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ND Softball: Irish reach NCAA tournament

Mike Monaco | Wednesday, May 16, 2012

On March 16 the Irish lost 7-2 to Washington in the final game of the Judi Garman Classic in Fullerton, Calif. The loss dropped Notre Dame’s record to 11-10 – a far cry from the squad’s 46-11 mark in 2011.

But after playing their first 21 games on the road, the Irish (38-14, 16-3 Big East) returned home to the friendly confines of Melissa Cook Stadium on March 27 to take on Western Michigan. Notre Dame won that game 5-3, and went on to win 24 of its next 27 games to close out the regular season before making a Big East postseason run that ended with a loss in the Big East championship game.

“In the first part of the season we really couldn’t get it together,” Irish senior captain and center fielder Alexa Maldonado said. “We had good team chemistry but we just couldn’t make it click. But finally it clicked and we were able to feed off of each other and the get job done. We had each other’s backs.”

After returning to South Bend, the Irish won nine games in a row to improve their record to 20-11 before running into trouble in Big East play. The team lost three of its next four contests, including two in extra innings. Maldonado said those extra-inning losses were instrumental in the success of the Irish moving forward.

“We felt like we should have won those [three] games,” Maldonado said. “It was kind of a reality check to keep us on the road to improvement and consistency. We needed to come out with energy and sometimes we took it for granted that we were going to win.”

The Irish reeled off 15 consecutive wins, the longest winning streak for Notre Dame since 2005, to head into postseason play.

Sophomore pitcher Laura Winter took the win in 11 of those games and was the ace of the staff throughout the season. The right-hander compiled a 25-8 record with a 1.84 ERA, 23 complete games, 249 strikeouts and a mere 19 walks to place her second in the NCAA with just .61 walks per game. For her effort, Winter was awarded the 2012 Big East Pitcher of the Year award.

“[Winter] is extremely important and she will be for the next two years as well,” Maldonado said. “Our team feeds off her fire and energy so when she comes out fired up and ready to go everyone else feeds off that. She’s a very intimidating pitcher and she’s very important to the success of the team.”

Winter also threw her second career no-hitter – and the first in the history of Melissa Cook Stadium – April 21 against DePaul. The San Diego native had a perfect game intact into the fifth inning before DePaul senior outfielder Katelyn Braget earned a walk. Winter, however, set down the next 13 Blue Demons to complete the historic feat.

The Irish defense complemented Winter and junior pitcher Brittany O’Donnell with steady fielding. The squad finished fifth in the Big East with a .965 fielding percentage and committed only 46 errors.

In the batter’s box, the team was versatile with a solid mix of power hitters and table-setters, Maldonado said.

“We have the girls that can get on base with the short and then the power hitters that can drive them in,” Maldonado said. “It goes back to team chemistry; if we get on base we know [the power hitters] will drive us in.”

Junior catcher Amy Buntin and senior first baseman Dani Miller were those power hitters that formed the heart of the Notre Dame order. Buntin led the team with a .358 batting average and 53 hits, while Miller finished first on the squad with 16 home runs, 54 RBI, a .754 slugging percentage and 107 total bases in the regular season.

Maldonado and junior right fielder Kelsey Thornton set the table for Buntin and Miller. Maldonado led the Irish with a .429 on-base percentage and 39 runs scored. Thornton turned in a .324 average and was the runaway team leader with 17 steals.

With the regular season in the books, the Irish hosted the Big East championship at Melissa Cook Stadium, winning their first two games over Rutgers and St. John’s before falling 4-3 to Louisville in the title game in front of the second-largest crowd in stadium history.

With a strong showing in the regular season and Big East tournament behind them, the Irish now look for a potential berth in the NCAA tournament, with regional play beginning May 18.

Contact Mike Monaco at jmonaco@nd.edu