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Battle-Tested Irish Back For More

The Notre Dame baseball team has to wonder what’s in store for 2000, after a 1999 season that ranks as one of the most memorable in the program’s 108-year history.

The whirlwind 1999 campaign was highlighted by the most conference wins ever posted by a BIG EAST Conference team (20-5) and an emotional home series versus eventual NCAA champion Miami (the Hurricanes rallied late to win the opener, 5-3, but the Irish responded the next day with a near-no-hitter and a 1-0 victory). The season was capped by the first NCAA tournament games at Notre Dame in 40 years, as the Irish played host to a four-team regional at Frank Eck Stadium.

Notre Dame returns starting players from that 43-18 team at every position except shortstop, as 1998 All-American Brant Ust was drafted in the sixth round and signed with the Detroit Tigers-ending his brilliant three-year career that ranks among the best in Notre Dame baseball history. Ust stands second in Irish history with a .368 career batting while his 46 career home runs are second in the Irish record book behind former Irish catcher/DH Jeff Wagner, who wrapped up his final season in ’99 with 49 career home runs.

While the losses of Ust and Wagner are significant, the Irish will be led on the mound by one of the nation’s top prospects-in the form of junior righthander Aaron Heilman (Logansport, Ind.)-while the Irish offense returns a group of several strong all-around hitters who could produce a lineup that challenges the record-setting 1997 squad. It all has the makings of one of Paul Mainieri’s most exciting seasons in his 17 years as a college baseball coach.

“Prior to last season, we had only three clear-cut starters and often had five freshmen in the lineup-but this year there are seven or eight positions locked up,” says Mainieri, whose first five Irish teams have extended the program’s string of seasons with 40-plus wins to 11.

“I’ve never been as excited about a team as this one. We will have nine `fighters’ in the lineup and we have one of the top pitchers in the country. We will be a fun team to watch, but there’s no clear-cut superstar. It’s just a group of talented guys who love to compete.”

Stanley Photo
Notre Dame is slated to open the 2000 season with a switch at the top of the batting order, as speedy sophomore Steve Stanley (above) will shift back to the No. 2 spot while his classmate Paul O’Toole (below) will serve as a rare leadoff-hitting catcher.
O'Toole Photo

In addition to the team’s talent and competitive fire, Mainieri acknowledges that one of the season’s key factors could be veteran leadership. The 2000 Irish squad includes six battle-tested seniors, compared to just three in each of the past two seasons.

“It means so much to have experienced and veteran leadership on a team-guys who have been through the wars and who are committed to the program. And these are players who battled through their whole careers. They expect a lot from each other and not afraid to tell each other,” says Mainieri.

Another often overlooked strength could be the Irish defense, which includes a hard-nosed catcher, a seasoned infield and one of the nation’s quickest centerfielders. Several players also could show big jumps in their home run totals, helping account for the power loss due to the departure of Wagner and Ust.

Nearly every pitch of the 1999 season began with current sophomore Paul O’Toole (Lakewood, Ohio) behind the plate. O’Toole will be looking to build on a Freshman All-America season that saw him hit .318 with 39 RBI and eight home runs (including one in each of the final four postseason games) while catching 90 percent of the innings. The spirited O’Toole likely will open the season as the Irish leadoff batter, bumping his classmate and speedy centerfielder Steve Stanley (Upper Arlington, Ohio) into the No. 2 spot.

“We experimented in the fall with flip-flopping Stanley and O’Toole and that’s likely how we will open the season,” says Mainieri of the talented lefthanded-hitting duo. “Steve is such a great bunter and situational hitter and O’Toole gives us the chance to get extra-base hits from the leadoff spot. Of course, if we go that route we will need the bottom of the order to get on base consistently … but it’s an intriguing option.”

Mainieri’s maneuver is not unprecedented, as he moved the fleet-footed Scott Sollmann (’94-’96) to the No. 2 spot later in his career while inserting heavier hitters such as Craig DeSensi and Rowan Richards in the leadoff spot.

O’Toole was a rarity in ’99, as one of the nation’s few catchers that hit second in the lineup. But he proved more than capable on the basepaths, with 12 stolen bases (third-most on the team), 15 doubles and a surprising three triples.

Nussbaum Photo
Leftfielder/catcher Matt Nussbaum (above) and first baseman Jeff Felker (below) could be key components to Notre Dame’s success, after each fashioned a breakthrough junior season in 1999.
Felker Photo

“Paul made huge strides as the 1999 season progressed, to the point where he was very consistent-both offensively and defensively,” says Mainieri. “He is a vocal leader who fights tooth and nail and should continue to develop as a hitter. Paul can hit to all fields but really could emerge as more of a regular long-ball threat for us this season.”

Stanley overcame a rocky 1999 start at the plate to hit .326 overall while scoring 52 runs and stealing 24 bases, the most thefts by a Notre Dame freshman since 1994.

“Steve is the catalyst for our offense because he can create such havoc and makes things happen on the bases,” says Mainieri. “You could see a much better hitter in Steve this season. He has worked a lot on his swing and teams can’t expect him to bunt as much. He could end up getting on base much more and that would give him the chance to steal 40-50 bases before the season is over. Steve also is a key defensive player for us and runs down a lot of balls that look like they are going to drop in for extra bases.”

Another player who started as a freshman is the potential three-hole or cleanup hitter, third baseman Andrew Bushey (Boardman, Ohio).

Known for his throwback-style of defense at the hot corner, the lefthanded-hitting Bushey’s late-season production in ’99 was affected by a nagging knee injury but he should be able to regain his form that includes the ability to hit linedrives to all fields.

“Bushey is such a vital member of our team-we really missed his defense when he was hurt last year-and at the plate, he has a compact, quick swing that helps him hit with authority and hit both hard and soft throwers,” says Mainieri.

Joining Bushey as a likely No. 3 or cleanup hitter is junior shortstop Alec Porzel (Lisle, Ill.), who is considered by Mainieri to be the most underrated player in the BIG EAST. Porzel, who played left field as a freshman and second base for most of his second season, turned in an impressive ’99 campaign that included a .333 batting average, a team-best 60 RBI and 13 home runs (second only to Ust’s 17). Now, he is set to revisit his primary high school position as Notre Dame’s everyday shortstop.

“Alec has developed into a tremendous leader and is one of the best all-around athletes on our team,” says Mainieri. “He has great hands for playing shortstop and has shown the ability to come through with clutch hits during the first two seasons of his career. People who play with Alec know how important he is to the team.”

Porzel Photo
Junior Alec Porzel-considered by Irish coach Paul Mainieri to be the most underrated player in the BIG EAST-will shift from second base to shortstop while batting in the heart of the order.

Senior first baseman Jeff Felker (Ellicott City, Md.) also returns to the veteran infield while rounding out a potential starting lineup that includes five lefthanded hitters. The 6-5 Felker will be looking to end his Irish career with an ever bigger season than ’99, when the lanky lefty hit .333 with 40 RBI and nine home runs.

“Jeff made a huge jump last year by becoming a more aggressive and confident swinger. He also has come so far defensively. He’s a big target with long arms but also picks the ball well out of the dirt and has improved his footwork around the bag,” says Mainieri.

The infield also welcomes the return of senior utility player Jeff Perconte (Arlington Heights, Ill.), who suffered a ’99 midseason shoulder injury.

“Perconte’s injury was a huge blow to us last season,” says Mainieri of the valuable tri-captain, who will open the season as “a second leadoff hitter” in the No. 9 spot.

“Jeff is a great team leader due to his hard-nosed play and clutch hitting and having him back just adds even greater potential to the lineup that we will put out on the field.”

Perconte is slated to be the everyday starter at second base, after previous stints with the Irish in the outfield and at third base. He joins Porzel and Bushey in giving the Irish infield three starters who were high school shortstops, while Felker was used primarily at third base during his prep days.

Notre Dame’s seventh returning starter is surprising senior Matt Nussbaum (South Bend, Ind.), a former walk-on who made the most of his opportunities as a DH and left fielder in ’99, hitting .314 with 33 RBI, five home runs and only 13 strikeouts. The righthanded-hitting Nussbaum-who batted 0-for-16 during his first two seasons with the Irish-was inserted into the lineup early in the ’99 season due to a preponderance of opposing lefthanded pitchers. When the season came to an end, he had started 57 of the team’s 61 games.

“Matt is such a great story because he dedicated himself to becoming a better player and deserves all that he gets,” says Mainieri. “He has developed into an aggressive hitter who never gets cheated, due in large part to great hand-eye coordination and improvements in his strength.”

Corbin Photo
Senior John Corbin returns as the Irish closer, after posting seven wins and nine saves in 1999.

Nussbaum also will serve as O’Toole’s primary backup behind the plate, after developing his catching skills during the summer and fall of ’99. “Matt has made good progress as a catcher and has good hands and a strong arm for the position. He also has familiarity with our veteran pitchers and they have confidence in him behind the plate, which is crucial when you are easing in a new catcher,” adds Mainieri.

Sophomore Matt Strickroth (Mission Viejo, Calif.) again could be used in left field or as a DH, after an up-and-down freshman year. The 6-5, 230-pounder brings a football mentality to the field and could boost the team’s power game, after collecting 18 RBI and three home runs in 120 at-bats as a freshman.

Perconte’s shift to the infield leaves an open starting spot in right field, with highly-touted freshman Brian Stavisky (Mount Pleasant, Pa.) the likely starter at that position. Cited by Baseball America as the BIG EAST player with the best “raw power,” Stavisky-who is the cousin of recent Irish pitcher Dan Stavisky-also is a favorite for BIG EAST rookie-of-the-year honors due to his strong all-around skills.

“People around Notre Dame baseball are excited to see what Brian can do-he is more than just a one-dimensional hitter,” says Mainieri of the 6-3, 230-pound lefthander. “Brian’s biggest assets are bat control, strong wrists and a lightning-quick bat. He also is one of our best baserunners and covers ground well in the outfield despite his size.”

Stavisky-who lived up to the hype in 1999 fall practice with several tape-measure home runs-likely will join Felker and Nussbaum as candidates to hit anywhere from fifth to seventh in the Irish batting order.

Speedy junior Ben Cooke (Bay Village, Ohio) will serve as the classic utility player during the 2000 season, due to his past playing experience throughout the infield and outfield-plus the ability to pitch if needed. Cooke, who will return to switch-hitting this season, ranked second among Irish players during the ’99 season with 14 stolen bases while batting .267, with 21 runs scored.

The Irish will have noticeably more offensive depth in 2000, with sophomores Ed Golom (Lockport, Ill.) and Ken Meyer (Fort Myers, Fla.) joining several newcomers as candidates for spot position player starts and DH duty. Golom hit .234 in 47 at-bats as a freshman while delivering some clutch midseason hits. Meyer-who will back up Felker and Strickroth at first base-had similar numbers in ’99 (.233, 60 ABs) while likewise delivering several key plays.

The 11 Irish newcomers include sophomore Matt Bok (Akron, Ohio), who ranked as one of his team’s top offensive players in 1999 while playing in the BIG EAST with Georgetown. The switch-hitting Bok will add needed depth to the catching position and also could see time as a lefthanded DH.

Notre Dame’s returning pitchers accounted for 74 percent of the victories in the ’99 season (32 of 43), plus 93% of the saves (14 of 15), 59% of the innings (303 of 514) and 57% of the Ks (274 of 478).

Four freshmen round out the group of DH candidates or reserve position players. First baseman Michael Holba (Chicago Heights, Ill.) will be looking to develop his 6-7, 215-pound frame, after ranking as a talented multi-sport athlete as a prep. Smooth-swinging freshman Kris Billmaier (Woodinvale, Wash.) also could contribute in the infield or outfield while two other freshmen infielders- Jesse Delcamp (Tierra Verde, Fla.) and Elliot Pope (Memphis, Tenn.)-solidified roster spots during 1999 fall tryouts.

The Irish pitching staff will be led by a pair of righthanders-two-time All-American Heilman and senior Scott Cavey (Omaha, Neb.).

“Heilman and Cavey give us the strongest 1-2 combination in the BIG EAST, but locating consistent third and fourth starters and middle relief will be crucial,” says Mainieri, who loses three valuable pitchers from the ’99 squad in seniors Alex Shilliday (25 career wins), and Chris McKeown (3.53 ERA in ’99) and junior southpaw Tim Kalita-who signed with the Detroit Tigers after totaling 114 career strikeouts in 214 innings.

Heilman’s memorable ’99 season included a 3.14 ERA, an 11-2 record, three saves and 118 strikeouts in 109 innings while his 2.56 career ERA ranks fourth in the Irish record book. He enters the 2000 season as college baseball’s No. 9-ranked pro prospect (according to Baseball America) and joins Stanford’s Jason Young as the only pitchers on the preseason first team All-America lists of both Baseball America and Collegiate Baseball magazines. “Heilman will bring a lot of attention to the team, but he can handle everything that comes with it,” says Mainieri of the junior righthander, who spent the summer of ’99 as one of the top pitchers on the USA national team. “I feel Aaron is the best college pitcher in the country. He’s an ace in every sense of the word.”

Heilman’s moving fastball can touch the mid-90s and helps set up his emerging changeup. He also developed a wicked slider as a freshman, while his prototypical 6-5, 210-pound frame rounds out the player who nearly completed the three-pitcher, no-hit effort versus Miami in 1999 before logging a 154-pitch complete game to beat Creighton in the NCAAs (8-1).

Cavey is an underrated commodity who posted a 3.70 ERA, 6-1 record, 47 strikeouts and just eight walks in ’99, with a two-hit outing in a crucial win at Rutgers. A classic control pitcher, the 6-5, 200-pound Cavey graded out with just two sub-par starts in 13 appearances during the 1999 season and “could be one of the keys to the season,” according to Mainieri.

While Heilman and Cavey may well prove to be a dynamic starting duo, the depth of the Irish pitching remains unproven-despite plenty of talented players ready to fill those roles.

Top contenders for the secondary starting roles include sophomore righthanders Drew Duff (Sevierville, Tenn.) and hard-throwing Matt Buchmeier (Greenwood, Ind.), who both showed signs of brilliance in 1999-including four wins and two saves by the ever-competitive Duff.

Notre Dame’s probable starting lineup for the 2000 season includes three seniors, junior shortstop Alec Porzel, four sophomores and freshman righfielder Brian Stavisky.

A promising group of freshmen also could make an impact while senior Steve Szczepanski (Lombard, Ill.) will look to close with the best season of his career, after inconsistent outings the previous three seasons.

Junior Mike Naumann (Tucson, Ariz.) is the only lefthander on the staff and again will be counted for valuable innings as a spot starter and middle reliever (he posted a 4-0 record and 5.60 ERA in 1999). Another junior, Mike Carlin (Manhattan, Kan.), showed great improvement in the fall due to a new three-quarter delivery while his classmate Danny Tamayo (Miami, Fla.) is on schedule to return sometime this season from “Tommy John” elbow surgery that has slowed his career after a promising start to his freshman season.

The six newcomers on the mound include righthander Matt Laird (Bellaire, Texas), who posted a 29-1 career record while helping Bellaire High School maintain its position as one of the nation’s top programs. Laird is known as a clever pitcher along the likes of Shilliday, who posted his 25 career wins on the strength of a tricky changeup and knowledge of how to pitch effectively.

Fellow freshman Peter Ogilvie (Buffalo Grove, Ill.) also has a promising future with the Irish and is looking to get back to 100 percent, after missing most of the past two seasons with a back injury (he ranked as one of the top pitcher in Illinois as a sophomore).

Three other freshman pitchers earned roster spots following fall tryouts, with J.P. Gagne (Bloomington, Minn.) emerging as a surprising candidate for a starter’s role. Gagne-the grandson of legendary pro wrestler Verne Gagne-hails from an accomplished athletic family and was a proven winner in several sports at Cretin-Durham Hall High School.

Brandon Viloria (Wailuku, Hawaii) is known for his easy delivery and for consistently throwing strikes while Ryan Kalita (Oak Park, Ill.) follows in his brother Tim’s footsteps and could contribute to the Irish staff as he boosts his strength and velocity.

Senior John Corbin (Hollywood, Fla.) returns to the closer role, after an impressive ’99 season that included nine saves, a 7-3 record, a 4.53 ERA and 44 Ks in 47 innings. “Corbin was such a huge part of our success last season and that again should be the case this year,” says Mainieri. “He hardly played during his first two seasons but ended up being a bulldog out on the mound who competes with a lot of poise and clever pitch selection.”

As they look back on the 1999 season and peek ahead to 2000, the Irish baseball team knows the task that lies ahead of it.

“The veterans realize how important it is to get quality early-season wins and win the BIG EAST regular-season title-those things can help earn you a hosting spot for the NCAAs,” says Mainieri. “Injuries at the end of 1999 left us a few wins short of the College World Series, but we are so close to our ultimate goal that the players can taste it.”

Personnel Breakdown

Top Returners

Aaron Heilman (Jr., RHP)
* Preseason 1st Team All-American
* 1999: 11-2, 3.14 ERA, 118 Ks

Alec Porzel (Jr., SS)
* 1999: .333, 13 HR, 60 RBI, 11 SB

Steve Stanley (So., CF)
* Second Team All-BIG EAST (`99)
* 1999: .326, 24 SB, 29 RBI, 52 R

Scott Cavey (Sr., RHP)
* 1999: 6-1, 3.70 ERA, 47 Ks/8 BB

Jeff Felker (Sr., 1B)
* 1999: .333, 9 HR, 40 RBI, 17 2B

Paul O’Toole (So., C)
* 1st Team Freshman All-American
* 1999: .318, 8 HR, 39 RBI, 12 SB

Top Players Lost

Brant Ust (Jr., SS)
* Third Team All-American (’98)
* 1999: .369, 17 HR, 58 RBI
* Career: .368, 46 HR, 170 RBI

Tim Kalita (Jr., LHP)
* 1999: 4-2, 5.16 ERA, 97 Ks

Jeff Wagner (Sr., DH)
* Career: .336, 49 HR, 189 RBI

Top Newcomer

Brian Stavisky (Fr., RF)
* Port Allegany, Pa.
* Prep Career: .582, 46 HR, 160 RBI