CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – The 2014 season was a disaster for the Notre Dame baseball team, individually in many cases as well as collectively.
In their first year in the Atlantic Coast Conference – perennially one of the top leagues in the country for baseball – the Irish lost 14 of their first 15 conference games, finished 9-21 in ACC play, and spent the majority of the season in a bus, even for home games, as weather delays prevented the installation of new turf at Frank Eck Stadium until late in the campaign.
By and large, the Irish pitched well, but Notre Dame was an abysmal offensive team, and when it came to fielding the baseball, well, the 76 errors in 53 games spoke volumes.
Seeking alternatives, the University’s athletic department, led by its director, Jack Swarbrick, was open-minded about finding solutions beyond the practice field and the weight room. Enter Brian Cain, a sports psychologist for “coaches, athletes, CEOs, and high-performance entrepreneurs.”
In a nutshell, it’s about dealing with success and failure, lending perspective to both and not allowing what has happened in the past to negatively impact what’s happening in the present.
The benefits manifested themselves on the men’s basketball court en route to a trip to the Elite Eight for the first time in 36 years. With much less fanfare and visibility, Mik Aoki’s baseball squad applied many of the same principles, and 58 games later, the Irish are in their first regional in nine seasons with a mindset that has them rolling with any punch – or pitch -- that comes their way.
“We’ve been incredibly intentional about talking about the things that Notre Dame baseball wants to represent,” said Aoki Friday following Notre Dame’s 13-7 victory over Wright State for the program’s first NCAA tournament victory since 2005.
“When we leave this regional, people are going to be saying X, Y and Z about Notre Dame baseball, whether we win it, whether we lose it, whatever it is. So we were incredibly intentional about it. It was stuff that we talked about a lot. We used our players to really drive the engine of how we wanted to represent Notre Dame and our baseball program. They took ownership of it.”
Two of Notre Dame’s best examples happened to be sitting at the dais next to Aoki following Friday’s victory. They were two of the brightest stars for the Irish against the Raiders, combining for six hits and eight RBI as each launched home runs.
Ryan Bull – a 57-game starter as a sophomore in ’13 – slumped to a .212 average with just three home runs and 10 RBI as his starting assignments dwindled to 31 last year. When Aoki was interviewed prior to the ’15 season, Bull’s name didn’t even come up.
Robert Youngdahl – a rare junior-college transfer with the academic qualifications for Notre Dame – hit just .225 in ‘14 with three home runs and 17 RBI. He struck out a team-high 42 times during his first year with the Irish.
Both have emerged as integral parts of Notre Dame’s resurgence. Bull, batting third in the lineup, has nearly three times as many runs driven in as a year ago. He consistently has shown himself to be one of the team’s top clutch hitters. His two-run double with the Irish down to their last strike against Miami in the ACC tournament nearly sent Notre Dame to the conference title game.
“I’ve taken a different mental approach than I did last year,” Bull said. “I focused on things I couldn’t control last year. This year I’ve gone through a maturation process and just learned to focus on the things that I can control. As a whole, our team is taking a much better approach to the game than last year.”
Youngdahl’s strikeout total (68) remains high. But he paces the Irish in RBI with 46, is second on the squad in home runs with seven, and enters Saturday’s game with Illinois hitting exactly .300.
“Last year left such a sour taste in our mouth that we wanted to do whatever it took to turn it around right from the get-go,” Youngdahl said. “There was limited success for everyone last year, so everyone bought into the whole culture change and the mental games we’ve been doing with Brian Cain. Everyone understood what the goal was and just wanted to do everything we could so there wouldn’t be a repeat of last year.”
Notre Dame will need every ounce of confidence Saturday against No. 1 seed Illinois (48-8-1), which won 27 games in a row at one point this season and will have a significant home-field advantage. In terms of mental approach, the Irish won’t change a thing for the Illini.
“There’s so much more to baseball than going in the cage and hitting, and fielding ground balls,” Bull said.
“Baseball is extremely mental. It will humble you. So if you have a feeble mind, then you can’t get through lining out or not getting a pitch called, and you carry it over to your next at bat or your next pitch. You’re not doing yourself justice or benefitting the team as a whole.”
Added Youngdahl: “We’ve learned that no matter what the score it, we can just keep playing our game and can battle back from anything and play with anyone in the country.”
Aoki has appealed to the players from the perspective of etching their names on the baseball program – permanently.
“We’ve talked a lot about legacy with the seniors and they’ve started to build it,” Aoki said. “If we win this regional and get an opportunity to play in a super regional, or if we don’t and in two or three years from now we’re winning a super regional and getting to Omaha, the idea is you guys started that. That’s your legacy.
“You’re going to have an opportunity to touch about eight different classes. Maybe not directly, but the guys that come after you will be touched by the guys that were on this team. As our team has gotten more into the success of the team, ironically enough the game starts to pay you back and their success went up.”
Notre Dame baseball is cashing in on those paybacks, one pitch at a time.