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Softball: Competition out west will be a test

Dan Murphy | Friday, March 10, 2006

Notre Dame will have no rest this spring break, as the Irish travel west to take on the highest-ranked competition they will see all season long. The action kicks off Sunday with a doubleheader against the Cal Poly Mustangs.

The Mustangs (9-14) thrive on defensive play and the occasional long ball (16 homers this season). With tough losses to No. 3 UCLA and Oklahoma, Cal Poly has proven it can play with the best teams in the country.

“We are very similar teams at this point in the season,” Irish coach Deanna Gumpf said. “We both have some good wins and some bad losses. I know if we bring our ‘A’ game we should beat them.”

Gumpf returns to the team full time this weekend after giving birth to her daughter a little more than two weeks ago. Players said the team is excited to have Gumpf back on the bench and is confident that her presence will give the team the boost it needs to take on the daunting schedule.

“I think it will make a big difference with Coach Gumpf here – it will really be able to help us out,” freshman infielder Linda Kohan said.

After the two games against Cal Poly, the Irish will take all the extra help they can get this week as they enter the inaugural Judi Garman Classic in Fullerton, Calif. The tournament, formerly known as the Kia Klassic, is considered to be the premier mid-season tournament for all of collegiate softball. The field of 16 teams is chock-full of talent with 10 schools ranked in the top 25.

Notre Dame starts the tournament in a round robin, playing games against No. 10 Arizona State, Florida State, and Cal State-Fullerton. The Titans, who beat the Irish 9-3 on Feb. 19, will have home field advantage as the hosts of the classic.

“I think we are a whole different team now,” said Kohan, who went 3-for-4 with a home run in the loss to Fullerton. “I think we are going to surprise them this weekend.”

The Sun Devils are the favorite in the pool, entering with a 21-1 record. The team’s only loss came in extra innings against Virginia Tech March 4. If the Irish are to hand Arizona State its second loss Thursday, they will need to find a way to score more runs than most have against the Sun Devils. The stingy Sun Devil pitching staff has allowed less than 1.4 runs a game this season.

The Irish finish pool play with the Seminoles Friday. Florida State was quick out of the gate this year, getting off to a 13-6 start. Senior leadoff hitter Natasha Jacob has led the way offensively, setting the table with a .349 batting average. The Irish pitchers will have to keep the speedy Seminoles off the bases for Notre Dame to be successful.

“We will be facing some tough competition where our character will be tested,” Gumpf said. Following the round robin games, brackets will be set for the weekend and the competition will once again toughen. Depending on how they fare in their pool, the Irish could face the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the nation (Arizona and Texas) – along with last year’s NCAA champion Michigan.

Gumpf said a couple of big wins during the break could help bring Notre Dame into the nation’s elite after a sluggish 7-7 start.

“At this point in the season we hoped to have a higher winning percentage,” Gumpf said. “By the end of season we should be well above .500.”