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ND Softball

Irish begin season with visit to West Coast

| Thursday, February 9, 2017

Notre Dame’s 2017 season will begin far from South Bend, as the No. 22 Irish travel to Long Beach, California, to take part in the Beach Kickoff Tournament this weekend.

Over the weekend, Notre Dame will play a total of five games against teams from across the country. On Friday, the Irish take on Weber State and Long Beach State, while South Dakota and San Diego State will be on the docket Saturday. Finally, the Irish will make a cross-town trip through Los Angeles to play No. 8 UCLA in the Stacy Winsberg Memorial Tournament on Sunday.

Irish senior pitcher Rachel Nasland delivers a pitch during an exhibition game against Illinois State on Oct. 9 at Melissa Cook Stadium. Allison Culver | The Observer

Irish senior pitcher Rachel Nasland delivers a pitch during an exhibition game against Illinois State on Oct. 9 at Melissa Cook Stadium.

As the Irish embark on their 2017 slate, they have a good amount of success from last season to build on. Last year, Notre Dame went 43-13 and made it to the final of the ACC tournament, as well as the regional round of the NCAA tournament.

The 43-win 2016 was the 18th time the Irish have reached the 40-win mark, including each of the past eight seasons and 11 of the previous 13.

That success has carried over into the preseason rankings in 2017, as the Irish earned the No. 22 spot according to the NFCA. This is now the third year in a row Notre Dame has cracked the top 25 in the preseason.

In the conference preseason poll, Notre Dame was picked to finish third in the ACC behind the defending champion, Florida State, and Louisville. The Irish have never been picked to finish lower than third since joining the ACC in 2014.

However, before the Irish look to compete in ACC play and reach the NCAA tournament for the 19th consecutive time, they have to wade through their opening slate of games. Against the five teams it plays on opening weekend, Notre Dame is 12-13 all-time, but has never played South Dakota State or Weber State.

Coming into the season as the eighth-ranked team in the country, the Bruins will be a marquee matchup at the end of the weekend for the Irish. However, San Diego State, Long Beach State and Weber State all posted 30-win campaigns last season as well.

This year’s road trip bears some semblance to last year when Notre Dame traveled out West to start its season in Tempe, Arizona, and Cathedral City, California. Interestingly, the Irish ran into UCLA early in the last year’s campaign and beat the then-No. 8 Bruins, 8-6, in the Mary Nutter Collegiate Classic in late February. The win ended up being the second in a 19-game win streak that spanned more than a month.

When Notre Dame takes the field this weekend, it will look to senior center fielder Karley Wester to set the tone offensively. Wester is entering her second year as a captain of the team and has two NFCA All-American honors to her name. Wester was also named to USA Softball’s top-50 watch list for the Player of the Year award Wednesday.

Last season, Wester batted almost exclusively in the leadoff spot and hit for a .446 average with 91 hits, 33 RBIs and 68 runs scored. Wester also converted on 46 of her 52 stolen base attempts. Wester is currently the active NCAA leader in hits and holds Notre Dame single season records for hits, runs scored and stolen bases from last year.

Not far behind Karley Wester is her younger sister, Ali Wester. A sophomore second baseman, Ali batted second in the order behind Karley and managed a strong season of her own with 77 hits, 40 RBIs and a .423 average.

The Irish open their season Friday at noon against Weber State and then play Long Beach State at 2:30 p.m. before taking on South Dakota at noon and San Diego State at 2:30 p.m. Saturday and UCLA at noon Sunday.

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