As Notre Dame athletics begin to settle in to the Atlantic Coastal Conference (ACC), the Notre Dame Baseball team is preparing to step up to the plate and make a splash in its first season of ACC play. Looking to shake the dust off of a 2013 season that saw the team take runner-up in the Big East and narrowly miss the NCAA tournament, head coach Mik Aoki and his team are on a quest to prove themselves in the new conference.
The biggest change that the Irish face this season is playing in the ACC. Last season when the Big East sent two teams to the NCAA Baseball Tournament, the ACC sent 8. Four of those teams advanced all the way to the College World Series in Nebraska, placing ninth or higher in the nation.
“There’s no question that we’re taking a big step up,” Aoki stated. Although the move to the ACC is going to test the skill, depth, and talent of the team, the increased level of completion has Aoki excited, as he elaborated, “From a baseball perspective, I think this is really a positive move for us, for our program.”
The student body is excited about the move as well. “I’m excited to see what Notre Dame can bring to the ACC,” said junior Alec Domotor. “I thought we could’ve won [the Big East Championship] last year, so if we play strong this year I’m sure we have a chance at taking the ACC title.”
Aoki will certainly have a lot on his plate as he seeks to play well and see success in the ACC. The ACC Baseball Preseason Coaches’ Poll places Notre Dame fifth in the 7-team Atlantic Division, and those challenges continue at the national level. Aoki is trying to send the Fighting Irish to its first NCAA tournament appearance since 2005, when it won the Big East tournament. Aoki, who has gone 88-80-1 with Notre Dame, will not only have to lead his team against one of the toughest conferences in the nation, but also against some of the toughest programs in the nation, including non-ACC powerhouses such as UCLA and Florida Atlantic.
However, such a daunting lineup does not phase the Irish fan base. “That’s why athletes come to Notre Dame,” said freshman Caleb Johnson, long-time Notre Dame sports fan. “[Notre Dame] consistently schedules its games at the highest level. To be the best, we play the best, and baseball is no exception.”
The lineup for the Fighting Irish is going to look a little different this year than the 2013 roster. Gone are the star infielders Eric Jagielo and Trey Mancini, who were drafted in the first and eighth rounds, respectively, of the Major League Draft. Also drafted was Dan Slania, Notre Dame’s closer of choice for the past three seasons. Jaglielo hit .321 over three seasons for the Irish, knocking 27 home runs and recording 124 RBI, while Mancini hit at a .345 clip with 28 home runs and 136 RBI. Slania’s talents on the mound were also a huge asset for the Irish over the past three years, in which he claimed a 1.71 earned run average with the Irish, racking up 100 strikeouts and setting the Notre Dame record for saves, with 30.
Although the Irish lost a fair amount of talent from last year’s team, the incoming recruits offer the opportunity for the Irish to grow anew. One such asset is the left-handed hitter Robery Youngdahl, a junior transfer from Kansas State. Youngdahl will step in at right field and also see some time on the mound. Youngdahl has already opened strong on the Irish roster, going 2-for-4 in the season opener against #24 Florida Atlantic, connecting for a home run and three RBIs.
Two big names coming in on the Notre Dame freshman recruiting class are second baseman Cavan Biggio and catcher Ryan Lidge. Both players were drafted in the 2013 draft, Biggio going in the 29th round and Lidge in the 40th round, but they instead chose to start for the Irish. Incidentally, these two recruits already have connections to the Major Leagues—Biggio (and his brother Conor, an Irish centerfielder) is the son of Astros standout Craig Biggio, and Lidge’s cousin is closer Brad Lidge, who won the World Series in 2008 with the Philadelphia Phillies.
Although the Irish have their challenges ahead, they are nothing that the team will not relish and tackle head on. The Irish have the talent and drive to make waves in the ACC and at the national level, and no doubt have an exciting season in store for their God, their Country and their Notre Dame.
Kyle Mulholland is a current junior residing in Duncan Hall studying computer science and economics. He maintains a healthy collection of two ND soccer scarves. Contact Kyle at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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