After an offseason reset, the newest iteration of Notre Dame softball began its 2024 season this weekend at the NFCA Leadoff Classic in Clearwater, Florida. The Irish split two games on Friday and did the same on Saturday. They finished on Sunday with another victory to bring them to 3-2 after their first weekend of play.
The Irish began their season against a Central Arkansas team that, like them, received votes in the initial top 25 rankings. Graduate transfer Alexis Laudenslager quickly endeared herself to the Notre Dame faithful, mowing through 6.1 scoreless innings while allowing just 1 hit and striking out 7. However, Sugar Bears starter Bailie Runner was equally stellar, taking a 4-hit shutout into the seventh inning.
Then the Irish found their breakthrough. With senior infielder Mac Vasquez at second with one out thanks to a single and a bunt, senior infielder Cassidy Grimm delivered a go-ahead RBI double. Junior catcher Rachel Allen immediately doubled the lead with a pinch-hit run-scoring single. Junior infielder Jane Kronenberger tacked on another run to make it 3-0. Head coach Deanna Gumpf turned to another new arm to finish the victory, with freshman Kami Kamzik recording the last two outs.
However, Notre Dame's bats would continue their sluggish start in the team's second game against South Alabama. The Irish found themselves in an early 4-0 hole after two innings, with junior pitcher Shannon Becker pulled after just 1.1 innings of work. Sophomore Micaela Kastor kept the team in it, scattering 6 hits over the her 4.2 innings in the circle. But the Irish managed just 3 hits, with a triple from junior catcher Carlli Kloss (who then scored on an error) the team's only offense of note. The Jaguars won by a 5-1 final.
Once again a slow start proved too much to overcome, this time Notre Dame found themselves facing a familiar 4-0 deficit after three innings. Playing in front of a national audience on MLB Network, the Irish were sloppy out of the gates, with two of Utah's forced runs coming on an error and a wild pitch. Kamzik had her “welcome to college softball” moment against the top-20 Utes, who teed off for five runs in just 1.1 innings. Notre Dame was staring at a mercy rule loss going into the bottom of the sixth inning but started to find their stroke. Kronenberger drove home two in the sixth and Kloss got one more back in the seventh.
It wasn't enough for Notre Dame to make a full comeback, as the Irish still fell 9-3. However, Notre Dame scored three runs in the first three innings against Iowa after not scoring at all before then. Granted, those runs came after Iowa jumped Kastor for three runs in the opening frame. The teams traded runs in the third before both teams put up zeroes in the next two innings, with the Hawkeyes maintaining their narrow lead.
However, Iowa slipped up in the sixth. Sophomore pitcher Paige Cowley worked a walk at the plate, and after a fielder's choice, Kloss singled and senior infielder Karina Gaskins walked to load the bases. Iowa's Devyn Greer uncorked a wild pitch that allowed two runners score, giving the Irish their first lead of the game. Becker sealed the deal with a shutdown seventh, getting the Irish back in the win column.
The Irish ended the weekend the way they started it — a 3-0 win in which all of their runs came in one inning. Like against Iowa, though, this time Notre Dame's offense didn't wait to strike. Grimm started the scoring with another RBI double. Junior outfielder Emily Tran, 0-6 in her first two years at the plate, delivered her second hit of the weekend with a bunt single, then stole second. Kloss brought her home to put an exclamation point on a weekend in which she hit .400 and drove in three runs, two of them coming on a single to plate Grimm and Tran.
Laundeslager and Kastor delivered a combined 2-hit shutout, with each striking out 3 batters. Laundeslager is Notre Dame's best bet to replace graduating ace Payton Tidd, and she got off to a good start with a 2.03 ERA over 13.1 innings pitched during the weekend.
The Irish return to action next weekend in Jacksonville, Florida, for the Jacksonville/University of North Florida Invitational. The Irish play Samford and Jacksonville on Friday at 11:00 a.m. and 1:30 p.m., respectively. They face Samford (again at 11:00 a.m.) and North Florida (at 4:00 p.m.) on Saturday and Mercer on Sunday at 10:00 a.m. The North Florida game will be broadcast on ESPN+.
Associate Sports Editor J.J. Post contributed to this article.