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Softball: ND advances to NCAAs

Kelsey Manning | Friday, May 20, 2011

Despite a Big East semifinal upset at Louisville May 13, the No. 18 Irish have a 45-9 record and a regular season conference championship under their belt, as well as high expectations for the NCAA tournament.

From the outset, senior catcher Alexia Clay said the team knew it had the potential for a very successful year.

“We knew that this year was going to be a pretty big year for us, and for the most part I think what we anticipated has been true,” Clay said. “We had a really good season, won a lot of games and won a regular season championship.”

The Irish (45-9, 19-1 Big East) started the season off by rolling to a nine-game winning streak, the best start in program history. But a spring break trip to California in mid-March ended in disappointment for the squad, as close losses to four out of five top-20 teams slowed Notre Dame’s momentum.

Though their performance over the trip proved that the Irish could hold their own against top teams this season, the trip also exposed a few key flaws in the Notre Dame arsenal, specifically pitching and hitting in the clutch.

The team’s struggles continued as it returned home, as a loss to Western Michigan broke a 21-game home win streak. Both the spring break trip and the unexpected home loss were wake up calls for Notre Dame.

“I think that spring break was definitely a turning point, but teams go through big and little humps throughout the season and that was a big one for us,” Clay said. “We’ve had a couple of other ones that have been reminders that we always have to be on our game because people can score runs off of you any day.”

The Western Michigan loss was one turning point the team certainly took to heart, rattling off 14 straight wins following the defeat. The run was snapped by a loss to Louisville Apr. 17, but Notre Dame responded by wining 14 more games leading up to the Big East semifinals, where the Cardinals were once again Notre Dame’s downfall.

The second half of the season saw the rise of freshman pitcher Laura Winter, who had a stellar breakout season highlighted by a no-hitter Apr. 27 at South Florida. The excellent hitting of senior captain Heather Johnson, who won three straight Big East Player of the Week titles and produced a 21-game hitting streak, also highlighted the latter half of the year.

The fifth-ranked Cardinals, who have knocked the Irish out of the conference tournament four of the past five years, put together a 6-0 semifinal win in front of their hometown crowd to put an end to Notre Dame’s dream of winning a Big East tournament title.

“Obviously our pitching didn’t really help us out,” Clay said. “Louisville had a good offensive plan against our pitchers and unfortunately our bats weren’t working like they normally are, so that was to our disadvantage.”

In spite of the unexpected loss, the Irish are looking ahead to the NCAA tournament, which begins this upcoming week with regional play. The team will look to rebound like it has all season.

“[The loss] definitely lit the fire for us to get ready for regionals,” Clay said. “I’m anxious to see how we do. I really think we can pull it off this year.”

Notre Dame begins NCAA tournament play May 20.