May 16, 2014
By: Sean Tenaglia ’16
“It’s been an unbelievable ride, and unfortunately it has to come to an end at some point.”
Irish relief pitcher Donnie Hissa did not know what to expect when he arrived in South Bend four years ago. Looking back on his career at Notre Dame, the senior closer realizes that he has a lot to be thankful for.
“I was looking forward to growing as a person and branching out to have new experiences,” Hissa said. “I have no regrets about anything that has happened these last four years. It’s been an unbelievable journey. The academics have been challenging, especially coming from a small town, but I feel like I’ve picked up so many skills from my classes.
“I think I’ve grown both as a pitcher and as a person. The coaching staff has given me an amazing opportunity to push myself these past four years. From freshman year until now, it has been an unbelievable change. I’m really lucky I got the opportunity to play and grow here.”
From the start of his college search process, Hissa knew that Notre Dame was a perfect fit.
“I was looking for a school that combined great academics with top-level athletics, and there was no better place for that than Notre Dame,” Hissa said. “I really liked the school before I got to see it, and then I got a chance to come out and visit, and really hit it off. I loved the campus and the coaches, and I thought that this was the place for me.”
Hissa has been a mainstay in the Irish bullpen throughout his college career. In 2012, during his sophomore campaign, he appeared in 25 games, striking out 31 batters in 27.1 innings of work. Last season, he made his first career start and made an additional 23 appearances in relief, striking out 33 batters and earning two saves for the Irish.
However, his senior year has turned out to be his best yet as he has time and again been the first, and sometimes only, hurler out of the Irish bullpen. Through May 15, Hissa has turned in career highs in innings pitched (47.1), appearances (29), saves (4) while also sporting career lows in ERA (2.66) and opponent batting average (.219). Despite more innings, Hissa is also on pace to allow far fewer hits and runs than in previous years. He is tied for third in the Atlantic Coast Conference in appearances and has two-thirds of Notre Dame’s saves on the year. Three of the saves have come in ACC play including stressful situations at then-No. 11 Miami April 20 and last weekend versus then-No. 22 Clemson.
The Iron River, Wis. native has relished his opportunities to help his team close out wins.
“I have never really cared too much about my role as long as I was giving our team an opportunity to win,” Hissa said. “Obviously, everyone loves to start, but at the same time, I’ve had a great experience coming out of the bullpen.
“I love getting the ball at the end of the game with the opportunity to either change the momentum of the game or close out the win for the team. I’ve really enjoyed it. The bullpen is an awesome place and I’ve had so many great experiences out there. We get to hang out, watch the games, and talk baseball, all while getting to know each other.”
Hissa has had the privilege of playing alongside some excellent Irish ballplayers, including former classmates and current major league prospects Dan Slania, Eric Jagielo and Trey Mancini. He acknowledges that he has learned a lot from his many teammates throughout the years.
“There have been so many positive examples throughout my career from freshman year through this season,” Hissa said. I can’t really narrow it down to a single guy. I’ve picked up so many different things from so many different players.
“The guys here are top-class, and they’ve shown me how to be a good baseball player and balance that with being a well-rounded person as well.”
Among Hissa’s fondest memories of his time at Notre Dame is the team’s 2013 campaign. After ranking as high as No. 15 in the country during the regular season, the Irish made a sustained run in the BIG EAST Tournament before eventually losing to UCONN in the conference championship game.
“Last year was a lot of fun getting Notre Dame baseball back into the Top 25,” Hissa said. “We played together as a team and had so many bright spots. We entered the BIG EAST Tournament believing in each other. We knew we could do it, and we played every game like it was our last. It was so much fun going on that run.”
In contrast to their successful 2013 season, the 2014 campaign has presented the Irish with significant adversity. As of May 15, the Irish are 20-31 overall and 7-21 in their inaugural season in ACC play. Yet the Irish have battled in nearly every game with 13 one-run losses, and an additional five losses decided by two runs. While acknowledging the frustration associated with so many close losses, Hissa is proud of the way the young team has responded to adversity.
“It’s been a grind. That’s probably the best way to describe it,” he said. “We have a young team with not a lot of experience, so there are a lot of new guys stepping into new positions for the first time. We’re just trying to battle through and gain experience each game. I feel like we have grown a lot throughout the year, but it’s been a slow process. I’m proud of the guys for battling through the adversity.
“It’s really encouraging to see our team not quit. It would be really easy with all those one-run losses to throw in the towel and say we just can’t do it, but everyone has come to the ballpark with a good attitude and a drive to win. It doesn’t matter if we lost by one run or six, every day they come in with a good attitude. We think we can win every game.”
As the most experienced arm in the bullpen, Hissa has taken it upon himself to guide and advise the young pitching staff. He has been particularly impressed with a trio of freshmen hurlers.
“I think our pitching staff as a whole has done a really great job this year,” Hissa said, “but I’ve really enjoyed getting to know Jim Orwick, Scott Tully and Ryan Smoyer. We like to have fun out in the bullpen and we’ve gotten to know each other well because we spend so much time together.
“I think they all really show different characteristics that will help them be successful. In their own ways, they’re going to help this team in the coming years. Jim Orwick has really good stuff, especially his fastball and curveball. I think with another year, he’s going to be a great pitcher.”
With stars like Slania, Jagielo and Mancini out of the picture, Hissa has been forced to step up and serve as a leader for the Irish this season. He is glad to have been able to round out his Notre Dame career by serving alongside fellow seniors and co-captains Sean Fitzgerald and Forrest Johnson.
“All three of us have really had to take a big step to become the go-to guys for our teammates this year and show the new guys the ropes by leading by example,” Hissa said. “We can’t really hope another guy is going to step up and lead.
“It’s been a lot of fun, but at the same time it’s sad knowing it is coming to an end. I’ve grown so much with these two guys. We’ve come a long way- Forrest and I especially- from not playing much freshmen year to taking on big roles as seniors. I’ve grown really close with these guys, and it’s really cool to be able to finish up this journey with them. It’s been an unbelievable ride and I’m sad to see it come to and end.”
As his classmate Fitzgerald also acknowledged, Hissa believes he will miss his teammates the most when he has to say goodbye to Notre Dame.
“I’ve been lucky enough to have the teammates I’ve had these past four years and it will be weird not having them around,” Hissa said. “No matter what is going on, they’ve always been there to help. I know they will still be there for me, but I will miss being around them everyday and hanging out in the locker room.”
Hissa will graduate with a major in finance when he walks across the stage during the Commencement Ceremony on May 18. While he is prepared to pursue a career in finance, Hissa is not quite ready to give up on his dream of playing professional baseball.
“I’m not exactly sure what the next step is yet,” Hissa said. “I’m just going to try to pitch well during the rest of the season in the opportunities I’m given. Then, I’m going to hang out for a few weeks for the MLB Draft in June.
“I feel like a have a chance to get picked up by a team, but it isn’t a definite thing. Hopefully, I get an opportunity to play at the next level. If I don’t, then I am going to continue with my career search and go forth from there.”
Donnie Hissa does not take a moment of his time spent at Notre Dame for granted. Whether or not he continues his game at the professional level, Hissa will always have his fond memories from the bullpen, the locker room and the classroom to look back on.