Irish Prepare for Opener

The past few weeks in South Bend, snow and bitter cold weather have dominated the weather forecast. For ski enthusiasts, this may bring joy. But to the Notre Dame baseball team, it forces them to practice inside at the Loftus Center. Head coach Dave Schrage, in his first year at the helm with the Irish, came up north from Evansville and didn't have to deal with the harsh conditions last season.

"We actually opened up our first practice outside last year," Schrage said on Thursday. "That was a rare down there. The temperatures aren't balmy down there but they get in the high 30's and allowed us to get outside and take advantage. I've coached at Northern Iowa and Northern Illinois and this isn't any different as far as getting your team prepared and ready to go."

Schrage takes over at Notre Dame for Paul Mainieri, who left the Irish to assume the head coaching duties at college baseball perennial power LSU. The new skipper isn't new to winning. He guided Evansville to a 43-22 mark in 2006, which was the second highest win total in Purple Aces history, and one victory away from a NCAA Regional title. Evansville also won the regular and post-season championship in the Missouri Valley Conference. This will be Schrage's 20th season in college baseball, 17 of those years as a head coach in Division 1A.

He comes from one winning program to another. Notre Dame went 45-17-1 on the year, including regular and post-season Big East titles. They were sent to the Kentucky Regional in the NCAA Tournament and subsequently lost their first two contests to end any championship hopes. Schrage is happy with what he's seen so far with the 2007 group. Out of 14 practices, he's only been disappointed with the effort in two of them. Schrage wishes he could get outside to the baseball field but they'll do their best inside at the Loftus Center.

"It's tough to gauge when you're not on the field," Schrage said about the progress of the team. "We're really pounding the fundamentals. We need a game. We have some things to work on but it's tough to simulate a game when you can't get on the field. Right now, they are giving a great effort and a great attitude. I'm very pleased with their approach to practice."

Offensively, Notre Dame has some big bats to replace. First and foremost is the departure of Craig Cooper to graduation. The first baseman hit .425 in 2006 with nine home runs and 41 RBI's. Cooper led the team in nine offensive categories, including slugging and on-base percentage and runs. Also gone is second-leading hitter Matt Bransfield and his .333 average. He was second on the team in home runs, total bases and RBI's. Schrage has a plan to generate some runs for this year's Notre Dame team and it includes an aggressive attitude on offense.

"You have to adapt to what your personnel is," Schrage said. "I like to try to create havoc as much as we can. From an offensive standpoint, I don't like teams to be comfortable when they play us. I want them to be uncomfortable on the field. We may get thrown out more than we did last year but we'll be very aggressive on the bath paths."

Last season, Notre Dame stole 62 bases out of 99 attempts. Schrage will look to improve on that number this season. He'll start at the top of the lineup. Brett Lilley and Danny Dressman will be first and second in the batting order. Combined, these two stole just 11 bases out of 21 attempts. But Lilley, a junior shortstop, hit .320 last season while Dressman chipped in with a .321 average, good for third on the 2006 team. Schrage will give these two the green light to run if they can get on the base paths.

Jeremy Barnes will start out in the third spot. The sophomore had a productive first year with Notre Dame. He hit .294 but more importantly led the team in RBI's with 49. Schrage thinks the addition of Matt Weglarz from Missouri State could solve the power problem.

"We have some power guys," Schrage said. "Adding Matt Weglarz in the middle of our lineup is going to be very helpful. He's a legit power threat and has the ability to hit the long ball for us."

As for pitching, Notre Dame lost a lot. Gone are Jeff Samardzjia, Jeff Manship and Tom Thornton. These three pitchers combined for 24 wins last season and as a staff, the team had a 3.52 ERA. But the Irish do have a clear No. 1 guy. Junior Wade Korpi, a 5-10, 180-pound lefty, was 7-2 in 2006 with a team-low 2.00 ERA. He's been named Big East Preseason Co-Pitcher of the Year by the league coaches. Korpi struck out 94 batters and walked only 27 last season.

"He was their fourth-starter last year but he pitched in a lot of big games," Schrage said of Korpi. "He's battled tested. Early in the year, you have to rely on that experience. Wade is a big part of that."

Behind Korpi, the only other proven commodity is Kyle Weiland. The sophomore right-hander saved a Notre Dame-record 16 games last year while accumulating a 2.37 ERA. Others vying for a starter's role behind Korpi are Brett Graffy, David Phelps and possibly senior Dan Kapala, who is currently battling an injury.

"Brett Graffy is another guy who threw well as the season went on last year," Schrage said. "Brett is a guy who can pick it up from where he left off. Hopefully, we can get Kapala back. That'll be a huge boost to our pitching staff. He's 80-85 percent right now."

The start of the year is right around the corner. The first game is February 17th in San Antonio against Prairie View A&M. Because of the harsh South Bend winter weather, Notre Dame's first home contest isn't until March 20th versus Cleveland State. The Irish play their first 16 games on the road but Schrage likes the fact that they'll be in warm climates with good field conditions. It's a tossup between him and the team as to who is more excited to get out onto the field in San Antonio for the opener.

"I think we both are," Schrage laughed. "When you're indoors as much as we are, you can't wait to get outside and see the grass and see the sun and blue sky. That lifts everyone's spirits. I'm excited to see what this team is made of. Early in the season, we're looking for improvement every game. We're also looking to see if they've adapted to some of the things we've implemented this year. Sometimes that takes time and we'll be looking for that." Top Stories