BASEBALL: Notre Dame earns No. 1 ranking
By NOAH AMSTADTER
The No. 1 atop Grace Hall shines as bright as a diamond now, as the Notre Dame baseball team (35-5-1) was ranked No. 1 in the country in the weekly poll released by Collegiate Baseball Magazine Monday.
"It's really an indescribable feeling because I've never felt it before," head coach Paul Mainieri said. "I'm pretty overwhelmed by it. I'm very proud of it. I think our team deserves it. I think they've worked extremely hard."
The honor marks the first time in the 109-year history of Notre Dame baseball that a team has managed to ascend to No. 1. Mainieri's team was also ranked second in the Baseball America poll and No. 4 in a coaches poll taken by USA Today/ESPN.
Mainieri stressed that the team feels no added pressure with the ranking, and is simply relishing the moment.
"I don't know how long it's going to last but we're going to enjoy it while it's there because I think it's a tremendous accomplishment by a group of young men who have committed themselves," Mainieri said.
Two of those men are senior starting pitchers Danny Tamayo and Aaron Heilman, who have already combined for 16 wins on the season and lead a staff that boasts Division I baseball's lowest earned run average at 2.52.
"Our starting pitching has been the catalyst for this season," Mainieri said. "Led by Heilman and Tamayo, those two guys have been absolutely outstanding the entire year — dominating."
Ironically, a year ago few would have thought either Tamayo or Heilman would be on the mound for the Irish. Tamayo was still recovering from elbow surgery that robbed him of his sophomore season, while Heilman, one of the nation's top pitchers, was expected to leave Notre Dame and sign professionally.
Instead, Tamayo recovered in time to pitch well in the NCAA regional last season, while Heilman turned down guaranteed money from the Minnesota Twins to return for his senior season at Notre Dame.
"One of the reasons I came back here was to come out and try to help my team," Heilman said. "I'm really happy with the way things are going."
Another credit to Notre Dame's success is a sparkling defense that has committed just 59 errors in 41 games.
"We have a great defensive team," said Irish centerfielder Steve Stanley. "I think our infield has been incredible this year. Paul O'Toole's a great catcher. We have a talented outfield as well."
Stanley admitted that when he came to Notre Dame he never expected to play for a team this good. When he saw the ranking flash across his computer screen this morning, Stanley, who leads the Irish with 22 stolen bases, stopped dead in his tracks.
"I wanted to stand up and scream in front of everybody, but I couldn't do it," Stanley said. "I was really excited for everybody. I never had any expectation of coming here and being No. 1 in the country."
In the end, however, this team is focused on the goal they stated at the beginning of the season — reaching the College World Series for the first time since the 1950s.
"It's a great honor to be the best team in the nation right now," Heilman said. "It means a lot right now, but the biggest ranking is at the end of the season, and we'd like to be No. 1 at the end of the season."
The Irish host Bowling Green at 6 p.m. tonight at Eck Stadium. The theme for tonight's game is "Turn back the clock night" and Irish players will be wearing old style uniforms. In addition, fans will receive caps and pennants and concessions will be reduced to 75 cents.
All Sports Stories for Tuesday, April 24, 2001