Youth impresses as Irish head to postseason
Marek Mazurek | Friday, May 13, 2016
Irish sophomore right fielder Bailey Bigler stepped up to the plate late in the afternoon on April 3. There were two outs in the bottom of seventh and final inning against then-No. 9 Florida State, and the scoreboard read 4-4.
Junior infielder Kimmy Sullivan stood on second base as Bigler waited for the 1-1 pitch. Sullivan took off sprinting as Bigler lofted a ball to shallow center field. The Florida State defenders could not catch up to the bloop single and Sullivan scored, giving Notre Dame (39-10, 13-7 ACC) a 5-4 walk-off victory.
“Beating a team like Florida State, it just reminds you, ‘You know what? When we play well, and when we’re doing things well, we can beat anybody,’” Irish head coach Deanna Gumpf said. “It doesn’t matter who we play. That’s been our M.O. all year: When we play well, we can beat anybody.”
The victory gave Notre Dame its 26th victory of the season, and it remains the Seminoles’ only ACC loss to date. The next weekend, the Irish beat Pittsburgh; Two weekends after the Florida State win, the Irish swept ACC rival Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia, to catapult themselves to third place in the conference.
“[We had] great pitching and, honestly, hitting when we needed people to step up,” Gumpf said of the Virginia Tech sweep. “We had big hits in those games, big two-out hits. So we were able to put runs on when we needed to and pitchers who kept us in the ball game.”
Before their ACC slate, the Irish started the season with a string of tournaments in Arizona, California and Florida, often playing five games in the span of three or four days. In their first 19 games, the Irish went 16-3, including a resume-building win over then-No. 8 UCLA on February 20.
“That time of the year is supposed to give us confidence … and [help us] to know what we’re capable of doing,” Gumpf said. “When we’re behind, knowing we’re capable of coming back — we did that a lot early. When we’re rolling, being able to shut the door. Playing that strong schedule early, that’s what it’s all about.”
During the opening slate of games, Gumpf also reached a personal milestone, notching her 600th career victory on February 26 against Central Florida.
The early season success ignited the Irish to a 19-game winning streak from late February to late March. Leading the way for the Irish during the winning streak was junior center fielder and co-captain Karley Wester.
Wester currently leads the Irish in batting average and hits at .447 and 80, respectively. Gumpf said Wester is a big reason the Irish are currently ranked No. 19 in the nation.
“Karley Wester was an All-American her freshman year,” Gumpf said. “If she’s not having a great year, then we’re scratching our head. It’s just what she’s capable of. She can do so many different things, she’s three dimensional, she has so much speed and grit. I love watching her play the game.”
However, Karley is not the only Wester on the team. Joining her sister in her first season at Notre Dame is freshman second baseman Ali Wester. Ali headlines a strong group of freshman for the Irish. Four freshman, Wester, designated player Caitlyn Brooks, third baseman Melissa Rochford and catcher Maddie McCracken have stepped into the starting lineup for the Irish this season.
“We’ve had very few games where haven’t been able to depend on them,” Gumpf said. “When you’re a freshman and you’re that dependable, it really shows what you’re capable of and who you can grow to be on this team.”
After winning two out of three games against North Carolina State last weekend, the Irish will compete in the ACC championship’s opening round Thursday against Virginia Tech in Raleigh, North Carolina.
“I think we just have to play some consistent ball,” Gumpf said. “I think it starts in the circle. If we do the things we know how to do, I’m really excited for what this team can do.”