The Notre Dame Lady Pioneers have appeared to handle the transition from Class 3A to 2A with ease.
Notre Dame ended the regular season with a 17-6 overall record and is making its seventh straight Fast Pitch 56 appearance, having won the Class 3A championship in 2010 and finishing as runner-up in 2013.
No. 4 Notre Dame (19-6) takes on No. 12 Doyle in the Class 2A quarterfinals at 2 p.m. Friday.
“It really hasn’t been a difference because our schedule is still so filled with tough competition,” Notre Dame coach Ashley Ray said. “We played a really hard schedule this year, even tougher than last year. Because of that, it hasn’t felt any different.”
What is different this time around is the makeup of the Pioneers, in particular how this year’s team scores runs.
Last season’s team featured five senior starters, including power hitters Taylor Satchell and Elise LeBeouf, and would drive in runs with several extra base hits.
This year’s team features only two seniors and the rest of the team is sophomores and freshmen. As for those powerful bats, that is another departure from last year’s team.
“It is very different from last year,” Ray said. “Last year, we had big power hitters in our lineup. We are playing it a little differently because we don’t have all of those big bats. We have a lot of girls that play small ball really well, and it is fun to watch how we score runs.”
Despite the change in approach, Notre Dame still rolled through its first two playoff opponents by a combined score of 30-3.
Ray cites the play and leadership of three returning starters in senior infielder Mima Doucet, sophomore outfielder Mary Kate Bourgeois and sophomore pitcher Marcella Gossen.
Ray praises the development of Gossen who is beginning to fully to understand all the nuances that comes with being the program’s ace.
“She really has stepped up for us,” Ray said. “Last year, when she came up as a freshman, I didn’t really know what I was going to get out of her. I still think she did a good job for us, but this year she is really starting to understand how she needs to pitch. That she is just not up there throwing strikes. We have worked a whole lot about understanding pitch counts and when to throw certain pitches.”
Ray credits Gossen’s improved pitching on first-year starting catcher Abbey Higginbotham, a position Ray herself played back in high school.
“She has made a big difference,” Ray said. “We have worked really hard with her to understand what she needs to be doing. That she is just not back there catching. She has a good arm, and she does all the catching things well, but she can make Marcella a better pitcher. Your just not back there to catch the ball and throw it back. She has done a good job of helping Marcella out.”
Even with several fresh faces in the starting lineup, Notre Dame is still looking for a deep run this season after being eliminated by eventual state champion John Curtis in the quarterfinals and semifinals the past two years.
First up is one of Class 2A’s surprise teams in Doyle, which upset No. 5 Riverside in the second round. Ray for one isn’t taking the supposed underdog lightly.
“They are obviously doing a lot things right,” Ray said. “I mean they beat Riverside 7-4. Riverside is known for their hitting, and they lead the nation in home runs. Doyle held them to four runs. So I know the pitching will be good.”
In the days leading up to Friday’s game, Ray tried to get her team prepared by playing a few days on artificial turf (similar to the fields at the North Frasch Park Complex) and facing against off-speed pitching. All of that is done to keep her team mentally sharp in their quest to win three games in two days, and bring home a state championship.
“You just try to prepare for everything because you never really know what’s going to happen,” Ray said. “At this point the mental part is the most important. It is all about how we are going to handle the environment and tough situations. That’s what makes the difference.”