Feb. 15, 2003
By Pete LaFleur
Notre Dame is poised to embark on its 2003 baseball seasons by its team tri-captains: senior rightfielder Kris Billmaier (Woodinville, Wash.), senior righthander J.P. Gagne (Bloomington, Minn.) and junior second baseman Steve Sollmann (Cincinnati, Ohio).
Gagne – who will have the chance to pitch in his home state Metrodome for the second time in his ND career – is just the fourth pitcher in the last 27 seasons (since Bob Stratta in 1976) to serve as a captain of the Irish baseball program, with others including Craig Allen (’96), Alex Shilliday (’99) and Aaron Heilman (’00, ’01). Sollmann is just the third junior in the last nine seasons to serve as a captain, with other recent juniors who have served as ND baseball captains including third baseman Andrew Bushey (’01), Heilman, shortstop Brant Ust (’99), catcher Bob Lisanti (’94) and first baseman Joe Binkiewicz (’91).
“These three players are excellent captains for our 2003 team, with great and diverse leadership qualities,” says ninth-year Notre Dame head coach Paul Mainieri.
“Kris Billmaier is a very fiery and emotional leader, with a fearless desire to succeed that rubs off on his teammates. Steve Sollmann is a more quiet player who leads by example, but that quiet and professional approach also has a very profound impact on the other players. He also has taken on more of an active leadership role and has done a great job taking the younger players under his wing.
“Both of those players have been through a lot in the last few years. They’ve gone through the battles of college baseball and can use that experience to show the younger players what it takes to get there.
“And I really feel J.P. Gagne is a true leader of this program, not just the pitching staff. He does thing the right way and sets a great standard with his competitiveness and unselfishness. We told him midway through last season that we needed to move him to the bullpen if we wanted to win championships and he wanted to do whatever if took to help the team. It’s things like the way he handled that situation that make J.P. such a great leader.”
Billmaier has been a classic prime-time performer during his Notre Dame career, batting .471 in 2000-02 NCAA Tournament games (33-for-70), a full 200 points higher than his batting average in the other ’00-’02 games (.271). His overall career stats with the Irish include a .299 batting average, 97 RBI, 10 home runs and 20 doubles (.313 in ’02, with 41 RBI and 3 HR) – with Billmaier’s .471 career NCAA batting avg. ranking behind only ’94 grad Matt Haas (.514, 19-for-37) in Notre Dame history (min. 20 ABs).
Coming off a strong fall practice, Billmaier is likely to serve as the Irish cleanup hitter on 2003. “I’ve always loved performing under pressure and now I have new challenges as a captain and one of the veteran leaders,” says Billmaier. “I know that I have to be a more consistent player and really feel this is the year that I’ll put it all together for a full season.”
A prep infielder who converted to the outfield with the Irish, Billmaier also has developed into a strong defensive outfielder (he played in left field in ’00 and ’01), due in large part to his overall athleticism that includes starring as a high school football quarterback. He now what could prove to be the most-talented defensive outfield group in the nine-year Mainieri era, with the group included a quartet of promising freshmen. “A lot of times in practice, the outfielders work out on our own and it’s me and the four young-ens,” he says. “They are a great group of freshmen and our fans are going to love seeing them play over the next few years.”
Billmaier has taken inspiration and guidance from former leaders of the program.
“Guys like Matt Nussbaum, Jeff Perconte and Andrew Bushey and Steve Stanley really showed me what it meant to be a Notre Dame baseball captain,” he says.
“During freshman year, my locker was next to Perconte’s and I learned so much from him – he did everything the right way. He let me know what I was doing wrong and taught me a lot about responsibility. He was solid player who went about his business. I really respect him and knew that’s how I wanted to end up.
“So many of the former players come back for football games or to work out at Notre Dame before their pro seasons – and that reminds you of what they have done. It makes you want to go out and maintain the high level of the program for so many great former players.
“I have a lot of pride in this program and so proud to be a captain this season. If you had told me four years ago that I’d be a captain some day, I would have laughed at you. It’s a tremendous honor.”
Gagne has delivered in a number of roles with the Irish, serving as a weekend starter for two-plus seasons before shifting to the bullpen in 2003. His career stats include a 4.20 ERA and 21-10 record and six saves in 64 appearances (33 starts), with 160 strikeouts and just 62 walks in 238 innings. He could join former great Chris Michalak (’93) and Heilman (’01) as the third ND pitcher ever to post 20-plus wins and 10-plus saves (his ’02 stat included a team-best 3.14 ERA, 9-5 record, six saves, 69 Ks and 16 BB in 94.2 IP). By logging nine appearances in 2003, Gagne would rank third in games pitched in the ND record book (he needs 28 GP to tie Michalak’s record) while he stands 62 innings shy of becoming the sixth Irish pitcher to reach 300 IP in his career.
As part of an athletically-rich family that includes pro wrestling pioneer Verne Gagne (his grandfather) and his father Greg (also a pro wrestler, after playing college football), the Irish closer can trace his mental toughness to that family background.
Gagne’s rise from walk-on to team captain is all the more noteworthy when harkening back to a USA Today article that ran in the summer of 1999. The article was recapping the strong season by Cretin-Derham Hall High School and its ace third baseman/pitcher J.P. Gagne, with the words “Notre Dame bound” attached to the photo of Gagne.
“When I saw that article I asked Paul if he knew about this kid Gagne and he didn’t know anything about him either,” said Notre Dame associate head coach Brian O’Connor. “The kid came to walk-on tryouts and we ended up keeping him as a third baseman and pitcher – we didn’t even know if he’d pitch for us. But two weeks into the season he was starting against Minnesota in the Metrodome and he ended up going 7-1 as a freshman while pitching the third-most innings on that entire staff. Let’s just say that he is a very special and unique player, the type that you’d certainly want as a captain of your team.
An Academic All-America candidate who carries a 3.35 cumulative GPA as a finance major, Gagne’s low walk rate (2.35 BB per 9 IP in his career) would rank 9th in the ND record book, including a 1.52 walk average and 4.3 K-to-walk ratio in 2002 (both ranking 7th in ND history). His junior season included a three-hit shutout win over BYU (1-0), wins in seven of his final nine decisions, a 3-0 postseason record (with 15 Ks and one walk in 18 IP) and a pair of impressive saves in the Super Regional series at top-ranked Florida State (retiring final nine batters in 10-4 opener and striking out the side vs. three senior batters to end the 3-1 clincher).
Gagne also has turned in impressive summer seasons in 2001 and ’02. He helped lead the Hays (Kan.) Larks to the championship game of the National Baseball Congress (NBC) World Series, with his summer stats including a 1.70 ERA and 11-1 record (65 Ks, 15 BB in 80 IP). He then gained revenge against the 2001 NBC champs (the Alaska Glacier Pilots) by playing with the Alaska Goldpanners team that beat the rival Pilots in the ’02 NBC title game, giving the ‘Panners their record-setting sixth national title (Gagne stats included a 2.98 ERA and 1-4 record, with poor run support, plus 34 Ks and 13 BB in 51.1 IP and 9 GP/7 GS). One of the other top pitchers on that staff was Arizona State’s Ryan Schroyer, who will occupy the opposing dugout in next week’s action at ASU.
Notre Dame’s crop of talented young pitchers have received valuable guidance from Gagne. “J.P. has helped me a lot since I got here and you can learn so much from his poise on the mound,” says the current staff’s ace, sophomore ace Chris Niesel.
“I can remember many times last year where J.P. performed with such class. We had a really tough loss at UConn where he got the loss but I had give up five runs in the 8th. We both were really down but he told me that I’d have more shots at them and that it was a long season. He also showed a lot of character in the College World Series versus Rice. He apologized to me for giving up the home run that gave Rice the lead but then he went out and closed the game to help us get the win. He’s just a great leader for this program, on and off the field.”
Gagne gained valuable insight into the art of college pitchers from his predecessors. “During my first two years, the older pitchers like Aaron Heilman and Danny Tamayo taught me how to adjust to being a college pitcher,” he says. “They had great drive to be best they can be and that rubbed off on me.
“When I first came to Notre Dame as a walk-on, I didn’t know what to expect. I was quiet and just stayed in the background. But I began to take on a more active role and now try to help the younger pitches however I can. When you think of all the great players that have gone before you, it is a really big honor to be a captain of this program. You really develop a respect for the former players who did their part to get the program to where we are.”
Sollmann hit .362 as both a freshman and sophomore, overcoming a nagging quad injury to play a key role in the 2002 postseason push (he owns 83 career RBI and 105 runs, batting mostly in the No. 2 spot), with his .459 career batting average in NCAA Tournament games (28-for-61) ranking behind only Haas and Billmaier in ND history. A preseason pick for BIG EAST player of the year and All-America honors, the marketing major also is an Academic All-America candidate (3.26 cumulative GPA) and was rated by Baseball America as the No. 124 college prospect for the 2003 draft.
After converting from center field (where he starred as a prep) to second base, Sollmann steadily has developed into a strong rightside infielder. He was rated by Baseball America as the BIG EAST “best defensive second baseman” for 2003, after making just eight errors and helping the Irish total a record-setting 66 double plays in 2002.
Sollmann’s classmate Javi Sanchez – who was shifted into the 2002 starting shortstop role after injuries sidelined two top freshman prospects – owes much of his recent success to his former middle-infield partner (Sanchez now is the team’s starting catcher).
“Steve really has helped me a lot, with just keeping me positive last season as I was adjusting to a new position,” says Sanchez. “He’ such a great competitors on the field and a great friend off it. We always helped keep each other relaxed and did a great job of communicating and thinking ahead.
“Steve downplays his leadership and is a very humble guy but he really does a great job leading this team by his example. In practices, he always knows what he is doing and what the coaches want. This year you really can see the younger players looking to him for that leadership.”
Sollmann – whose brother starred as a centerfielder at Notre Dame in the mid-’90s – says that he is approaching this season no differently, despite the new captain role.
“There are so many leaders on this team, I’m not really doing anything differently,” he says. “I learned a lot from former captains like Alec Porzel and Aaron Heilman and then Steve Stanley and Andrew Bushey last year. The way they went out and played the game, leading by example, is something that I really respect.”