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Monday, March 4, 2024
The Observer

In familiar position, Irish look to take next step in postseason

With less than a week remaining in the regular season, the Irish have earned themselves a spot to compete in the 2019 ACC Championships, a tournament that features a 12-team field at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park in Durham, North Carolina.

Notre Dame’s last season ended on a 21-4 loss to Clemson in the ACC tournament, and in a similar position to last season, the Irish (22-26, 12-15 ACC) are hoping to gain momentum heading into the playoffs.

For head coach Mik Aoki, the most disappointing part of the season came at the very beginning.

“If I had to say a low point, I would probably say opening weekend against Arizona State,” he said. “But, part of that I think is that Arizona State has proven over the course of the season that they are an exceptionally good offensive team, and we got exposed to that weekend.”

While Aoki said he and his coaching staff aren’t quite pleased with their team’s performance as a whole this season, they believe they have had some bright spots in terms of several vital ACC-series wins.

“Outside of [Arizona State] I think we’ve performed quite well in our conference play; being able to win three road series in the ACC is a difficult thing to do, and to do it at places like Wake Forest and Clemson as two of those three is really good,” Aoki said. “… I think injuries — to our pitching staff, in particular — affected that a lot, and I think where it specifically affected us was in our depth in order to handle a fourth and fifth game each week.”

Bridget Donnelly | The Observer
Irish sophomore pitcher Tommy Sheehan winds up to pitch during Notre Dame’s 14-4 win over Western Michigan on May 1.

This past weekend the Irish hosted Canisius in their final home series, winning all three games including an 11th-inning walk-off win in the final game. The team also honored three senior student athletes over the weekend: right fielder and captain Eric Gilgenbach, right-hand pitcher Shane Combs, and pinch/designated hitter Jake Singer. While the weekend was bittersweet and the Irish will miss the seniors' contributions, it is important to note that having only three guys leave to graduation is a great sign in terms of how the team will be able to grow and develop moving forward.

“I’ve been really pleased with the way that his group has improved from the beginning to the end, our defense is exponentially better than it was to begin the year, I think a lot of our younger position players are starting to figure it out and get their feet on the ground a little bit.” Aoki said.

Having a young and inexperienced team is especially challenging when taking into consideration the fact that the ACC has remained one of college baseball's top conferences year after year.

"I think ACC baseball speaks for itself, year-in and year-out the conference has been one of the top two or three conferences in the country, and if you look at metrics like the RPI it always sort of spells it out for you,” Aoki said “… Every weekend you are probably playing one of the best teams in America, and so it is a huge challenge without any question, but I do think that our kids have the opportunity to go play and develop against that type of quality, and I think individually it makes them better and it makes us better as a team."

Aoki also said he believes that the competition within the ACC is one thing that has allowed past players in the program to go on to achieve such success in the pros.

“I think most notably you see it in the fact that a lot of our guys who go on to play professional baseball do pretty well for themselves after having gone through the fires of the ACC,“ Aoki said.

Considering this year‘s Irish team had 25 underclassmen on its roster, several of the older guys certainly had to step up and lead those younger guys, and Gilgenbach and junior left-handed pitcher Cameron Brown rose to the occasion. For Gilgenbach and Brown, this meant more than just helping with baseball.

“I think those guys have been really, really good in terms of getting our freshmen and some of these younger guys a little bit acclimated to not only getting accustomed to the grind of playing baseball in the ACC, but the grind of academics and the pressures that every student on campus here at Notre Dame experiences. I think that every student here, and our baseball guys are no different, were among some of the best students that their particular high school may have had to offer, and these guys come here and they’re challenged not only on the baseball field, but in the classroom and dealing with all of that kind of stuff is hard, and some of that it can effect who they are and the confidence they have in themselves, and I think guys like Eric, Cam, and Jake Singer … have been really instrumental in just telling our younger guys ‘Hey, you’re gonna get your rear-end handed to you a little bit but you’re going to figure it out, you just gotta stay with the process and keep competing whether it’s on the baseball field or in the classroom, and it’ll start to figure out.’“ Aoki said.

Moving forward, Aoki is confident that his team has the tools necessary for making a run in the ACC Championships, and would like to take the remainder of the team‘s final regular season games.

”We have … an opportunity to get ourselves to .500, and then go into the ACC tournament, and hopefully you win three games or maybe you make a run at the whole thing. I think we pitch well enough to go and get ourselves potentially to the championship game, and a little of how we are able to perform in that championship game might actually be the luck of the draw from a scheduling standpoint.“ Aoki said.

While Aoki was optimistic about the future, he reinforced the idea that this success would likely stem from this current rotation.

”So, I think we’re there, but I also think that if you look beyond this year, I think a big part honestly is that fact that we will return almost everybody,” Aoki said. “We will return almost everybody on our pitching staff, the one guy that I think will probably have an opportunity to go play pro-ball this year is Cam Junker, so we might lose him which is a big cog, but we’re gonna get a guy like Cole Kmet back and healthy, and we’re gonna get some of these other guys that got banged up this year back and healthy and a year older. … I’m excited about the future, our guys need to obviously continue to work hard and to improve, but I feel like our program has had a track record of developing and improving individual players, so I’m looking forward to that for next year.“

Lastly, when asked about what it means to coach here the Irish, Aoki didn‘t skip a beat in noting that Notre Dame is aligned with his own personal beliefs.

"I think it’s a tremendous privilege number one, and I think probably most importantly it’s a university whose mission for young people and for student athletes is very much in alignment with what I think the relationship between athletics, and academics and personal growth should be on a university campus,” he said. ”I look at my job here is to help our players become, certainly no question about it, better players. … We’re here to help on the educational path and the developmental path of all of these young men that we have the opportunity to coach, and so I think it’s a privilege, it’s a huge responsibility, and it’s one that is very much in alignment with my own personal belief system in what the relationship and what the goal of athletics at the collegiate level should look like.“

With the regular season coming to a close, the Irish remain hopeful of making a deep playoff run and still have the chance to finish the season at .500.