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ND Softball: Irish begin spring in Florida

Heather VanHoegarden | Friday, February 11, 2005

With snow still on the ground in South Bend, the Irish go south this weekend to kick off the 2005 season in the warm weather of Florida.

Notre Dame begins the year this morning when the GRU Classic begins in Gainsville, Fla. The Irish have two games scheduled for today – a 10 a.m. matchup with No. 19 Florida (7-0) and a 4 p.m. game against No. 21 South Florida.

This year’s Notre Dame squad is coming off a successful season in which it finished 49-19, including an 18-2 Big East record and regular season title. The Irish graduated just one player from last season, first team All-Big East outfielder Nicole deFau. This year’s team is the preseason Big East conference regular-season champion, receiving all nine possible first-place votes from the conference head coaches.

The Irish are experienced and talented this spring. Notre Dame is led by third team All-American center fielder Megan Ciolli, who has a career average of .367 and has been named to the USA Softball Player of the Year watch list in her fourth year as a starter.

Ciolli will lead an Irish team that is hungry to build upon last year’s disappointing finish in the NCAA Tournament. The Irish won just one game at the NCAA Regionals, going home early.

“This team has seen it all,” Irish coach Deanna Gumpf told und.com. “They have experienced success and failure – the good and the bad. There is a sense around this team that they are prepared for anything and are focused on taking the next step.”

This season the Irish will see some position changes with newcomer Katie Laing playing shortstop. Sara Schoonaert will move to second base as a result, and Stephanie Brown will play in the outfield. Brown had an outstanding freshman year for the Irish, hitting .301 with seven home runs and 30 RBI.

“Sara was a great shortstop but she has the potential to be an All-American at second base,” Gumpf said.

Meanwhile, the Irish also have some outstanding pitching returning this year. Heather Booth, first team All-Big East, leads the way as last year she had a 25-9 record with a 1.45 ERA. Steffany Stenglein will fill the No. 2 spot, but both are very capable pitchers. They are joined by Carrie Wisen and Kenya Fuemmeller.

“They are a more seasoned and determined group this season,” Gumpf said. “They have seen the highest of the highs and fought through some tough situations as well. I think all

four of them are mentally and physically stronger this year.”

Notre Dame should also benefit from the return of junior leftfielder Kellie Middleton, who missed 61 games last season with an injury.

“It’s great to have Kellie back in the outfield,” Gumpf said. “You automatically think of her pride, determination and the power she has from within to come back from her injury. She has made a remarkable comeback and looks to be back to her previous level of play.”

The Irish continue the weekend tournament Saturday, when they finish pool play with Coastal Carolina. They then play the first round of the tournament, which continues through Sunday. The championship game is Sunday at 12:30 p.m.