Baseball: Irish eager to open season in New Orleans
By: CHRIS FEDERICO
Assistant Sports Editor
The Notre Dame baseball team enjoyed a marquee season last year, winning a school-record 49 games and reaching the No. 1 ranking in both the Collegiate Baseball and Baseball America polls for the first time in the program's history.
Following such a successful 2001 season, the Irish are more than ready to return to the diamond as they travel to New Orleans this weekend for three games with Missouri, the University of New Orleans and Southern Illinois.
"We're fired up," Irish centerfielder Steve Stanley said. "We're just getting through the practices inside, and I just can't wait to get out there and play."
The senior captain is coming off of the best year of his collegiate career. Stanley batted .400 last year and was named Big East Co-Player of the Year, earning national All-American honors. The four-year starter, however, isn't as concerned with individual goals as he is with helping his team take that final step to the College World Series.
"This year, I just want to go out there and have a good time and improve my individual game, but most importantly help the team in any way I can," Stanley said. "As a team, we just haven't yet attained that Big East Tournament win, and we haven't gotten to the College World Series. I think those are things we can do."
The Irish return to play this year with one of the most experienced teams they have ever fielded. Notre Dame returns 16 of 21 letter-winners from last season, including seven of eight starters in the field.
"I think we have a really experienced team this year, especially in the position players," senior captain Andrew Bushey said. "I think we pretty much know what we have to do mentally and physically to get ready for this season."
Like Stanley, Bushey is another four-year starter who is expected to split time between catcher and third base with classmate Paul O'Toole, another four-year starter who spent his first three seasons entirely behind the plate.
Unlike last season, when the Irish relied heavily on its pitching and on the strong arms of graduates Aaron Heilman and Danny Tamayo, Notre Dame will be largely untested on the mound. All of the returning pitchers to the Irish staff combined for only 49 percent of the innings pitched last season, as Heilman and Tamayo handled the bulk of the assignments.
"I think even though we have a young pitching staff, it's going to help us and contribute a lot," Stanley said. "We've got a very experienced and veteran group of hitters, and we're just going to help each other out during the year. We're going to try to score going to try to score more runs for them to help them get their feet wet."
Returning as the probable top starter is junior Peter Ogilvie, who started seven games last year with a 5-1 record and 1.90 ERA. Classmate J.P. Gagne will likely occupy the next starter position.
Gagne threw 70.2 innings last season, tallying a 5.35 ERA and a 5-5 record. In addition, the Irish return two of their top relievers from last season in juniors Matt Laird and Brandon Villoria, who notched ERA's of 3.09 and 3.32, respectively.
"I think with our pitching staff, we have some veterans that have done the job day in and day out, but we also have some young guys that probably just need some confidence," Bushey said. "As older position players, we know that at the beginning of the year, we can't play around. We have to really start producing runs early to get them that confidence and that maturity."
In addition to the many experienced players, the Irish enter this season with the top-ranked class of freshmen, according to Baseball America. Most notably is shortstop Matt Macri, who should start right away for shortstop Alec Porzel, the only position player the Irish failed to carry over from last season.
Other freshmen that are likely to have an early impact on the Irish are pitchers Chris Niesel, John Axford and Scott Bickford. Niesel, a high school All-American according to Baseball America, is slated as the starter for Notre Dame's game Sunday against Southern Illinois.
The most difficult task the Irish could have to overcome in this first part of the season is 18-straight road games. Much of their early competition will include Southern schools that have had the advantage of warm weather and the ability to play and practice outside before Northern schools like Notre Dame.
"The biggest adjustment [to the traveling] is that we have to play Southern schools who have been outside and adjusted to the weather and everything else for at least a month," Bushey said. "My sophomore and junior years, our first game was the first time we had been outside all year. It just takes a while to get adjusted to playing outside."
The long Southern road trips, in which the Irish will play in tournaments in Louisiana, Florida and Texas, may hurt the Irish out of the gates — especially since their top ranking during the season last year has made many other teams aware of their ability — but the players fully anticipate a season at least as successful as the one last year.
"I think you might not see us get out to a start like we did last year," Stanley said. "Maybe you will — I don't know. But I think that towards the end of the season, we're going to be right where we were last year."
All Sports Stories for Friday, February 22, 2002