head to Fayetteville for 24th consecutive regional appearance

Notre Dame softball might as well have a yearly reservation for the third weekend of May. For the 24th consecutive full season, the Irish will play in the NCAA Tournament. And as the players and coaches prepare for a first-ever postseason trip to Fayetteville, Arkansas, they won’t be taking anything for granted. Just five days ago, Notre Dame’s seat at the table didn’t seem so certain.

“It was tough this year, because you never know what the committee’s looking for,” head coach Deanna Gumpf said. “If they’re looking at our total body of work, I knew we had a great shot. If you were looking at the last couple games, I was a little bit worried.”

Indeed, entering Selection Sunday with four consecutive losses, including a one-game exit in the ACC Tournament, made matters uncomfortably interesting for the Irish. But before that late slide Notre Dame (29-17-1, 11-12-1 ACC) was playing excellent softball, characterized by an ability to compete with the best.

“When you look at the reasons they chose us, it’s because we beat a lot of really good teams in that top 25 category. That’s what we’ve done all year,” Gumpf said. “We haven’t been as consistent as I would have liked all year, but we’ve done enough to make some noise.”

In a regional field that includes battle-tested Arkansas, high-ceiling Oregon and Ivy League champion Harvard, Notre Dame will need every bit of its big game mojo. Having spent the season’s first five weeks outside South Bend, the Irish have most frequently reached new heights away from home. They took regional hosts Northwestern and Duke down to the wire early on, then snatched ACC series from Louisville and Boston College in April. And having produced six more NCAA Tournament teams this year, the ACC is no joke.

“In the last couple years, the ACC has really improved a lot,” graduate pitcher Payton Tidd said. “We’ve played a lot of good competition and we’ve succeeded in that competition many, many times. I think that type of caliber of softball has really prepared us to come to Arkansas and has given us the tools to succeed.”

Tidd is one of several players who has witnessed multiple NCAA Tournaments in an Irish uniform. That experience will take center stage as Notre Dame prepares to navigate both an SEC environment and a loaded grouping of teams in Fayetteville. Notre Dame will start with Oregon on Friday before playing anywhere from one to four games as part the rest of the weekend’s double-elimination format.

Oregon Ducks (35-15, 14-10 PAC-12)

Notre Dame’s first opponent can beat anyone in the country. The Ducks have six top-10 victories on the year, including two shutouts. They opened the season on a 17-4 rampage which included consecutive takedowns of ranked Northwestern, Florida and Missouri. Later on, Oregon enjoyed a 13-game win streak. But the Ducks have gone 0-4 in May, scoring a grand total of six runs in four games. Still, the bats from Eugene can turn things around in a hurry.

“Every time I watch them play, they just produce runners on base. They make things happen, they’re fast and they’re powerful,” Gumpf said. “They kind of remind me of Virginia Tech — that’s who I would put them up against offensively. I think they have very similar types of hitters in the box. They’re gonna come in and they’re gonna be swinging.”

Oregon, which played in last season’s Fayetteville Regional, also compares to Notre Dame in terms of postseason experience. Without a doubt, catcher will be the position to watch in Friday’s game. If 72 stolen bases and four double-digit thieves are any indication, Oregon loves to run. But they’ll have to worry about Irish junior catcher Carlli Kloss, the ACC Defensive Player of the Year. On the other side, Ducks backstop Terra McGowan leads the team with 12 home runs. Elsewhere on the Oregon infield, Allee Bunker exemplifies the definition of professional hitter. She has more home runs (10), doubles (12) and multi-hit games (21) than strikeouts (seven).

In the circle, Oregon has four pitchers with earned run averages (ERA) between 2.33 and 2.65. The best of the bunch overall is Stevie Hansen and her .210 opponents’ batting average. However, her ERA has jumped close to four during conference play. Meanwhile, Morgan Scott and Raegan Breedlove have held theirs below three.

Arkansas Razorbacks (38-17, 14-10 Southeastern Conference)

This weekend’s host will play in a home regional for a third consecutive season. Like Notre Dame, Arkansas was a one-and-done in its conference tournament. The Razorbacks fell to Alabama in nine innings after dropping a series at Missouri to conclude the regular season. Despite the slow finish, Arkansas has demonstrated several qualities of a team destined for postseason success. The Razorbacks tend to win in bunches and hold a 12-10 record against ranked opponents. 

Hitting comfortably at Bogle Park, the Hogs have out-homered their opponents 63-32 overall this season. Much of that power stems from Rylin Hedgecock. Her 20-homer season puts her sixth on the national long ball list. Hedgecock’s 58 RBI also approach the Arkansas single-season record. Ahead of her, leadoff hitter Reagan Johnson is trending toward history in her freshman season. Sporting a .374 batting average, she needs just nine more hits to top the single-season list outright. Arkansas is a perfect 24-for-24 in steals, and 17 of those belong to Johnson.

Another freshman, Robyn Herron, has lit up the Razorback circle. Going beyond her 2.02 ERA, Herron’s 10.3 strikeouts per seven innings is one of the top marks in the SEC. And her 72 ⅔ innings pitched complement Arkansas’ rock, Chenise Delce, very well. The 2022 SEC Pitcher of the Year was dominant in 166 frames this season, churning out 20 wins with a 1.86 ERA. Furthermore, Delce has spun 16 complete games in her 21 starts, a tool that could help tremendously given the tight turnarounds that often come with postseason play.

Harvard Crimson (29-15-1, 16-5 Ivy League)

Among the Fayetteville four, Harvard is the only team playing winning softball upon entry. Coming off an Ivy League Tournament title, Harvard has won seven of its last eight games, including a conference-title clinching 3-2 defeat of Princeton.

What the Crimson lack in power (nine team home runs), they more than make up for in contact and speed. Driven by a wide array of contributors, Harvard owns the nation’s 21st-highest batting average (.313). With a team-best .353 average and 29 RBI, junior infielder Madi Mays is as reliable as they come. Sophomore outfielder Savannah Fitzpatrick places 20th in the nation with a .515 on-base percentage. And senior catcher Allison Heffley can provide instant offense with 18 extra-base hits to her name. That's not to mention Megan Welsh and Teagan Shaw, Harvard’s two three-home run hitters.

Meanwhile, the Crimson are an impressive 74-for-82 stealing bases. Leadoff hitter Lauren Bobowski accounts for over a third of them, going 27-for-29 on the year. After her, 10 more Crimson base-runners have swiped multiple bags, including Trina Hoang (14). Harvard’s numbers on the run shine even more considering opponents are just 30-for-46 when attempting to steal.

In the circle, Harvard utilizes two sub-three ERA pitchers who offer very different looks. Anna Reed (90 ⅔ innings, 2.55 ERA) surrenders more hits but has conceded only one long ball. On the contrary, Riley Flynn (94 ⅔ innings, 2.66 ERA) befuddles her hitters to the tune of a .177 average, yet has seen 10 balls go yard. Recently named Ivy League Rookie of the Year, Flynn worked 11 innings during Harvard’s conference tournament run.

The 2023 Fayetteville Regional will begin Friday at 5 p.m. with Notre Dame battling Oregon on ESPN2. Then at 7:30 p.m., Harvard will face Arkansas on ESPN Plus.