Irish softball poised for 2023 success among packed ACC field
Tyler Reidy | Wednesday, February 8, 2023
Opening day is quickly approaching for Notre Dame softball. The Irish will take the field this weekend at the SDSU Season Kickoff in San Diego, beginning with a Friday night doubleheader. Last year, Notre Dame posted a 40-12 overall record with a 16-5 conference mark, leading the ACC in team batting average. The Irish reached the NCAA Evanston Regional but dropped two games to McNeese State for an early exit.
For the 22nd consecutive season, head coach Deanna Gumpf will lead the Fighting Irish. With a total record of 825-348-1, she is the winningest head coach of any sport in school history. Gumpf cited team experience, greater depth and the presence and improvement of playmakers as reasons for her eagerness to open play on Friday.
Under the familiar guidance of Gumpf, a new face will work with the team this season. Last summer, Amanda Eberhart was named associate coach after the departure of Lizzy Ristano. Eberhart brings head coaching experience from Valparaiso, Omaha and IUPUI to South Bend. She earned 95 wins in her four seasons at IUPUI and helped Omaha to a second-place Summit League finish in 2021. Eberhart has also completed power conference coaching stays at Purdue, Indiana, NC State and Northwestern.
“The detail she brings is huge,” Gumpf said of the new hire. “She is all about the little things, and she does a great job with our hitters — getting them focused on the right things at the right time. I’m super, super excited about what she brings to our offensive game.”
In terms of the roster itself, Notre Dame brings back the personnel necessary for success in ACC play and the NCAA tournament. Junior infielder Karina Gaskins, the reigning ACC Player of the Year and consensus All-American, carries a laundry list of accolades. Entering this season, D1Softball.com designated her as the 29th-best player in America, and she was named to the Team USA Collegiate Softball Player of the Year Top 50 Watch List. Gaskins comes off a campaign in which she hit for an ACC-high .428 batting average and earned a school-record .555 on-base percentage. Her 13 home runs paced the Irish and accounted for a solid chunk of her team-leading 61 RBIs.
“She’s just such a great hitter — and a lot of people talk about her power — but she’s able to hit a variety of pitches and she does a great job of being more of a complete hitter than just the power game,” Gumpf said. “I think the great thing that Karina can really depend on is the fact that she has a lot of really good hitters around her, so I think she can take a little pressure off of herself.”
One of those strong hitters is graduate infielder Lexi Orozco, an off-season transfer from Utah State. Operating as a primary shortstop, she broke or tied Aggie career records in runs batted in (138), slugging percentage (.631) and home runs (39). Last year, she hit .354 with 13 doubles, 12 round-trippers and 46 RBI.
Senior outfielder Leea Hanks, whom Gumpf described as the “complete package,” is another key returner. Last year’s All-ACC Second-Teamer did a whole lot of everything on the diamond. Her 14 doubles and five triples led the team, as did her seven outfield assists. She also cracked six homers and swiped 13 bases.
“Leea is probably one that flies under the radar more than she should,” Gumpf said. “She’s got speed and power, she makes things happen, she hits good pitches really well, and she’s a great leader for us.”
With All-ACC selections Emma Clark and Abby Sweet moving on, Gumpf expects juniors catcher and outfielder Carlli Kloss and infielder Joley Mitchell to have increased roles. Kloss hit .411 in 35 games last year, finishing the season on a six-game hitting streak. Meanwhile, Mitchell garnered an NFCA Mid-Atlantic All-Region selection. She hit .340 with nine doubles, five homers and 25 RBI, while also belting a pair of long balls in the Evanston Regional.
The Irish are set up for success in the pitching circle as well. They return All-ACC selections in graduate student Payton Tidd and sophomore Shannon Becker for 2023. Tidd worked a team-high 130.2 innings last year, winning 15 games with a 2.79 ERA and 97 strikeouts. She picked up victories over LSU, Northwestern and Duke, three of the top 20 teams in the nation. Behind her, Becker demonstrated major potential in her freshman season. She tossed 90 innings at a 1.71 ERA, with six complete games among her 10-4 record.
“Payton understands what it takes to be really successful at this level. She’s won huge games for us,” Gumpf said. “We started putting [Shannon] into the fire a little bit last year, but now she’s gonna be taking the ball all the time. Those two, with the experience they’ve had, are huge for our pitching staff.”
Notre Dame also has two freshmen pitchers from California entering the program. Micaela Kastor, out of Oaks Christian High School, posted a 0.90 ERA for her high school career. With 256 senior season strikeouts, she took home 2022 California Gatorade Player of the Year honors. Paige Cowley, from Upland High School, punched out 528 hitters during her career.
With hopes of a 24th consecutive NCAA tournament appearance, the Irish face a loaded schedule. After this weekend’s kickoff games, Notre Dame will face Ohio State and No. 7 Northwestern in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. The highly-ranked Wildcats came out of ND’s regional last year, ultimately reaching the Women’s College World Series. To open ACC play, the Irish will visit No. 22 Duke during the first weekend of March. After hosting Miami (Ohio) in the March 21 home opener, Notre Dame will have two great looks at top conference opponents. No. 13 Virginia Tech will travel to Melissa Cook Stadium in mid-April, followed by a visit from No. 4 Florida State to close the month. Notre Dame will have the benefit of hosting the ACC tournament from May 10-13 as well. The Irish were 15-1 in South Bend last year.
Despite constant regular season success, the Irish have never survived the national tournament’s first round under Gumpf. She believes that this year’s squad, with the help of stable play, can break through.
“We have what it takes,” Gumpf said. “We’re big playmakers, we have girls who can do some serious damage, but it’s about consistency.”
Notre Dame will play a doubleheader on Friday night. First, the Irish take on Arizona State at 7:30 p.m. ET and San Diego State at 10 p.m. ET. The second game will be available on the Mountain West Network. The Irish will then face CSUN, Northern Illinois and Memphis before moving on to Clemson to play Ohio State and Northwestern twice apiece in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge.