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Friday, June 14, 2024
The Observer

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‘A different route’: Notre Dame enters 2024 following a locker room leadership refresh

Irish hope to offset lost production by changing the tune around their clubhouse

For much of Notre Dame softball’s 2023 campaign, things felt off.

The Irish had talent, and plenty of it. One of the ACC’s most well-rounded players in senior catcher Carlli Kloss started off the lineup every game. Senior infielder Karina Gaskins remained the offensive juggernaut she developed a reputation for being over her first two seasons. Transfer addition Lexi Orozco added 14 home runs and Joley Mitchell hit for an average of nearly .500 in conference play.

Yet still, Notre Dame never seemed to be able to harness momentum despite having a number of talented pieces. The team’s longest winning streak was seven games — which came in the middle of March and included several wins over mid-major opposition. The Irish didn’t sweep a single series in conference play, despite several opportunities. Notre Dame barely managed a winning record at home, where they had lost just three games in the previous three seasons. They finished just 4-10 in games decided by three runs or less against Power Five opposition. They went a dismal 2-5 in one-run games against such opponents.

Head coach Deanna Gumpf knew change was coming over the offseason. New faces on the lineup card would be inevitable for a team that often started as many as six seniors and graduate students. But a changing of the guard was also coming in the team’s leadership structure, with all three of the team’s captains graduating. Gumpf took it upon herself to help guide the 2024 roster’s upperclassmen, now the unquestioned leaders of the Irish squad, into their new roles.

“It doesn’t necessarily come in your face [when] things aren’t exactly the way you want them,” Gumpf said. “But I think at the end of the season when it’s all said and done we had individual player meetings and it was awesome that [players] opened up and talked about what they wanted different … We met once every two weeks on Zoom, the entire junior and senior class. We read a book together, we talked about leadership, we talked about goals. We talked about commitment. They have stuck to those goals and commitment.”

A major point of emphasis in this preparation was an openness in who would be leading come time for fall practice. Notre Dame’s roster has just five true seniors. It looks likely that less than a third of the team’s Opening Day starting lineup will be seniors. The Irish cultivating a locker room where anybody could speak up and be a leader was a logical step for a new-look roster.

“The upperclassmen as a whole just worked really hard on being able to approach leadership differently this year,” said senior first baseman Karina Gaskins. “Know[ing] that everyone on this team is a leader and can be a leader. Just being able to believe in and support each other was our main goal this year.”

Gaskins isn’t the only senior that spoke about the importance of switching gears and developing a collaborative, bought-in locker room. Kloss led Notre Dame in at-bats last season and was a constant presence at catcher. For her, the offseason’s leadership exercises helped her and the other upperclassmen effectively welcome the team’s younger players into the fold.

“I think we tried to take a little bit of a different route this year,” Kloss said. “Just to try and be a little bit more of a cohesive unit and move more as one … I think we’ve done a really good job of providing a good example to our underclassmen and I think they’ve latched on and bought into the program immediately.”

Buy-in will be a critical factor for an Irish team that will enter this season, as they have for a decade now, carrying baggage. Notre Dame softball’s streak is well-acknowledged. 24 consecutive regional qualifications. 24 consecutive regional eliminations. Is a refresh — both on the field and off — what the Irish need to finally advance to a first Super Regional in program history?

Notre Dame will start 2024 with a combination of returning talent and new faces in the lineup card. The Irish have ‘run it back’ before, repeatedly reaching the same destination as the year prior. This time, they’ll try an update. Not a top-to-bottom roster clean-out, but rather a reset of how the team approaches things in the locker room.

This spring will be a blank slate for Notre Dame. No doubt, the program’s new group of leaders will hope their changed offseason approach will prove the difference in finally taking the Irish over the top.

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