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Irish start season against tough teams

Justin Schuver | Friday, February 13, 2004

While South Bend still looks like a winter wonderland, the Irish begin their season on the road at the UNLV Classic, where they will face five teams including two ranked in the preseason top ten.The Irish face Hawaii Friday at noon and then match against No. 2 California at 2:30 p.m. Saturday, Notre Dame faces No. 9 Nebraska at 4 p.m. and UNLV at 6:30 p.m. The Classic concludes on Sunday as the Irish face Portland State at 10 a.m.Notre Dame hopes to continue its impressive string under coach Deanna Gumpf, who is entering her third season at the Irish helm. During her first two years, the Irish won back-to-back Big East championships.Last year, the Irish went 38-17 and claimed their fifth consecutive NCAA regional appearance. Their season came to an end at the hands of Michigan, who defeated the Irish by a score of 5-3 on May 17, 2003.This season, the expectations are just as high for the Irish, who were selected first overall the 2004 Big East Preseason Softball Coaches Poll. Notre Dame led with 95 points, followed by Villanova with 83 and Boston College with 74 points.If the Irish are to match the hype, they will have to do so with a much-changed team from last season. Conference player of the year Andrea Loman and three other starters graduated over the summer, leaving Notre Dame with an entirely new infield for the first time in four years.Catcher Mallorie Lenn, who achieved second-team all-Big East honors last season, returns behind the plate and will catch mostly the same pitching staff. Juniors Carrie Wisen and Steffany Stenglein and sophomore Heather Booth pitched 362 of 373 innings for the Irish last year.Booth was the Big East rookie of the year in 2003, collecting a 21-10 record with a 1.93 ERA while holding the number one starting spot all season. The Irish hope for a similar rookie impact from freshman Kenya Fuemmeler, who broke the career prep strikeout record while in high school in Missouri.The infield will feature junior Liz Hartmann at third base, sophomore Sara Schoonaert at shortstop, freshman Stephanie Brown at second base and sophomore Meagan Ruthrauff at first. Hartmann will move to the infield after spending her first two seasons as the left-field starter.The outfield should be a strength for the Irish, especially offensively. Junior Megan Ciolli, who hit .356 with four home runs and 24 RBIs last season, leads the Irish outfield at her usual centerfield position. She is one of 40 players named to the USA Softball Player of the Year watch list.Senior Nicole deFau will play left field, while sophomore Kellie Middleton will start in left. The two players combined for four home runs and 14 RBI last season.The bench is solid, with freshmen Carissa Jaquish and Gessica Hufnagle backing up Lenn at the catching position. Junior Nicole Wicks, who transferred from Washington, will provide infield backup and Fuemmeler can play the outfield in addition to relief pitcher.