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ND Softball: Irish sweep Huskies to open Big East play

Mike Monaco | Monday, April 2, 2012

The Irish opened up the defense of their Big East regular season title with a three-game sweep of Connecticut, kicking off conference play within the friendly confines of Melissa Cook Stadium.

Notre Dame (17-10, 3-0 Big East) defeated the Huskies (13-14, 3-3) in Saturday’s doubleheader with a 5-2 win followed by a 7-3 victory, and captured its sixth consecutive win Sunday with a 7-2 win.

“It’s really important to set a precedence of our expectations in the Big East,” Irish coach Deanna Gumpf said. “And our expectations are always to win the Big East.”

The Irish took a step in the right direction toward another conference crown with their victory in the first game.

The Irish trailed 1-0 going into the bottom of the third inning before senior infielder Dani Miller blasted her team-leading sixth home run of the season to give Notre Dame a 3-1 lead.

The two-run lead was plenty for sophomore pitcher Laura Winter, who was undeterred by four Irish errors. Winter allowed two unearned runs and struck out eight Connecticut hitters en route to her tenth complete game of the season.

The right-hander utilized her changeup to perfection, as she routinely used the pitch to keep the Huskies off-balance.

“The [Connecticut] hitters are very, very aggressive and we knew that,” Gumpf said. “We knew that if we got them to fish, we’d be successful, and that’s I think what Laura ended up doing well. She got them to fish at changeups, her off-speed drop, her rise ball, and when she does that, good things will happen for her.”

The offense piled on more runs in the fourth inning in support of Winter to extend the lead to four, but Connecticut scored once in the fifth. Winter, however, shut the door in the final two innings by striking out four to secure the 5-2 win.

The Irish pounced on the Huskies early in the second game, as the offense put across three runs in both the first and third innings.

Irish junior pitcher Brittany O’Donnell was in complete control from the start as well, as the right-hander retired the first six batters of the game.

“[O’Donnell] does a nice job of completing [Winter] because they are so opposite,” Gumpf said. “If someone is hitting Laura pretty well, then they’re probably not going to hit [O’Donnell] very well … If they are both on, it changes everything. [O’Donnell] keeps hitters off balance, so she’s a great complement to [Winter].”

Leading 7-1 after five innings, the Irish ran into some trouble in the sixth when Connecticut sophomore infielder Audrey Grinnell ripped a two-run double to left-center field to cut the lead to four. The Huskies proceeded to load the bases with two outs, but the Irish got out of the jam and finished off the game in the bottom of the seventh, as O’Donnell went the distance to get the 7-3 win.

In Sunday morning’s series finale, the Irish offense came through with 11 hits from seven different players, and Notre Dame got out to a 6-1 lead after three innings. Gumpf said the early offensive eruption was due to the familiarity of the teams.

“I think both offenses were [clicking] today,” Gumpf said. “The third time you play an opponent, the game just changes because you have seen everyone you are going to see. So you’re always expecting [the offenses to come through].”

After a shaky first inning, Winter settled down in the circle. She scattered eight hits and two earned runs while not allowing a walk. A day after committing six errors, the Irish defense complemented its pitcher by recording a slew of difficult putouts.

The Notre Dame bats cooled off down the stretch, but the Irish held on for the 7-2 win.

Gumpf said the three-game sweep is exactly how you want to start conference play.

“Anytime you sweep a team it gives you a lot of confidence,” Gumpf said. “I think the girls are really confident in the Big East as it is. We know our opponents really well ⎯ we do a lot of research and make sure we’re prepared to play anybody – so it’s really about how we play. If we play our game and really focus on what we need to do, I think we’ll be fine.”

Notre Dame looks to make it seven wins in a row when it closes out its homestand Wednesday against Northwestern at 5 p.m. at Melissa Cook Stadium.

Contact Mike Monaco at jmonaco@nd.edu