May 31, 2006
The Notre Dame baseball team took part in plenty of pregame and postgame interviews while playing five games and winning the program’s fifth straight BIG EAST Tournament title. Here’s a look back at comments made by head coach Paul Mainieri and 12 of the Irish players, with plenty of insight provided into the team’s impressive run as they head into the NCAAs(quotes compiled by Pete LaFleur and Sean Stires):
DAY-1 (May 23, vs. South Florida)
NOTRE DAME HEAD COACH Paul Mainieri
“It’s always nice to see your individual players get awarded for a big year and I can’t think of anyone being more deserving of player of the year than Craig Cooper, with everything he has done for our team. And it’s really nice to see Jeff Manship receive that award too, because of what he went through with the Tommy John surgery his freshman year, to come all the way back and be regarded as the best pitcher in the league is a wonderful thing.
“I told the guys that these individual honors always come following team success, so if you dedicate yourself to the team and the team is doing well, then good things come back to you. And when you strive just to achieve individual accomplishments, you end up not achieving anything.
“The individual accomplishments are nice but it’s time now to turn our attention to the team concept and winning this tournament. I’ve always believed that if you are going to play, you might as well try to win. I’d like to let this team meet all those former players who tried so hard to win this tournament. Aaron Heilman never won a BIG EAST Tournament. This is a very difficult tournament to win. In 2002, we finally got the monkey of our back and now we’ve won four in a row.
“The new format is a big difference, quite frankly. In the past, we had to win three ballgames and now all that does is get you a shot at the championship, so you better have four good starting pitchers. Tonight, we are starting Wade Korpi and every starting pitcher is going to be a key for us. We wanted to go with Wade because he is rested.”
(Notre Dame 3, South Florida 1)
HEAD COACH Paul Mainieri “I have a lot of confidence in Wade Korpi, and I wanted to give Jeff Samardzija an extra day’s rest. I knew that Korpi would have to win a game in this tournament somewhere along the line.
“If we are going to win this tournament, we needed a game from Korpi somewhere. If we need a fifth starter, Korpi will be able to come back better than anyone else. Tonight, he was up against one of the top pitchers in the country and I think Korpi outpitched him.”
Jeremy Barnes – shown here after his triple in the title game vs. Louisville – also tripled in the opening win over South Florida (photo by Pete LaFleur).
FRESHMAN SECOND BASEMAN Jeremy Barnes
“First of all, my teammates are doing a great job getting on in front of me. But it just comes down to trying to situationally hit – guy on second base, ball to the opposite field; guy on third base, groundball to the right side; and flyballs in certain situations. And they have been falling.
“(On the triple), I knew they were planning on pitching me out and I had a good hitters count and I was just looking fastball out and he gave it to me so I just tried to stay through it and it worked out for me.
“Things were adventurous tonight at second base but I got them done. That’s all that matters. It feels great to get this first win.
“All the guys on the team don’t know what it’s like to lose a BIG EAST Tournament so there is some pressure to come in and fill the role. But all we need to do is go out there and play the game, have fun and take care of business that way.”
FRESHMAN CLOSER Kyle Weiland “It was a big honor to be named all-BIG EAST. I was just fortunate to get a chance to go out there and compete for so many saves. The starting pitchers and all those guys who come before me have done great.
“There is a little bit more sense of urgency in the postseason, but it’s still just a matter of getting focused and going out there to do what you’ve got to do.
“It’s good to get this first one under our belt and now we can go out and focus on winning this thing.”
DAY-2 (May 24, vs. West Virginia)
NOTRE DAME HEAD COACH Paul Mainieri
“It was a great, hard-fought win over South Florida and I knew it was going to be going in. The kid that we were facing was really a tough pitcher. Here we work so hard to win the regular-season title and get to face the 8-seed but they have one of the best pitchers in the country. So you’ve got to go out there and battle and it took every ounce of effort to pull out the victory. But I thought the kids played well. Korpi and Dury and Weiland were awesome on the mound. We got a couple of timely hits and made the plays. It was a really a great ballgame and we were able to win. v “A lot of people said it was a big gamble throwing your number-four starter but I didn’t look at it that way. I looked at it all along that we prepared for this and decided early in the season to make Korpi that midweek starter, instead of using him on the weekend out of the bullpen. And I knew that we would not win the BIG EAST Tournament unless Wade Kopi won a game for us. So whether it was the first game of the fourth game, to me it made no difference.
“He pitched in a fantastic way and it didn’t surprise me one iota.
“We wouldn’t be where we are right now if it wasn’t for Kyle Weiland. You can’t win at any level without an outstanding closer. Kyle has shown maturity, poise and confidence beyond his years. When he came to the mound there with runners on the corners and I said, `Hey are you ready to have some fun?’ and he said, `Yep, give me the ball’ and he goes out there and strikes out the kid in the clutch. It was a great job by him but something he has done all year and we’ve become accustomed to it.
“Game-1 and game-2 have equal importance, especially in a four-team bracket. If you lose either of the first two ballgames, then it forces you to play five games to win the bracket. The winner of this game is certainly in the catbirds seat.
“We’ve had a quite a rivalry with West Virginia through the years. We’ve had the upper hand on them recently and hopefully we can keep it going but they have a big, strong ballclub with some tough hitters and they have a good lefthander going tonight. It’s going to be quite a challenge and something we are looking forward to.
“If you are going to have a big game, you feel comfortable giving the ball to Jeff Samardzija. He has seen just about everything you can see as a college athlete and I don’t think he will feel that the lights are too bright here tonight. I know he is going to go out there and compete like crazy. Fortunately, he rectified some things in his mechanics and so forth in his last outing and I feel like he’s at the top of his game. It’s going to be a lot of fun.”
(Notre Dame 12, West Virginia 4)
JUNIOR PITCHER Jeff Samardzija
“You don’t have too much time to think (on a comebacker), you just stick your glove out there and are not doing too much else.
“The ball was flying out well and I knew I had to keep the ball down but with a good hitter like Posluszny, I fell behind in the count and just made a mistake. I had two outs and didn’t want to walk him. I wanted to make him earn it. But it stayed up in the zone and a guy like that is going to turn on it. My one big mistake of the game, he jumped on it.
“You have to pay attention to that and keep the ball down or there are going to be balls flying out everywhere. I just worked on my two-seam all week, keeping it down. It was warm so there was a lot of life on the ball, so I tried to concentrate on keeping that sinker fastball down.
“We all are pretty stoked about being off tomorrow, having a day off like this when there are a lot of arms on the mound and a lot of position players playing a lot of innings. If you can get a day off, it’s huge and hopefully it pays off.”
SENIOR LEFTFIELDER Matt Bransfield
“I had no idea it was out but the rightfielder just kept drifting back and back. That was my first opposite-field shot of the season tonight and that’s where you want to hit it. Those are the ones that feel good.
“Any time you get in the lineup, you want to produce. We have been doing a left-right thing where Cody (Rizzo) and I are going to start against lefties and Steve (Andres) and Danny (Dressman) are going to start against righties. When you get in the lineup, you want to produce but can’t press.
“When we get a pitcher to come out and throw a lot of innings, Jeff had eight quality innings and it takes the pressure off your bullpen and we really feed off of that.
“Cody (Rizzo) always comes up with big plays in right field at this tournament. He’s a great defensive outfielder and he showed it tonight.”
Ross Brezovsky – pictured watching his home run in the Louisville game – also homered in the win over West Virginia (photo by Pete LaFleur).
SOPHOMORE DH Ross Brezovsky
“He was throwing fastballs into the lefties and I figured that’s what he was going to try to do to me so he just threw a fastball in and left it up and I got the barrel of the bat on it. It probably was as solid as I’ve hit any ball in my life, actually.
“It’s been fun so far and we seem to play pretty good baseball at the BIG EAST Tournament and with our pitchers going out and giving us those outings, it’s unbelievable.
“Matt Bransfield and Steve Andres are always keeping everyone loose, telling jokes.
“It’s great to be back in my home state. I love the heat and humidity and I guess I seem to always hit well in Florida.
“Cody Rizzo does those things for us in right field but he also has come through in the clutch batting in the 9-hole so many times this season.”
Day-3 (May 25, vs. St. John’s)
NOTRE DAME HEAD COACH Paul Mainieri
“The win against West Virginia was a critical win for us. Now somebody has to come back and beat you twice on the same day.
“I had all the confidence in the world that Jeff Samardzija was gong to settle in and he did. He pitched great, his velocity and two-seam fastball were outstanding. He competed like crazy and I felt confident that we had the better pitcher going in.
“”At this point as we get deeper into the weekend., everyone’s pitching starts to get a little but thin and at hat point the offense becomes key and you have to outslug teams. A lot of these games have been high-scoring, so hopefully our offense is going to continue to click and hit in the clutch.
“The game isn’t won on paper and you still have to go out there and play the game but I fell very confident in Jeff Manship. But St. John’s is a scrappy team and had 21 hits last night. I’m sure that they are going to compete as hard as they can so Manship is going to have to be at the top of his game.
“Tournaments are that way and there are upsets all the time, so that’s what makes our four championships in a row so remarkable.”
(Notre Dame 5, St. John’s 3, after 10-1 loss to SJU)
HEAD COACH Paul Mainieri
“Well, we live to play another day. That loss today was the first loss that these seniors have experienced at this tournament since their freshman year. It was a character test for our guys. When your backs are against the wall, you give the ball to Tom Thornton. His entire career, he has responded to that challenge and he was amazing. Those guys looked like the next coming of the 1927 Yankees in game-1 and then Tommy just goes out and baffles them for seven innings and just did phenomenal.
Tom Thornton pumps his fist after working out of a jam in the win over St. John’s (photo by Pete LaFleur).
“We also would not have won tonight with Cody Rizzo. That throw and leading off with that rocket to score the go-ahead run. He played his heart out all day.
“It was a struggle today, I don’t know if the kids were pressing or what, but we did not swing the bats well today. I know we will play a lot better tomorrow.
“St. John’s was awesome that first game. Every time we threw a strike, they were hitting rockets.”
Cody Rizzo’s sliding catch against the wall in foul territory preceded his strong throw that nailed a runner at the plate later in the win over St. John’s (photo by Pete LaFleur).
SENIOR RIGHTFIELDER Cody Rizzo
“Both of the throws were pretty big times in the game and if there was a time in the game to let it go, then that was it. Sean (Gaston) stuck with me on both of them and made great plays behind the plate. He deserves as much credit as I do.
“Everybody is out there putting their whole heart and soul into the game. Playing nine innings before that is not going to do anything. We’re all going to put it on the line.”
SENIOR PITCHER Tom Thornton
“Coming into today, I really wanted to keep the pace up and be a lot more aggressive, especially after what happened the last time I faced them. Brett Graffy does a great job coming off the bench and has a natural rhythm and pace that allowed him to be really effective in the first game. Watching him throw, I was thinking for me that was what I had to do more.
“At the end of the Seton Hall game, there was a pacing error and I was really slowing down a little bit and allowing the momentum to sort of shift out. And what I really wanted to do was come back and be really aggressive and throw as many strikes as I could, to get ahead. They are aggressive and are an excellent hitting team. They are very solid through the lineup, so I had to really keep up a pace to allow me to have an aggressive front the whole time and then to really focus on getting ahead with strikes. Because otherwise, they are good enough that they will just feast and we obviously could not have that again. It was something I had to do and something I had to fix.
“We are blessed to have lot of depth on this pitching staff and there are a lot of guys who are capable of coming out and getting outs right down the line. I’m sure they will rise to the challenge. It looked a little but like we were pressing but towards the end we were able to relax and had the belief that we could win this thing. We put some pressure on them and strung together some good at-bats and good things happened.”
Tom Thornton picked up his 27th career win with the Irish in the 5-3 game versus St. John’s (photo by Pete LaFleur).
Day-4 (May 26, vs. Louisville)
(Note: pre-game comments from coach Mainieri not available at this time – will be added if available)
CHAMPIONSHIP POSTGAME COMMENTS
(Notre Dame 7, Louisville 0)
HEAD COACH Paul Mainieri
“We’ve been on the road, it’s been exhausting. We went out to Seton Hall, came home. Drove up to Grand Rapids for the Michigan game, came home. The next day we went out to Philadelphia for the Villanova series and then 22 people then flew down here and the other 13 flew back to South Bend. Then we flew down here.
“So, it’s been a physically exhausting few weeks. But these kids, they just have such great character. After we got beat in that afternoon game yesterday, I didn’t worry for one second that the kids would lose their confidence, enthusiasm or lose their desire to compete. I didn’t know if we were going to win that night but I knew that the kids would keep battling right to the very end. We fell behind and came back and won last night and then we came out very relaxed today and ready to have some fun and it showed in the way they played.
“You never take these things for granted. I know we’ve won five in a row but you never get bored with them. You never know when you will get back into this game again. You’d never catch me saying that word dynasty. We just want to win our next game.”
“I feel very confident that we are going to be able to get a chance to host a regional. The committee has a tough job to do but a lot of people feel we deserve to hot and I hope we get to, just so we don’t have to go through air travel again and get on another airplane. Our crowds have been so great all year and we have averaged 2,500 people a game and the last experience they had of us was getting beat 2-out-of-3 versus Louisville and we really had a strong feeling that we wanted to get back to South Bend and give our fans another opportunity to see us play and hopefully send us away on a winning note.
“My gut feeling is that we are going to host. I do know that we are going to be in the tournament. We won’t have to sweat that out.”
“It’s relief, it’s joy. I’m just so proud of the guys. They never cease to amaze me. Every year, it’s a different group, it’s a different chemistry. And so, when you win a championship like we did today, I don’t look at it as five years in a row because each team is different.
Jess Stewart’s three scoreless relief innings helped the Irish post the 7-0 win over Louisville (photo by Pete LaFleur).
“But this team was tested. The teams in this tournament played really well. Louisville was playing very well and hitting nearly .500 for the tournament. We had to play a very good St. John’s team twice. West Virginia was a threat and then in the opening game we had to face South Florida and one of the best pitchers in the country in Casey Hudspeth.
“We were really challenged down here and the kids rose up in the face of adversity. I’m just so proud of them. It’s a great feeling to get that last out and win a championship.”
“What happens is success perpetuates itself and the kids believe that when we get to the championship game, they know how to handle it emotionally. They are intense but relaxed, they are confident but not cocky. It’s amazing what experience does for you as you’ve been in these experiences time after time. The kids just know how to handle themselves.
“These kids know how to handle themselves. They are mature. They represent the University of Notre Dame, the greatest university in the world, the right way. They are not going to do anything to embarrass anybody. They know that the calm comes from being successful and representing the school. So why go lay out at the beach for five hours and get sunburned when it’s going to affect your ability to perform. They’d rather win the game and enjoy the games with the team and still have some fun – we don’t run a prison camp or anything like that.
“These kids just have that maturity and know how to handle the responsibility. And the torch gets passed. Javi Sanchez was here yesterday and he has the torch passed to him from Stanley and those guys. It’s a great thing when you can develop a program that has that type of leadership.
“I feel that we have done everything we can possibly do. I know we’ve lost 15 games out of 61, that’s not a lot of losses but you can’t win them all. If the selection committee wants to nitpick, then they are looking or reasons to not give us the site. I think we’ve earned it. Regular-season championship, postseason championship. We’ve drawn well. The fans turnout has been unbelievable . We’ve run tournaments there before and done a great job. Our administration has run a first-class tournament and it’s a great experience for the teams to come to South Bend. I think we deserve it and think we will get it.”
SOPHOMORE PITCHER Wade Korpi
“I wanted the ball bad. I wanted to give our team a chance to win the game. I wanted to go out there and give my team as many innings as I could. It was hot out there and I didn’t have my best stuff, so I was out there laboring a little bit. I just tried to reach down and give them what I could.
“It feels excellent. It’s a great honor but I feel it’s more important that we come up with the win and I just wanted to give my team a chance to win the game and I was more happy that we got the win and the BIG EAST Tournament title than getting the MVP.
“I wanted to reach down and go for a little bit extra, do the best with what I had. It’s a tough tournament to win. Being that we’ve won five times in a row, you would think it’s easy but being down on the field it’s tough. All of these are close games and every team is playing with all they’ve got. It’s not as easy as it looks.
“They were hitting the ball a little bit but our defense was playing excellent defense. That early double play was one or the turning points in the game, even though it was early in the game it set the momentum in our favor.”
Craig Cooper pushed his season hit total to 93 at the BIG EAST Tournament and enters the NCAAs batting at a .427 clip (photo by Pete LaFleur).
SENIOR FIRST BASEMAN Craig Cooper
“I just tried to use the same approach I used all year. I tried to get on base and let the middle of the order drive me in. I think today guys were getting on in front of me and it was more my job to drive in runs. Sometimes the role changes form day to day. If I have to get on base, get over and get in then that’s fine but today I had the chance to drive in some runs ad I was able to adjust.
“It’s a great feeling. Coming down here and competing with the BIG EAST teams is what we love doing and we are good enough to win it every year again.
“We didn’t feel any added pressure. All year our tem has been consistent up and down through the lineup. Guys have been coming up with clutch hits and I just knew if I did what I’ve done all season and not try to do anything extra, it would help the team win. It’s nice, especially this year with eight teams, it’s a little but more of a challenge. But it’s been to fun to come out here and compete and that’s what we like to do.
“We did not have to press today knowing that it was just one game. We had some problems yesterday and had a little rough day but we were able to come back and it definitely helped out confidence to win that second game and then go out and do the job today.
“Our staring pitching all year has been the backbone of our team and this tournament was just a showcase of that talent. As long as we go out and do the job, get a few runs across and some timely hits, the pitchers are going to go out and do their job. It’s not every time that they are going to throw a shutout but Wade pitched tremendously.”
“They had not lost a game since they played us last time. We knew they were going to come out and fight. We faced this pitcher before and we scored a couple runs early, but he didn’t give up. We just had to compete and get it done.”
Three of the team’s nine seniors (from left): Steve Andres, Cody Rizzo and Tom Thornton (photo by Pete LaFleur).
SENIOR PITCHER Tom Thornton
“A lof of the things that I was thinking about last night were specific to the team we were facing, I had to be really aggressive with my pitches and really get ahead so I could expand the zone as soon as a I possibly could.
“It’s pretty awesome to have four BIG EAST titles in my career. We were joking around with the freshmen about how easy it was and all we had to do was show up. It seems so easy but especially this year with extra teams and extra games, and with a loss, we had to battle through. This is going to be one of my favorites. I’m always going to remember this because of how we had to overcome some things and got it done. We really came together as a team and played well.”
Three members of the senior class accept the BIG EAST trophy (from left): Matt Bransfield, Alex Nettey and Eddie Smith (photo by Pete LaFleur).
SENIOR RIGHTFIELDER Cody Rizzo
“It’s nice to come here and win every year. This has become our tournament, even with four more teams. We knew it was going to be lot harder for us. But we know how to win it.
“On those plays, I try to charge as fast as I can and get to the ball as fast as I can. Most of the time I do it just so they hold up the runner but I was just being aggressive out there. But late in the St. John’s game the runner went and I just let it go. It was late in the game and they weren’t getting many opportunities.
“Rightfielders live for throwing guys out at the plate.”
“We’ve been watching some of the other teams playing around in the pool but we are here to win and now we can spend some time in the pool.”
SENIOR CENTERFIELD Alex Nettey “I live for making a diving play in the gap and taking doubles, triples and home runs away from guys. The most important thing is getting in the right position for different guys in the lineup. I’m always trying to help my pitcher out and saving a run that way is just as important as driving one in at the plate.
“It’s a great feeling but is tough to put into words. It’s what we play for in the regular season, preparing for the postseason. To go away with just two losses in four years at this tournament is pretty incredible.”
The Notre Dame baseball program’s 2006 seniors also include (from left) Nick Mainieri, Greg Lopez and Craig Cooper (photo by Pete LaFleur).
SOPHOMORE THIRD BASEMAN Brett Lilley
“My class has two more years to go so we have a ways to go before we win four of these tournaments.
“It feels awesome, the whole team contributed. Everybody did their part, offensively, defensively and pitching. It was a total team effort. It feels great.
“Yesterday was the first day we played during the day. I think it was 94 when we started. It was pretty hot out there. After the first game, I was beat. I was glad we got those two hours off before the second game. I thought I lost some pounds but Mike Bean had us drinking a lot of water.”