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Wednesday, May 29, 2024
The Observer

Irish return to postseason, look to end 24-year wait

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Max Petrosky/The Observer
Notre Dame softball qualified for the NCAA Tournament for the 24th year in a row this season.

For Notre Dame softball, 2023 was a year for the extraordinary. Whether it be a 0-0 tie, a three-homer performance or a record-breaking head coach, dramatic surprises lurked around each turn. While embracing the unexpected provides great thrill, letting go of the ordinary can be equally difficult. And that, as always, is the challenge at hand for Irish softball, who have reached the NCAA Tournament for the 24th straight season but are still looking to advance past the first round for the first time.

Granted, Notre Dame might be fortunate to even be in this position at all. A late April home sweep at the hands of Florida State seemingly placed the Irish in make-or-break territory upon entering the ACC Tournament, where they couldn’t pull through. But head coach Deanna Gumpf knows this team will be defined by more than that late-season swoon — especially if they finally find a way to break through.

“This is a group that has given everything they can, every single day,” Gumpf said. “They never show up to this place without giving everything they have, and that’s all you can ask from your team.”

Notre Dame showed promise early, holding a record of 18-7 on March 25. Much of the success centered around two dynamic Irish newcomers. At the plate, graduate Utah State transfer Lexi Orozco added muscle to the lineup, tallying six home runs and driving in 27 runs during her first 23 games. Finishing the year with eight more long balls and a year-end slash line of .351/.475/.525, Orozco earned Second Team All-ACC honors. 

“She is so calm, collected and confident in the box,” Gumpf said. “You watch her in the box and you’re like, ‘Wow, she’s special.’ And then as a player, for her to come in and do what she’s done, it just becomes such a big part of this program and says a lot about who she is as a person.”

At the same time, freshman pitcher Micaela Kastor turned heads around the ACC. In her first 39 ⅓ collegiate innings, she conceded just five earned runs. Kastor finished the season with a 2.60 earned run average (ERA) in 75 ⅓ frames.

“She’s a pitcher who learns from all of her outings and continues to get better, and that’s what really made her special this year,” Gumpf said. “She learns about herself and uses what she’s learned to take her game to a higher level.”

The transition to April spelled trouble for Notre Dame, failing to take home series from both Syracuse and Pittsburgh. However, the Irish found what they needed on the back end of an April 2 doubleheader with Pitt. Having already lost an exhausting 13-11 affair, Notre Dame turned to its most reliable stars for a major momentum switch.

Offensively, junior first baseman Karina Gaskins did the unthinkable, hitting three of her 14 overall home runs. The 2022 ACC Player of the Year later earned 2023 First Team All-ACC honors after slashing .341/.500/.722. 

“Rarely does she get enough strikes to finish an at-bat, but when they throw to her, they’re very careful,” Gumpf said. “The great thing is that she’s able to hit so many different pitches and her weaknesses are so minimal that you just can’t get away with much.”

While Gaskins torched softballs against the Panthers, junior catcher Carlli Kloss hosed two potential base-stealers. On the season, she cut down 13 of 29 steal attempts, earning ACC Defensive Player of the Year. Kloss also hit .352 with team-highs in doubles (14) and triples (3).

“She’s got one of the most difficult jobs on the team, because she is behind the plate every single day for a lot of different pitchers,” Gumpf said. “She scares base-runners. Offensively, she has led the way consistently all year long.”

With that jolt, the Irish rolled into late April. They won series at Louisville and Boston College, nabbed two ranked wins from Virginia Tech at home and run-ruled both Michigan State and Indiana. The win over the Spartans marked Gumpf’s 849th, giving her the most ever by a head coach in any sport in Notre Dame history. Before the four-game slide at the end of the season, Gumpf and the Irish were a strong 29-13-1.

“I think [April was about] just learning and not being complacent with March,” Gumpf said. “March was very difficult. It taught us a lot, and I thought we took those lessons really well and we used them to become a better team. The big lessons along the way were how important playing consistent softball on all three sides of the ball is.”

Despite a disappointing end to the regular season, Notre Dame still has plenty of individual success to celebrate. Senior third baseman Joley Mitchell slugged her way to a First Team All-ACC selection, cracking 10 home runs and ending the season on a 12-game hit streak. She also recorded more stolen bases (15) than strikeouts (10).

“When you put Karina Gaskins, Joley Mitchell and Lexi Orozco together, there’s not a pitcher in the country who wants to go through those three in a row,” Gumpf said. “That was one of the most consistent things in our offense. It really changed the dynamic of the top of the lineup for us.”

Players like freshman outfielder Mickey Winchell and senior outfielder Macie Eck helped the Irish pose an offensive threat from top to bottom. Winchell started 38 games and hit .337, earning an ACC All-Freshman Team designation. Meanwhile, Eck had seen only 25 at-bats prior to 2023. But she made the most of her 67 this year, hitting .343.

It’s impossible to discuss Notre Dame softball without mentioning graduate pitcher Payton Tidd. This season, she once again embraced the workhorse role — in pitching, leadership, dedication to the program, you name it. With 147 ⅔ innings pitched, Tidd covered nearly half of her team’s frames, accumulating a 3.13 ERA.

“Payton [Tidd] is really a truly massive leader for this team. She’s our heart and soul every single day,” Gumpf said. “She’ll do anything for this team and this program.”

To round out the regularly used pitching staff, sophomore Shannon Becker finished with a 4.25 ERA in 79 innings pitched. She struggled early on but thrived after Gumpf switched her into a more high-leverage bullpen role.

Notre Dame will begin play in the NCAA Fayetteville Regional against Oregon on Friday. The four-team field also consists of 11th-seeded Arkansas and Harvard.