CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – The post-game scene outside the first base dugout at Illinois Field looked like the end of a week-long family reunion as loved ones wrapped themselves around one another in an extended embrace.
Sprinkled about the artificial turf for the better part of 10 minutes were individuals going from one long bear hug to another – not the flash of a “bro hug” male athletes quickly disengage from, but long, emotional, meaningful hugs as if trying to hold on to something that had just slipped away.
After a season that began with an unexpected series victory at Oklahoma, carried on through the pre-conference, took an early blow in ACC play, and then exploded against some of the nation’s best competition, No. 2 Champaign Regional seed Notre Dame (37-23) came to the plate 18 innings and scored nary a run Sunday afternoon and evening, losing 3-0 to Illinois and 4-0 to Wright State, thus eliminating the Irish from the NCAA tournament.
“I’ve always marveled at how quickly a college baseball season comes to an end,” said Irish head coach Mik Aoki, who helped orchestrate the turnaround from a 22-31 season into Notre Dame’s first NCAA tournament appearance in nine years.
“You’re going and going and going and going and bam, all of a sudden you’re not playing anymore. You’re not going to wake up and say, ‘What are we going to do to get this team ready for today?’ It’s difficult.”
How did the Irish go from doormat of the ACC in their first year in the conference to formidable foe that could sweep College World Series regulars Florida State and North Carolina, and compete with anyone in the league?
One step at a time. One pitch at a time. Literally.
Adversity was met with an icy stare. Bad games or an unfortunate sequence of events were handled with maturity, fortitude and, in some instances, simply an accepting shrug. No loss was too demoralizing; no victory too exhilarating. No mountain was too high to scale; no valley too low from which to extricate one’s self.
“You’re proud, but right now you’re hurting,” Aoki said. “For those seniors, for a lot of those guys, this is the last highly competitive baseball they’re going to play. They’re leaving a pretty special place and they’re leaving some really special bonds. It’s a heartbreaking thing.”
If and when the train stopped a-rollin’, you knew it would be a derivative of their offensive shortcomings. Although the Irish improved tremendously in terms of approach at the plate and quality at bats, they still finished last in the ACC in hitting.
Pitching and defense carried the day, and when the timeliness of a quality approach at the plate was needed, the Irish showed the progress that was preached shortly after the disaster that was 2014 came to a close.
“This season was special,” said sophomore third baseman Kyle Fiala, whose 47-game on-base streak and his steady-in-the-boat approach epitomized the even-keel mindset that took over in 2015.
“Coming back from last year, we came in with a plan in the off-season with the coaches and this team. We established a whole new culture and we all bought into it. We didn’t let that go for one day. We had awesome classes ahead of us who led us and helped us along the way. It was a special, special team this season.”
There were a lot of bad habits to break. But the team that finished a dismal 2014 basically was made up of the same personnel in 2015, and next spring, the entire starting infield and catcher will be back as well as a vast majority of the young pitching staff that stepped up and helped rudder the ship.
“The biggest thing is to come back from the season we had last year,” said sophomore second baseman Cavan Biggio. “With our nine or 10 seniors, their leadership, to bring us back from the year we had last year and to have this success and make a regional for the first time in nine years is just special.”
The primary focus will be on the offense. Pitching coach Chuck Ristano – as he does every year – will have his arms hurling right around the three-earned-runs-per-game mark. Book it. It happens every year. Maybe it will be even better. The defense was vastly improved from a year ago, and those lethal double-play combinations that turned 75 twin killings in ’15 return intact.
The Irish simply couldn’t compensate for a 10-for-64 hitting performance against Illinois and Wright State after pounding out 16 hits – eight of which were for extra bases and four of which were home runs – in a convincing 13-7 victory over Wright State two days earlier.
Then the torrential rains hit Champaign, washed out Saturday’s action, and took temperatures from the mid-‘80s Friday to the mid-‘50s Sunday. It also seemed to chill Notre Dame’s offensive momentum, although about a dozen hard-hit baseballs Sunday nestled into the cowhide worn by Illinois and Wright State.
Only two of Sunday’s 10 hits in 18 innings were doubles. The rest were singles. And when the Irish came to the plate with runners in scoring position nine times, they failed in each one of those instances. The end result was several wasted pitching performances that were good enough to keep the Irish in the winner’s bracket, which is a virtual punched ticket to the Super Regionals.
Two innings into the first game against Illinois, Notre Dame already had five men left on base, a number that would balloon to 15 over two games, which isn’t a huge amount per se, unless you’re hanging up a steady flow of donut holes on the scoreboard.
But when the pain is allowed some time to subside and the hugs in front of the dugout, in the locker room, and in the hours before the team finally splits up for the final time this season cease, there will remain more than just promise and hope.
There’s a blueprint, a precious, valuable, sustainable blueprint in which to follow.
“Like we talked about working pitch to pitch, we’ll get by, we’ll soldier on, and these kids are going to look back at this season and they’re not going to worry about the strikeout, they’re not going to worry about the home run that they hit,” Aoki said.
“They’re going to look back on all the great bonds they made, the friendships they made, all the stupid things I may have said to them during the course of the year, all the stupid things they did together during the course of the year, and a lot of that is what makes this game so special and doing it at the collegiate level so special.”
With a promising class of freshmen arriving and a vast majority of 2015’s team becoming 2016’s team, the odds of anything other than a trip back to the NCAA tournament is – at least in the echo of the euphoria of a comeback season – incomprehensible at the moment.
“The thing I’ll look back on this year is how much fun we had,” Biggio said. “I’m going to miss all these seniors, but we’ll be back here next year. We’re going to make this a yearly thing.”
Aoki – always guarded about predictions – even let his close-cropped hair down for an ever-so-brief moment as he provided his final viewpoint of the 2015 season and beyond.
“We talk about trying to get one percent better every time,” Aoki said. “Sharpening the ax on a daily basis. Just trying to get better. For us, the future is incredibly bright.
“We’re going to face a bear of a schedule again, but I think we’re well equipped. If our kids take up that mantra of just trying to get a little better on a daily basis from now until next year, I’m hopeful we’ll be playing beyond this and this will be a victory press conference rather than a losing press conference.
“We’ve got some really good kids coming in. Next year, we’re going to be better than we are this year.”
The 2016 season can’t come soon enough.