"It's frustrating because you don't feel like you underachieved," Irish coach Paul Mainieri said of the loss to Arizona ending their season. "You feel like your kids played well, they just couldn't catch a break. The next thing you know, your season's over.
"You say ‘wow, we won 51 games.' There's only two teams in the country that won more games than us—Texas and South Carolina. There's only one team in the country—Oral Roberts—that lost less than us. And yet you feel unfulfilled, it's a crazy business."
While the season did end in disappointment, the Irish will have many of their every day starters returning for 2004. Mainieri says he's excited about his junior class.
"The thing that gives me the greatest hope is that junior class," said Mainieri. "They all gained a lot of experience as freshmen. As sophomores, they're the guys who made up a big portion of our team. Now they're going into their junior years, they're going to be the heart and soul of our team. We could have six every day players out of that junior class as well as two of our premier pitchers. I feel we'll go as far as that class takes us."
Macri and Niesel are already playing in the minors and Johnson is considered very likely to sign with the Cubs. "Our No. 1 senior class has kind of been depleted with the signing of those guys, but we've still got John Axford and Matt Edwards who I think will be influential players on our team.
"Guys like Sean Gaston, (Mike) Dury, (Jeff) Manship, Derik Olvey, Dan Kapala, Danny Dressman and Jess Stewart all will play a role on the team next year. We also feel good about some of the freshmen coming so I think we'll be pretty good."
If nothing else, a little bit of luck could help the Irish. Mainieri continues to have one or two key players get hurt every year which has hamstrung his team. "I just wish one year we could have a team that could stay healthy," Mainieri said. "It seems like every year we have two or three significant injuries that take away the strength of the team. We did this all without Axford, Manship and Olvey. Imagine what we could've done had we had those guys.
"You can look at it as a positive, too. Because of those injuries, it allowed Tom Thornton to evolve. It allowed Jeff Samardzija to evolve. It made us count on Dan Kapala more. That will help us in the long run."
Speaking of Olvey, Mainieri said he's not sure what to expect from Olvey at this point. He said he won't know for a while if Olvey will be able to pitch in fall practice. "We think it's progressing," Mainieri said of Olvey's forearm injury. "We're not going to really know until he climbs on the mound. He took three months off without throwing a baseball. He's back here in summer school now. He's starting to play catch and is doing it pain-free. It just a matter of building his arm strength back up. We'll just have to wait and see when he gets back on the mound. We just don't know."
A healthy Cody Rizzo and Greg Lopez will also help the Irish in 2004. "Cody Rizzo had a very sub-par year for him," Mainieri said. "If he was any less of a tough person, he wouldn't have been playing. He hurt his wrist way back in March and played with his wrist bothering him all year. He had an unbelievable fall. I thought he was going to have a tremendous year, but he never really played at that level. I think you'll see that next year."
Lopez was also hurting badly in 2003 according to Mainieri. "Greg Lopez had back surgery," he said. "That kid played so courageously the last month of the season. He was suffering from terrible back spasms. People didn't understand the significance of how much he was hurting. He gutted it out and played through the year. Once the year ended, it was necessary for him to have surgery on his lower back.
"He's going to miss most of fall practice, if not all of it. We expect that he'll be back to full strength by the spring and playing better than ever. People wonder why he tailed off, that's why."
A positive for the Irish heading into this season was the emergence of Craig Cooper last year as a power hitter. Cooper's power numbers steadily climbed all season and he finished with a .360 batting average, 10 homers and finished second on the team with a .617 slugging percentage. "I think you saw the evolution of Craig Cooper last year and he's doing very well in Cape Cod this year," Mainieri said.
The tallest hurdle for Mainieri will be replacing All-American second baseman, Steve Sollmann. "One player does not replace a player of that magnitude," said Mainieri of replacing Sollmann. "I really have a lot of confidence in Ross Brezovsky and Brett Lilley. One, or both of them, will fill that role. To think that either will replace Steve in their first year is asking way too much. The rest of your team has to make up the difference. Everyone has to be a little bit better to make up for that difference. I feel very confident that is going to happen."
Mainieri and his staff now turn their attention to recruiting. The Irish coaches are out looking to sign a large number of players for this class. "We think we've got a really good list of players to make our choices from," Mainieri said. "This is going to be a really important class. When this class comes in, the junior class will be seniors and so it's important that we get them now so they have a little bit of experience when the junior class graduates.
"I think we're in good shape. The interest level is extremely high out there. It just seems like every year the interest level in our program grows and grows. The problem is we don't give full scholarships to players."
Juggling a recruiting season is much like dealing with free agency in the big leagues according to Mainieri. "It's kind of like being a general manager of a major league team," he said. "If you've got a $90 million payroll, and you've got to spend $16 million on Sammy Sosa, you might end up having a second baseman playing at the minimum salary. That's kind of what it's like being a college baseball coach.
"There are certain areas that we feel that we've got to get the best players in the country. If we do that, we're not going to have the money to spend on other positions. You can't always get the best player, so you try to find those overachieving, blue collar, love of Notre Dame type of kid that's going to give you a lot of bang for what you can afford to give him from a scholarship standpoint."
"Say I want to sign a premier pitcher--a guy who can be an ace of our staff--it might take 80 percent of a scholarship," Mainieri continued. "Now if I only have three scholarships, and you need to sign a seven more players, it's going to be hard to get the elite guys."
"Say I really like a third baseman, but everyone in the country is offering him 80 percent or more of a scholarship, now you can't afford it and you have to try to sign him on a 40 percent scholarship. If you don't get him, I hate to use the term lower your standards, but you have to find what you can get."
Mainieri said the Irish will be out to sign as many as 10 players in this class. "We'd like to get four pitchers in this class," said Mainieri. "We'd like to get another catcher. We'd like to get a third baseman that can really hit with some authority. I'd also like to get a centerfielder that can really run and maybe an athlete or two that have some versatility. It's going to be a big class—maybe eight to 10 players. Hopefully we're going to be very successful."
Some expect the Irish to be in a rebuilding stage in 2005, we believe they'll have a very solid team that could surprise. Irish Eyes will certainly be out for fall baseball keeping you up to date on all the latest action.
The Irish players are scattered across the country playing summer baseball. Notre Dame Sport Information recently added a nice story on their site to follow your favorite Irish players during their summer season. Click HERE to read that story.