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ND Softball: Irish open season at ASU tourney

Jared Jedick | Friday, February 15, 2008

The Irish will escape for the weekend from the South Bend cold to compete in Arizona State’s season-opening Kajikawa Classic in Tempe, Ariz., this weekend.

The team will run a gauntlet of five games in the course of the three-day weekend. The tournament starts Friday and will include two of the top teams in the nation – No. 1 Arizona and No. 3 Texas A&M.

“We are going into a hot-bed of competition right off the bat,” Irish coach Deanna Gumpf said. “These are five very good teams we are going to play.”

Notre Dame is coming off a 32-24 finish in the 2007 season and its ninth consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance. The Irish hope that their tough early schedule will help them prepare for the remainder of their spring schedule.

“These first couple of games will give us an idea of where we are at as a team,” Gumpf said. “We have to believe that we are good enough to beat anyone.”

The Irish return only five starters, two of which are seniors. Despite being a young team, Notre Dame will look to play a balanced game this weekend and in the upcoming season. The experienced trio of senior second-baseman Katie Laing, junior pitcher Brittney Barger, and junior infielder Linda Kohan will lead the new Irish players.

“Katie [Laing] will be very important for us this year, especially since she is only one of two seniors,” Gumpf said.

Freshman pitcher Jody Valdivia is expected to make an immediate impact. It will be up to Valdivia and her fellow freshmen to step up and fill in the gaps in the Irish lineup.

“I would have to say youth is our only real concern right now,” Gumpf said. “But I like a lot of what our young players bring to the table.”

The Irish will kick off a tough Friday morning with a game against Utah (5-0). The Utes are off to their best start since 1985 and are a tough opening match for the Irish.

Friday afternoon won’t be any easier for the Irish as they are set to take on two-time defending NCAA champion Arizona. The Wildcats went 50-14-1 last year and will return six position starters along with All-America pitcher Taryne Mowatt. The Wildcats enter the tournament ranked No. 1 in almost every preseason poll.

“I think that if we don’t get the jitters, we will be able to play very well,” Gumpf said.

The Irish face Western Kentucky and No. 3 Texas A&M on Saturday. The second game will likely prove more trying for Notre Dame as Texas A&M is 5-1 on the season. But Gumpf said the Aggies are only one team of many in the competitive pool.

“There are no easy teams in the field,” Gumpf said. “Cal is the only team below .500, and they won’t be for very long.”

The Irish wrap things up Sunday morning against California (2-4) before returning home.