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ND Softball: Undefeated Irish sweep in Carolina

Kelsey Manning | Monday, February 28, 2011

Unfamiliar opponents were no match for the experienced Irish (9-0) as the team returned from South Carolina still undefeated and in possession of the Notre Dame softball record for best start to a season.

No. 35 Notre Dame cruised to a pair of shutouts on the first day of the non-conference Cougar Classic, taking down host College of Charleston 2-0 and Iowa State 1-0. In the first game senior pitcher Jody Valdivia struck out 11 batters, while freshman pitcher Laura Winter contributed eight of her own against Iowa.

Against Charleston, scoring came from sophomore Amy Buntin — who was driven home on a Winter sacrifice — and junior Alexa Maldonado, who scored off a single from senior captain Heather Johnson. Later in the day, Buntin stepped up again to bring home senior Katie Fleury in the fourth.

Though the first day left the Irish win streak intact, the team was anything but complacent and looked to improve offensively to finish out the weekend.

“We didn’t score as much in the first two games as we could have so I know we wanted to try to get on the upswing,” senior catcher Alexia Clay said. “In the first two games we didn’t really go upward but for the weekend overall we’re definitely going in a positive direction.”

That positive momentum got going on Sunday as the Irish kicked off their first contest against Marist with a Maldonado double that resulted in a run off a Johnson single. The Irish produced seven runs on seven hits in the second inning, an impressive team effort that put the game out of reach for the Red Foxes. With 13 hits on the day and a two-run fifth inning that enacted the mercy rule, Notre Dame emerged with a dominant 10-1 victory.

Rushed play in the final game of the weekend against Liberty College resulted in seven Irish errors and a closer margin of victory for the team at 6-4.

“Certain people just got ahead of themselves so that was what happened,” Clay said. “There were a couple of key plays when we were moving too quickly but we just needed to pace ourselves.”

Last week’s Big East Player of the Week, Maldonado was once again a major component for the Irish this weekend, standing out most prominently in the Liberty game when she led all players with two runs and three stolen bases. The junior has been vital to the team’s offensive success thus far.

“Personally I’ve been able to stay out of my head,” Maldonado said. “I haven’t been thinking too much which is always better for an athlete. I’ve been feeling confident.”

It was the final close win that gave the team the record for best season start, a record that was previously set during the 2001 season. With some tough matchups ahead next weekend, headlined by a showdown with top-ranked Alabama, the Irish are staying positive.

“We’ve been working a lot on team unity and I feel like it’s paying off on the field,” Maldonado said. “We need to stay consistent. And we just need to go out and play Notre Dame softball because if we do that we can stay in any game against any team.”