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Saturday, May 25, 2024
The Observer

Notre Dame baseball preview: redefining the attitude around Irish baseball

When one thinks of Notre Dame athletics, they are likely to conjure up images of a kickoff at Notre Dame Stadium, a packed Purcell Pavilion erupting after another Notre Dame three-pointer or the gold helmets skating about Compton Ice Arena. They may even note Irish fencing’s dynasty or Notre Dame soccer’s recent runs in the NCAA Tournament.

There was once a time when no faithful Irish fan, much less a casual sports observer, gave much thought to Irish baseball. Springs at Notre Dame are about the Blue-Gold Game, March Madness or ACC lacrosse play.

Yet, in recent years, this attitude has drastically changed. Under former manager Link Jarrett, Notre Dame baseball saw a revival and ascension to national relevance that it had never achieved before. The apex of that climb to the upper echelons of college baseball was seen last year, with the Irish advancing to the College World Series in Omaha and knocking off the supposed “greatest college baseball team of all time”, the Tennessee Volunteers, with shocking ease.

Many of the key contributors from the past two years of excellence may have moved on from the University, along with Jarrett, who took the manager position at his alma mater, Florida State. However, the winning attitude and standards that recent Irish baseball teams have instilled in the program remain as present as ever under new manager Shawn Stiffler and his unbelievably talented team. Stiffler hopes to achieve “sustainable consistency” with this group of players.

“I want us to be consistently in the top 25, consistently in talks of hosting, and consistently regarded as one of the best," Stiffler said. "I want to go to Omaha and have an opportunity to compete for a national championship.” 

Stiffler understands that it would be naive to immediately place Omaha expectations upon this adjusting team, but sees the talent apparent in his squad. And those players are ready to take the field for their new manager. As Stifler says, “Guys want to play so much, they’ve been focused throughout the year, focused and prepared everyday”. 

The core message of the Irish baseball team this year, the same message Stiffler used while back at VCU, is a simple one for his team to remember: How will you respond?

“The pitch or play after an error is made wins or loses a game ... it's about how you respond to mistakes," Stiffler said.

He hopes to see a constantly focused team—one with “consistent messaging” — that prioritizes that same consistency over sexiness.

“The program is in the hands of my players … they will decide how we respond to mistakes, weather, or whatever else,” Stiffler said.

Stiffler’s vision of steady, mature play from his squad will be aided by an older roster that, despite enduring losses from last year’s CWS team, oozes with talent. When asked about his key contributors, Stiffler said, “pick the best word. That is how I’d describe them”. Whether it be graduate student first baseman Carter Putz, graduate student shortstop Zack Prajzner or graduate student outfielder Jack Zyska, the depth of the lineup and weapons in the field cannot be disputed.

Stiffler will also be looking to those aforementioned players, as well as graduate student left-handed pitchers Aidan Tyrell and Will Mercer, to be the key leaders for his team.

“If you were a young person coming into college baseball, you would want to learn from these guys. They are as good of leaders as I have ever been around,” Stiffler said.

Two other players Stiffler urges fans to keep an eye on this season are junior right-handed pitcher Matt Bedford and a defensive stalwart, sophomore infielder Jack Penney.

One player who caught the hearts of the Irish nation last year for his heroics out of the bullpen in the postseason, and another star on this team, is sophomore left-handed pitcher Jack Findlay. Despite a short stint in the transfer portal during Notre Dame’s coaching transition, Findlay is back in South Bend and “fully committed to try to replicate Omaha and win it all this year”. Findlay has been working this offseason to “build on a good year”, adding more pitches to his arsenal, including a slider and change-up.

“I want to become a more well-rounded pitcher who can use new weapons to face hitters,” he said. 

Findlay sees the same potential in this squad as his manager. He says the team is in “a good spot to go back to Omaha, a good spot with leadership ... we have all accepted Coach Stiffler pretty well and are looking up to him”. Findlay also possesses a level of patience similar to his coach. He emphasizes that this version of Notre Dame baseball is not merely trying to replicate the success of last year’s legendary squad.

Even if placing CWS expectations on this team in February is a bit much (it is), what is undeniable is that the Irish will win a great deal of games this year. They will do so by employing the same defensive excellence and clutch hitting that has carried them through ACC play and postseason tournaments the past few years.

Stiffler sees a team of “athleticism around the field with interchangeable parts … a team that can go 11-12 deep on the defensive end”. In Stiffler’s eyes, the run-saving plays that players such as Putz or Penney can make are equivalent to a three-run homer. There is no confusion about identity for this Irish team.

As Irish baseball continues this newfound era of excellence, you can feel the energy in this year’s team. There is energy in the clubhouse. There is energy with the players. There is energy with Stiffler and his staff. The Irish open their season in just over a week with a series against Lipscomb. Conference play begins in March with a series in Atlanta against Georgia Tech. Notre Dame’s home opener will come on Mar. 21 against Valparaiso. 

This team is not last year’s team. Then again, they’re not trying to be. The 2023 Notre Dame baseball team is its own thing: a team filled with experience, discipline and an eagerness to maintain their position among the great programs of college baseball.

“We want the Irish nation out here,” said Stiffler. “We expect a great year.”