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Friday, June 14, 2024
The Observer

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Breaking down Notre Dame’s softball roster

Irish pitching looks strong but offense will have to build chemistry

There are few days like Opening Day in college baseball and softball. The birds aren’t chirping and the sun is not shining — its South Bend in Feburary after all — but there is a buzz in the air as the softball team heads down to Clearwater, Florida, to kick off their 2024 campaign. Notre Dame softball, once again, will enter the season carrying two streaks: one they’ll look to extend (24 consecutive regional appearances) and one they’ll look to break (24 consecutive regional eliminations). The lineup the Irish roll out on Friday will feature a few notable staples and a number of new faces. Here’s a position-by-position breakdown of the names to know for the team’s opening game against Central Arkansas.

Behind the Plate

At catcher will be the lynchpin of Notre Dame’s 2024 lineup, Carlli Kloss. Kloss captured ACC’s Defensive Player of the Year award last spring and head coach Deanna Gumpf said ahead of the season that she never wants to take the senior off the field. There’s good reason for that — Kloss is a two way force, the type of player who can be consistently relied on both in the field and at the plate. Kloss finished with a whopping 7.79 defensive runs saved last year, good for first on the team by nearly six runs. She also served as the Irish’s leadoff hitter, notching 14 doubles and 23 RBIs on a .341 batting average. The senior will likely lead Notre Dame in plate appearances for a second consecutive year this spring.

The Infield

Notre Dame’s lineup for opening day 2024 will be quite different from a year prior. The infield is where such changes start. Karina Gaskins has been a staple at first base since arriving on campus as a freshman, and this spring will be no different. An offensive powerhouse, Gaskins will enter her senior season with 38 career home runs and 142 career RBIs to her name. She’ll be chasing the Irish program records for home runs this season, needing 13 to become Notre Dame’s all-time leader (she had 15 last year).

Just about everything else in the infield should be a new look from 2023, though. Among the offseason departures: Joley Mitchell, who rarely left the lineup at third base, Lexi Orozco, who took a sizable amount of reps at shortstop, and both members of the Irish’s second base platoon in Miranda Johnson and Brooke Marquez. The impact of Mitchell and Orozco leaving the batting order will be significant — Mitchell hit .462 during conference play last season and led the Irish in almost every offensive category over the season’s final month, and Orozco tallied 14 home runs and 45 RBIs from the cleanup spot.

The new-look Notre Dame infield will likely feature a number of names over the first month of the season as the squad figures out a core rotation. Senior Cassidy Grimm (third base) and junior Anna Holloway (shortstop/second base) — both of whom rotated into the lineup throughout 2023 — can be expected to slide into starting roles full-time. Freshman Addison Amaral was name-checked by Gumpf as a player who could make an immediate impact as well. Senior Mac Vasquez could be a dark horse option to find a role, with the veteran consistently producing in occasional reps over the last two seasons.

The Outfield

The Irish’s lineup overhaul continues in the outfield, where two of the team’s usual three starters graduated last spring. Sophomore Mickey Winchell enjoyed an impressive rookie campaign in 2023 and it would be a shock for her to not move up the batting order from the nine-hole spot she previously occupied. Additional defensive responsibilities could be on the cards as well with the centerfield position vacated by the now-graduated Leea Hanks. 

Both of the two remaining outfield slots will remain unknown until Friday morning, though it seems all but a certainty that junior Jane Kronenberger will be in right field for game one against Central Arkansas. Kronenberger excelled as a freshman in 2022 — hitting .389 and adding 31 RBIs across 106 plate appearances en route to ACC all-freshman honors — but struggled to find her groove as a sophomore. Her output fell across the board offensively, though she did finish second on the roster in defensive runs saved with 1.88. The tools are clearly there for Kronenberger. Gumpf no doubt hopes an expanded role will help her return to — or even expand on — the promise shown in her rookie campaign.

The final outfield slot, though, is far more up in the air. Christina Willemssen and Tenley Sweet are both freshmen who could potentially make a move for an early starting role, without a clear veteran favorite to win the position. The upperclassmen name to watch is junior Emily Tran, who’s been a productive pinch runner for Notre Dame over the last two years but has never gotten an extended run out as a full member of the lineup.

In the Circle

Pitching figures to be a major strength for this year’s Irish squad. With a high amount of lineup turnover, some offensive growing pains are to be expected. Notre Dame will likely need to lean on steadfast production in the circle at times. The Irish staff features a combination of proven names and young guns, with the trappings of a very solid rotation very much in place.

Sophomore Micaela Kastor showed tremendous poise and promise in her freshman campaign, leading the Irish staff in essentially every advanced pitching metric, including xFIP and SIERA. Kastor particularly shined in Notre Dame’s ill-fated regional outing, first grinding her way through 4.1 scoreless innings in relief of Payton Tidd against Oregon, and then allowing just six hits in a complete game while working with little run support against Arkansas.

The new addition to the staff could very well be Notre Dame’s ace this season, ex-Princeton star Alexis Laudenslager. Laudenslager captured back-to-back Ivy League pitcher of the year awards in 2022 and 2023, and has 12 career double-digit strikeout games to her name. The ACC will offer a different quality of hitter than the Ivy League. But Laudenslager’s resume stands with some of the best in the business entering her fifth season of college ball. 

Rounding out the likely trio of starters the Irish will utilize in three-game series is junior Shannon Becker. Much like Kronenberger, Becker enjoyed a strong freshman campaign in 2022 (earning a remarkable 1.72 ERA, fourth in the ACC) before dealing with an up-and-down sophomore campaign (falling to a 4.06 ERA). Gumpf has expressed confidence that Becker’s 2024 will look more like her debut season. If such a prediction comes through, Notre Dame should be set with an extremely formidable set of starters for conference play.

Completing the staff are a pair of underclassmen who will likely work their way into games by means of relief work and spot starts. Sophomore Paige Cowley didn’t see a ton of game action last spring but now has a year of collegiate experience under her belt, and freshman Kami Kamzik enters with an impressive high school resume. Each of the last two seasons the Irish have had a rookie pitcher crack the rotation — could Kamzik make it three in three?

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