Notre Dame’s journey back to the NCAA tournament for the first time in 10 seasons began the first weekend of April when the Irish – a 3-9 team in ACC play – swept Pittsburgh in the Steel City.
It began a run of 14 ACC victories over its last 18 games and continued with a spirited effort in the ACC tournament that ultimately led to a bid to the NCAA tournament in the Champaign (Ill.) Regional.
Now, Notre Dame – 37-23, 17-13 in 2015 – will try to add another layer to the program as head coach Mik Aoki begins his sixth season at the helm of the Irish with a trip to Santa Clara, Calif. to open the ’16 season on Friday, Feb. 19.
“Early on in the season with the (2015 Notre Dame) football program, you saw some stuff that was will over skill, and I think more than anything, that’s what last year was about for us,” said Aoki, who led the Irish to a third-place finish in the ACC’s Atlantic Division.
“The level of our talent was underappreciated by outsiders. I wouldn’t disagree that we may have overachieved when you look through the league and what we were able to do against a Carolina or Florida State. If you look up and down our lineups, objective scouts might say those teams were more talented than we were.
“But we played well and that’s the biggest thing. It’s not always the most talented team that wins; it’s the team that plays the best baseball on a given day.”
After getting a jump-start against Pittsburgh in early April, the Irish swept Florida State, took two of three from North Carolina State, grabbed a road victory at Wake Forest, swept North Carolina at home, and then took two of three at Boston College to finish four games above .500 in the conference after falling six games below.
An opening-game loss to North Carolina State in the ACC tournament was followed by a winning performance over national power Virginia before falling by a run to Miami.
Last year’s bid to the NCAA tournament has the Irish lifting expectations.
“We all really believe we have a chance to do some pretty special things this year,” said Aoki, who brings back the entire starting infield (3B-Kyle Fiala, SS-Lane Richards, 2B-Cavan Biggio, 1B-Zak Kutsulis), as well as catcher Ryan Lidge, centerfielder Kyle Richardson and left fielder Jake Johnson.
“Those things don’t magically happen. You have to make those things happen, and the best way to put yourself in a position to make those things happen is to pay attention to the daily details. Try to be as good as you are wherever you find your feet.”
Notre Dame baseball underwent a culture change in ’15 with a special emphasis on rolling with the punches that come with the daily grind of a baseball season.
The Irish didn’t go game-by-game. They didn’t even go inning-by-inning. Rather, it was a pitch-by-pitch philosophy that allowed Notre Dame to overcome the slow start in ACC play.
“More than anything else, it cemented for our staff and our team how important all of the things are with regard to our culture, our process, and how you just continue to try to compete pitch-by-pitch,” Aoki said.
“It would have been easy for us to pack our bags when we were down 6-0 to North Carolina in the second inning. But we just continued to compete and at the end, we were fortunate enough to come back and win that game. Once again this year, it’s going to be a lot about managing the ups and downs.”
In addition to a veteran every-day lineup, the Irish have a host of arms with experience, led by junior righthander Ryan Smoyer (9-1, 2.27). Hard-throwing righthanders include Brandon Bielak (6-3, 3.55), Brad Bass (3-1, 1.91), Peter Solomon (2-0, 1.40) and Evy Ruibal (0-3, 4.58) with lefthanders Scott Tully (4-4, 3.17), Sean Guenther (1-3, 2.72) and Michael Hearne (1-0, 2.38). Senior righthander Connor Hale (2-0, 1.33) also figures into the plans.
Richards, the senior shortstop, and senior outfielder James Nevant are the captains of the 2016 squad. Contending for at bats in the designated hitter role are sophomore Jake Shepski – a spot he filled late in ’15 – senior Ricky Sanchez, junior Torii Hunter, Jr. and switch-hitting freshman Connor Stutts.
Other freshmen expected to contribute include outfielder Matt Vierling, who projects as the starting rightfielder but also will see time on the mound, and righthanders Jack Connolly and Connor Hock.
The Irish are projected somewhere in the middle of the pack of 14 ACC schools participating in baseball with Louisville, Virginia, Miami, North Carolina State and North Carolina at the head of the field. Those first three are top 10-level programs with some suggesting that the Cardinals are national championship material.
Notre Dame opens conference play at Louisville on March 11-13.
Aoki is challenging his team with what may very well be the toughest non-conference schedule in the program’s history, which includes Alabama, Oregon, Michigan, Michigan State, Indiana and LSU (twice). Former Irish head coach Paul Mainieri brings his Tigers to South Bend May 10-11.
“Cars have their 2016 edition, and baseball programs -- regardless of what the success level has been -- still have to build the 2016 edition,” Aoki said. “One of the big adjustments I made is trying to develop the culture and the team and the components more than the X’s and O’s.
“That’s not to say the X’s and O’s and mechanics are not important. You always emphasize those, but to a certain extent, that takes a back seat at times to person-building and team-building.
“The person-building is important because the better people you have in your organization, the more they’re going to be able to see beyond themselves and be able to prioritize the needs of the team.”