Lopez Looks to Lead

The Notre Dame baseball team's Opening Night Dinner drew 1,700 people to the Joyce Center Fieldhouse to listen to guest speakers Aaron Heilman and Charlie Weis. They also came to honor this year's Irish squad, ranked in the top 25 in the preseason polls. Notre Dame shortstop Greg Lopez was amazed at the huge turnout.

"The banquet was incredible," Lopez said. "To get 1,700 people just to come out to the University of Notre Dame to see the baseball team, it's very exciting. Most other schools don't have anything near that and we're out here in the middle of Indiana. That's awesome."

Lopez was featured more prominently than some of his other teammates. On the cover of the media guide handed out to every single person in attendance, there was Lopez making an off-balance throw and pitcher Tom Thornton midway through his delivery to the plate. This honor is because the two were picked to be captains of the 2005-06 Notre Dame baseball team.

This is nothing new for Lopez. As a junior last season, he was one of the four team captains that led the Irish to a 38-24-1 mark and a second-place finish in NCAA Gainesville Regional. His teammates voted separately on the captain issue but head coach Paul Mainieri and staff made the final decision. Some shriek from leadership duties. Lopez embraces the call but admits this year's team is stacked with high-character players.

"I think our team has a bunch of leaders," Lopez said. "That's why we're so good. We're all able to handle the clutch situations. When the game is on the line, I always love to be the guy to handle the ball at shortstop or be the guy at bat. Those are the situations that I thrive in and love to be in. I definitely think I'm a leader in that part."

A strong feature of Lopez's game is his stellar defensive play. The senior shortstop was rated by Baseball America as the Big East's "best defensive shortstop" for the upcoming 2006 season. Lopez was also tabbed with this honor last year. To play shortstop is demanding and it takes a sure-handed player to handle the difficult duties. Lopez is up to the task.

"Being in the field is great and is one of the ways I contribute to the team not only by making the routine plays at shortstop but also being able to communicate with everyone," Lopez said. "At shortstop, you're practically in every play one way or another. You have to keep a level head and stay mentally focused. That's why I love to play shortstop. It's a challenge."

Lopez faced another challenge earlier in his playing career. A sophomore year saw him hit .332 with 14 doubles and 34 RBI's. But towards the end of the season, Lopez started to battle back pain, causing him to hit 2-of-14 in the NCAA's. The solution? Major back surgery in the off-season. Lopez appeared in all 63 games as a junior but his average dipped down to .274.

"I didn't start to swing until right before the season started," Lopez said. "I didn't swing as well. A lot of that was because I didn't have the experience of playing summer ball and fall ball."

This season, a fully healthy Lopez expects to be a major contributor with the bat.

"I'm very excited to get out there and get my average up," Lopez said. "I've been playing all fall long and can't wait to get going."

The wait is about over. Notre Dame opens their season this Thursday as they take on the Indiana State Sycamores. The game is in Millington, Tennessee and it's a warm-up for the Service Academies Classic starting on Friday against Air Force. A bonus for the Irish has been the unreasonably mild winter in South Bend. This has allowed them at times to escape the indoor facilities and get outside to practice on the baseball field. The advantage will pay dividends for an eager Lopez and his Irish teammates hungry to get the ball rolling.

"We've been incredibly lucky because we've got to go outside eight or nine days," Lopez said. "The last few days, we've gone outside and had four-hour practices to get our legs moving and simulate a game. It's been priceless to get these practices outside because next week, we go right into a game. We're flying in on Wednesday and having a game Thursday."

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