Irish to face Redbirds in NCAA Regionals
Dan Murphy | Friday, May 18, 2007
Notre Dame begins its ninth consecutive NCAA Tournament this afternoon when it takes on No. 21 Illinois State in Evanston, Ill.
The Redbirds finished their season with a record of 42-15-1 and lost in the semi-finals of the Missouri Valley Conference tournament. They have put up big numbers on offense all year long, with 321 runs scored on the year compared to 160 given up.
Freshman Kara Nelson scored 57 of those runs while hitting .409 from her lead-off spot in her rookie season. Sophomores Amber Smith and Jessie Buker provided the power for Illinois State, with 15 and 16 home runs, respectively.
The Irish lineup will be facing off against senior pitcher Shannon Nicholson, who had a 20-6 record and 1.51 ERA.
“Nicholson has a good change-up. She keeps hitters off balance,” head coach Deanna Gumpf said. “So we just need to stay back and hit the ball up the middle – not try to crush it.”
Notre Dame was only five outs away from defending last year’s Big East title last Saturday, but Louisville sophomore Brooke McCrain singled in a run in the bottom of the sixth to give the Cardinals a 3-2 win and the conference championship.
McCrain’s RBI was the first run the Cardinals scored since a two-run homer in the first inning. Sophomore pitcher Brittney Bargar threw all six innings for the Irish, striking out six while allowing only three earned runs. Bargar ended her second collegiate season with 224 strikeouts and a 2.12 ERA.
“Bargar has been doing a great job of controlling the big hitters, especially recently,” Gumpf said.
The Notre Dame offense did all of its damage in the top half of the sixth. Junior Sarah Smith and senior Stephanie Brown both singled to start the inning. They were followed by senior Gessica Hufnagle, who reached on a bad throw from the Louisville third baseman. The throw allowed Smith to come around and score. Brown would plate the second Irish run two batters later thanks to a Heather Johnson single, tying the game at two.
Notre Dame threatened to tie the game again in the seventh when freshman Christine Lux led off with a double to left-center, but she was stranded at third as Louisville relief pitcher Catherine Bishop struck out the last two batters to end the game.
“We knew we were going to do well. They were all loose and ready to fight,” Gumpf said. “I thought we played really well.”
The loss to put an end to a seven-game win streak for the Irish. After dropping six straight conference games, Notre Dame caught fire, winning the last five of the regular season. The team finished with a 31-22 record (13-7 in the Big East), good enough for the No. 4 seed in the conference tournament.
In order to reach the finals, Notre Dame had to get through Connecticut and No. 12 DePaul. The Irish cruised past the Huskies with a 6-0 win to start the tournament. With momentum on its side, the offense kept things going in an 8-2 win over the Blue Demons.
“We played well as a team. They responded to one another and built momentum off of each other,” Gumpf said.
After scratching across one in the second inning, Notre Dame went on a five-run tear in the third. Sophomore Linda Kohan drove a ball off of the left field wall with the bases loaded, bringing around two runners to start the scoring. The very next batter, Lux, ripped her third round-tripper of the season to give her team a 6-0 lead early in the game.
Bargar pitched her second complete game in as many days, hanging on to a perfect game until the sixth inning. Junior Marcy Wilus drove in the two Blue Demon runs with a bases-loaded single later in the frame.
u Notre Dame will be losing four seniors to graduation this season – pitcher Kenya Fuemmeler, catcher Gessica Hufnagle, outfielder Carissa Jaquish, and Brown.
u Brown is a finalist for the Lowe’s Senior CLASS Award for her performance on and off the field over the past four years. If she wins, she will become the first ever softball player to receive the honor.