Jan. 21, 2006

The Notre Dame baseball team has received another preseason top-25 ranking, with the Irish checking in at 22nd in the National Collegiate Baseball Writers poll. The ranking matches Notre Dame’s standing in the Collegiate Baseball magazine’s 2006 preseason poll, with the USA Today preseason coaches poll yet to be released.

Two of Notre Dame’s 2006 opponents – Nebraska (5th) and Oklahoma (28th) – are among the team in the NCWBA preseason top-30 poll. Three other Irish opponents (Arizona, Minnesota and St. John’s) are among teams receiving votes but outside the top-30. Minnesota’s annual Dairy Queen Classic (March 3-5, at the Metrodome) is shaping up to be one of the nation’s top tournaments in 2006, with the four-team field including Notre Dame, the host Gophers, Nebraska and Arizona.

Notre Dame returns eight of nine position starters and a strong three-man rotation from its 2005 team that went 38-24-1, claimed the program’s fourth straight BIG EAST Tournament title and advanced to the title game of the NCAA Gainesville Regional. That four-team regional included eventual ’05 NCAA runner-up Florida (the No. 2 team in the 2006 NCBWA preseason poll), plus two other teams that received votes in the ’06 NCBWA preseason top-30: North Carolina (7th) and Stetson (outside top-30).

Notre Dame’s regular lineup in 2006 could feature six seniors among the nine position players, with that veteran core including shortstop and team co-captain Greg Lopez, first baseman Craig Cooper (who has moved from the outfield while replacing the only departed starter, Matt Edwards), centerfielder Alex Nettey, rightfielder Cody Rizzo and the left field/DH tandem of Steve Andres (the only lefthanded batter among the six seniors) and Matt Bransfield.

Overall, 13 of the top-14 position players are back from a 2005 team that used a late-season surge to win its final four BIG EAST regular-season games while knocking off perennial power USC and going on to win another BIG EAST Tournament title.

Notre Dame boasts several strong defensive players on its 2006 roster – with that group including the likes of outfielders Nettey and Rizzo, junior catcher Sean Gaston, the shortstop Lopez and a pair of sophomore infielders (second baseman Ross Brezovsky and Lilley at third base, with both of those players being standout shortstops during their prep days).

Notre Dame’s 21 returning letterwinners include 11 position players, eight pitchers and a pair of two-way players. The 2006 staff is set to be fronted by a three-man rotation that could rank among the best in the nation and has the potential to take its place among the tops in Notre Dame history. Lefthander Tom Thornton returns for his senior season with plenty of clutch outings already under his belt while two-sport standout Jeff Samardzija and fellow junior righthander Jeff Manship should round out the strong weekend rotation. Manship – the nation’s No. 3-rated freshman prospect entering the 2004 season – saw his first two college seasons hampered by injuries but the San Antonio native could be due for a breakout season in 2006.

Other veteran pitchers with starting experience include junior RHP Dan Kapala (who will miss all of ’06 due to offseason shoulder surgery, after suffering an injury in his final Cape Cod League outing in the summer of ’05), sophomore LHP Wade Korpi and junior RHP Jess Stewart. Junior LHP Mike Dury had a strong 2005 season out of the bullpen while three sophomores – RHPs Tony Langford and Joey Williamson and LHP David Gruener – also could log some key innings in ’06.

The switch-hitting Dury and righthanded-batting Langford are among the top candidates for DH and pinch-hitting duties in ’06. Other returning letterwinners include junior outfielder Danny Dressman (who totaled 36 starts in the ’04 and ’05 seasons) and senior infielder Eddie Smith.

Notre Dame’s 11 newcomers include seven who signed with the Irish baseball program during the fall of ’05, plus two-sport standout Evan Sharpley and three recent walk-on additions.

Righthanders Kyle Weiland and David Phelps join LHP Sam Elam among the top pitching prospects in the freshman class, with Weiland a possible candidate to fill the open closer spot (Williamson and Langford also could fill that role). Another rookie RHP, Jeremy Barnes, joins the Irish as a versatile player who also could see time as a member of the 2006 infield. The promising group of freshman pitchers also includes RHP Brett Graffy, with third baseman/catcher Eddy Mendiola and utility player Ryan Connolly rounding out the signee group who are set to embark on their first college baseball season.

Sharpley has spent the past few months as a quarterback with the Irish baseball team and last week began the shift to his second sport of baseball, as a lefthanded-hitting infielder.

Junior RHP John Seabaugh joins a pair of reserve catchers – sophomore Chris Soriano and freshman Mike Many – as the three players who earned a roster spot following the fall walk-on tryouts.

Rk. School (’05 record; final ’05 ranking)
1. Texas (56-16; 1)
2. Florida (48-23;2)
3. Oregon State (46-12; 7)
4. Rice (45-19; 13)
5. Nebraska (57-15; 6)
6. Clemson (43-23; 17)
7. North Carolina (41-19; 23)
8. Cal State Fullerton (46-18; 9)
9. Florida State (53-20; 11)
10. Arizona State (42-25; 3)
11. Georgia Tech (45-19; 10)
12. Pepperdine (41-23; -)
13. Miami, FL (41-19; 12)
14. Tulane (56-12; 5)
15. LSU (40-22; 18)
16. Missouri (40-23; 25)
17. Long Beach State (37-22; 21)
18. Mississippi State (42-22; 33)
19. Arkansas (39-22; 28)
20. Tennessee (46-21; 8)
21. TCU (41-20; 27)
22. Notre Dame (38-24; -)
23. Mississippi (48-20; 15)
24. Wichita State (51-24; 32)
25. Southern California (41-22; 16)
26. Winthrop (44-22; -)
27. N.C. State (41-19; 22)
28. Oklahoma (35-26; -)
29. Stanford (34-25; -)
30. Southern Miss (41-21; -)
Others receiving votes (listed alphabetically): Arizona, Army, Baylor, California, Cal Poly, College of Charleston, Creighton, East Carolina, Florida Atlantic, Fresno State, George Washington, Hawai’i, Houston, Lamar, Minnesota, UNC Wilmington, Northwestern State, Ohio State, Oklahoma State, St. John’s, San Francisco, Southern, Stetson, Texas State, Texas Tech, Vanderbilt, Washington.