Jan. 30, 2002

The 2002 Notre Dame baseball team–coming off an historic 2001 season that included a 49-13-1 overall record-held its first official day of spring practice on Wednesday, with Irish players splitting time between the indoor facility at Eck Stadium and the Loftus Sports Center. Notre Dame players had spent the previous 16 days (since Jan. 14) practicing in limited individual/small group workouts, including three days in which they were able to take batting practice outdoors.

The past two weeks-combined with the 2001 fall season-have provided the Notre Dame coaches with a chance to evaluate the nation’s top-ranked freshman class.

“We are very confident in our veteran players and return nine of our top 10 position players, so the preseason drills have been most valuable in evaluating the 13 freshmen,” said eighth-year Irish head coach Paul Mainieri, whose squad opens its season versus Missouri on Feb. 22 at the University of New Orleans Classic.

“The past few weeks allowed our pitchers to get ready and now they each will get experience in three of four competitive situations before we open the season. We have a great group of veteran players who know how to handle the indoor workouts-they will be ready for that season opener. This is a team with great leadership from the older players and that has a positive influence on the younger guys.”

Notre Dame’s likely starting lineup is slated to include two position switches, as juniors Brian Stavisky (left field) and Kris Billmaier (right field) are slated to flip corner outfield position (Stavisky started at right field in 2001 and ’01 while Billmaier had started in left since midway through the 2000 season). Two other classmates, seniors Paul O’Toole and Andrew Bushey, are expected to share time at both catcher and third base (where Bushey started for most of the 1999-2001 seasons).

“We expect those changes to benefit us in a number of ways,” said Mainieri. “Brian should be more comfortable in left field and will be able to focus more on his hitting while Kris is such a great athlete that he should make a quick transition to playing in right.

“People also will be surprised to see Andrew Bushey behind the plate and O’Toole at third. We should be very strong defensively with either option in place.”

Notre Dame’s tentative starting lineup would include lefthanded-hitting senior All-American Steve Stanley returning as one of the nation’s top leadoff hitters and best defensive centerfielders, followed by sophomore second baseman and preseason All-American Steve Sollmann in the No. 2 spot. Highly-touted freshman shortstop Matt Macri appears up the challenge of batting third while the lefthanded power threat Stavisky likely will make his bid for All-America honors as the Irish cleanup hitter.

Billmaier and the lefthanded-hitting O’Toole would bat in the fifth and sixth spots (based on the opposing pitcher) while the lefthanded-hitting Bushey could prove to be one of the top No. 7 hitters in the nation (he ranked second among all BIG EAST Conference players in 2001 with a .402 conference batting average). Yet another lefthanded bat, sophomore first baseman Joe Thaman would bat eighth or ninth-as would the senior designated hitter tandem of Ken Meyer and switch hitter Matt Bok.

Juniors J.P. Gagne and Peter Ogilvie are slated to draw starts in the three games at the UNO Classic, with Ogilvie hoping to make a complete return from nagging injuries that limited him during 2001 fall practice.

The Notre Dame baseball program also reports that ticket sales have been brisk for the Feb. 18 Opening Night Dinner at the Joyce Center, featuring keynote speaker Tommy Lasorda and a variety of benefits for the $20 adult admission price (including a season ticket and team media guide). Call (574) 631-6366 for tickets and information.

Mainieri also passed along some observations of the newcomers:

“Matt Macri had a good fall and was everything we hoped that we would be. We already can see him getting more comfortable and he’s really starting to swing the bat well.

“(Outfielder/catcher) Brent Weiss could be a force to be reckoned with. He has good offensive skills and really swings the bat with authority.

“One player that we have been really impressed with is Geoff Milsom. He came to us as a non-scholarship player but should be a very valuable member of the team. He has great poise, can play a number of positions and has a nice lefthanded swing.

“Even though Jay Molina is out for the year with his elbow injury, we have been very pleased with his work in catching drills. You can see that the kid has a lot of skills.

“As far as the freshman pitchers go, it’s apparent that Chris Niesel is ready to compete right away. He played against excellent competition in high school and throws three pitches for strikes. We expect big things from him. We knew that John Axford had a great arm but he’s more polished that we thought and that should enable him to get a lot of innings early on. Grant Johnson has a lot of similarities to Aaron Heilman when he was a freshman, in terms of body build, arm strength and competitiveness. He still has a long way to go but we’re excited to see what he can do. Martin Vergara also had a good fall and is working real hard. Overall, we will pitch the guys who are most consistent and we are confident in all of them.”