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Friday, June 14, 2024
The Observer

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Missed opportunities cost Notre Dame softball streak of NCAA Tournament appearances

Irish miss NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1998

Notre Dame softball’s season was summarized over the course of two games at the ACC Tournament in Durham, North Carolina.

The Irish entered with their season on the line. Qualifying for the tournament as the final squad in a 10-team field, Notre Dame needed to win four consecutive games to capture the title and the NCAA Tournament auto bid that would come with it.

And in game one, the Irish found a rhythm. Notre Dame erased what at one point was a three-run deficit to North Carolina with timely hitting from up and down the order. Ten batters came to the plate for the Irish during the game. Eight reached base at least once. The underdog Irish scored all seven of their runs with two outs and advanced to the quarterfinals. With the stakes at their highest, the 7-4 victory was a sign of what Notre Dame’s season could still be.

The ensuing quarterfinal against Florida State proved a frustrating reminder of what the season instead was: one of missed chances.

It wasn’t for a lack of a quality performance for the Irish against the Seminoles, who are traditionally the class of the conference. In fact, a lot went right for Notre Dame with its season effectively on the line. The Irish held Florida State to just two runs, tied for the Seminoles’ worst offensive output of the season against a conference opponent. 

But the Irish offense, so pivotal just one day earlier against the Tar Heels, couldn’t seem to click. Notre Dame left five runners on base and was shut out for the first time all season in a 2-0 loss. And without the parachute of an automatic bid that would have come with an ACC Tournament title, Sunday night confirmed the Irish would miss the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 25 years.

Such was the story of the spring. So close, so many times. Notre Dame played in four “rubber match” games — the third game in a three-game series where both teams split games one and two — in conference play. The Irish went 1-3 in such games with their lone win coming in mid-March. 

The Irish were walked off in potentially key conference games against Georgia Tech and North Carolina. Three outs away from a major midweek bubble triumph over Indiana, Notre Dame instead watched a walk-off grand slam sail over the fence in Bloomington. Perhaps the most backbreaking end came against eventual tournament squad Baylor during an early season tournament in California, as the Irish dug deep for a miraculous rally in the top of the seventh inning before immediately conceding two runs to lose the game in the bottom half of the frame.

Nobody was more aware of these bitter ends than veteran head coach Deanna Gumpf, who said her players’ strong culture off the field only made their struggles to put everything together on it more frustrating.

“When I look back at this season so far, I think the biggest thing that I struggle with is the fact that I think our culture is so good,” Gumpf said. “That’s probably the hardest thing to take when you look at the games that we dropped, and maybe the result could have been a little bit different.”

Still, there were bright spots to be found in disappointment for the Irish. Notre Dame was always set to lose a frightening amount of production at the top of the order following this spring. Among the team’s pending graduating class are catcher Carlli Kloss, first baseman Karina Gaskins and third baseman Cassidy Grimm, three of the team’s top four leaders in batting average. The Irish offense was in dire need of a new stalwart to anchor the team’s efforts at the plate come summer. They found such a player in freshman second basemen Addison Amaral.

Amaral started the season hitting fifth in Notre Dame’s order and climbed to No. 3 by the season’s end. She led the Irish in home runs, doubles, runs batted in and slugging percentage. She drove in 53 runs across 50 games — no other Notre Dame player had more than 35.

Gumpf noted that Amaral’s adaptability allowed her to continue to develop with every game as the season went on.

“Addison does a great job of learning from her mistakes,” Gumpf said. “I think that’s what makes her such an incredible athlete. Because you might get her on something one time, but she’ll find a way to make that adjustment next time. When you look at great athletes, it’s about adjustments and having the confidence to just go at the game, attack the game and make adjustments when needed.”

Notre Dame now looks ahead to the 2025 campaign and the potentially transformative offseason that will precede it. Remove the three above senior starters from the equation and the Irish lineup hit an average of .273 this spring, a sizable dropoff from a .290 overall average that was good for about average in the ACC.

Pitching should be a source of strength for the Irish, who are set to return all four hurlers from this spring. Alexis Laudenslager has an additional year of eligibility, with the Princeton graduate transfer bringing stability to the team’s Friday starter slot following the graduation of longtime ace Payton Tidd at the end of the 2023 campaign. Elsewhere in the rotation, Notre Dame will bank on growth from rising senior Shannon Becker and rising junior Micaela Kastor, both of whom settled into solid roles as the season went on. Kami Kamzik showed flashes in spot action during her rookie year and should see her duties tick upward as she develops further.

Gumpf leaned on internal promotion to mitigate losses in the lineup last season and saw the likes of Anna Holloway and Jane Kronenberger rise to task as full-time starters. She went to the transfer portal to replace Payton Tidd in the circle. The Irish lose just as much as the season prior this summer. The question of how Gumpf and her staff will plug the holes will likely be a defining one for the coming months.