Feb. 19, 2003
By Pete LaFleur
As the Notre Dame baseball team arrived in Tempe late Wednesday night, the Irish were looking forward to their first outdoor workouts of the season (including an intrasquad scrimmage on Thursday) before opening the season on Friday versus Dayton (at ASU’s Packard Stadium).
And for the second straight season, Notre Dame’s freshman class is expected to play a major role in the team’s fortunes. While ND’s top-ranked 2002 freshman class was led primarily by a highly-regarded group of pitchers (plus infielders Mat Macri and Matt Edwards), the 2003 rookies – ranked by Collegiate Baseball magazine as the nation’s 38th-best freshman class – include three likely position starters and most of the team’s top reserves (in addition to lofty pitchers Tom Thornton and Ryan Doherty).
Notre Dame’s five-man outfield includes senior Kris Billmaier and four freshmen, with Craig Cooper inheriting the center-field spot held the previous four seasons by All-American Steve Stanley while lefthanded-hitting Brennan Grogan and rightside hitter Cody Rizzo (who was recruited as a catcher) are the top options in left, where Brian Stavisky played in 2002 before signing with the Oakland A’s after his junior season. Alex Nettey (Dolton, Ill./Thornridge HS) – known for his quick bat and gap-hitting ability – rounds out the freshman outfielders for 2003. Freshman walk-on Steve Andres quickly is emerging as one of the top preseason stories of 2003, with the lefthanded DH (and backup catcher) slated to start Friday’s opener while likely hitting in the No. 5 spot. Prep shortstop Greg Lopez is a righthanded DH candidate and the team’s top utility infielder while his classmate Matt Bransfield is being groomed to provide depth at both corners of the infield.
Billmaier provided his own scouting report on the freshman foursome that has patrolled the outfield with him during the fall season and in winter workouts at the Loftus Center.
“Craig Cooper is very hard-nosed, competitive and incredibly athletic. He can really fly in the field and on the bases,” says Billmaier “Brennan Grogan is the toughest out on the team. He always hits the ball hard and has that knack for hitting the ball hard. He’s the type of kid that drives pitchers nuts.
“Cody Rizzo is a lot like Cooper, in that he is a tremendous athlete who can run, throw and hit. He is in great shape and it’s very rare to see a player that came up as a catcher who can run as well as Cody. And Alex Nettey is a very quiet kid who works for hours on his swing. He’s going to be a special player.
“Players like those four – plus out other freshmen – shows that the Notre Dame program is really going in the right direction. They all have the makings of being great parts of this program.”
Cooper (Plainview, N.Y.) – rated by Baseball America as the top player in New York and as the second-best newcomer in the BIG EAST Conference – was a gold-glove performer at Chaminade High School, batting .380 as a senior (5 HR, 19 RBI, 10 SB).
“I had a good fall season, defensively and offensively, and I was driving the ball consistently,” says Cooper, whose 4-for-10 showing in the Blue-Gold intrasquad series included a home run, triple, walk and stolen base. “With the probable outfield lineups, we will have three players out there who are very athletic and can make some great plays.
“We all are very excited for the season to start and it’s been great to get support from so many of our fellow students. Many of them have talked about how they are going to come to the games and be big supporters of the team throughout the season.”
Grogan (Tequesta, Fla.) – who hit .434 as a senior at The Benjamin School (30 RBI, 3 HR, 29 SB) – has been one of the team’s top performers in the weeks leading up to the opener. “In my mind, I feel that the pitcher has to make his best pitch to get me out – I will at least get the bat on the ball and go down swinging,” says the prep centerfielder Grogan, who made some changes in his stance to produce stronger swings. “With only three lefthanded hitters on the roster, we want to show teams that they can’t beat us by throwing righthanders.
“My defense also has been improving. It’s a little adjustment to left field, with the trajectory and fading down the line. I’ve been working on getting good jumps but it could be tough challenge the first couple games. All in all, it’s good playing with guys like Craig, Cody and Alex who are going through same thing you are. We’re starting to develop a pretty strong bond.”
Rizzo (Temecula, Calif.) was a star catcher and soccer player at Chaparral High School (his prep teammate Ian Etherington just signed with the ND men’s soccer program), with Rizzo batting .501 as a senior (6 HR, 29 RBI, 19 SB) while posting the top three season goalscoring totals in CHS soccer history.
“It doesn’t matter where I play as long as I can make some impact on the game,” says Rizzo, who played some outfield with his ABD Bulldogs club team. Playing soccer has really helped with my endurance and sprinting ability in baseball.
“This year is the first time I’d even seen snow but I’ve never been homesick – there’s so many great people here. One thing that really struck me when I went home for Christmas Break was how much respect there is for Notre Dame baseball all over the country. I played in an alumni game with my club team and a lot of the guys who have gone on to pro baseball have great respect for the Notre Dame program They were telling me how lucky I was to be at such a great program.”
Andres (Napa, Calif.) – a fourth-generation Notre Dame student – nearly missed the chance at trying his luck with the Irish baseball program. “I had no plans for trying to walk on – I didn’t even have my gear here and my mom had to send it out when I decided at the last-minute to go to the tryouts,” says Andres, who did not receive any interest from college recruiters despite an impressive multi-sport career at Justin Sienna High School. “I had not played for a month but I started hitting well and they asked me to stick around for the rest of the fall and I eventually made the team.
Notre Dame assistant coach David Grewe vividly recalls the start of 2002 fall practice. “I was throwing BP that day and Steve Andres was the first player to jump into the batting cage,” says Grewe. “He just started driving the ball and kept adding more and more great hits. We are very excited about what he could bring to our offense.”
Despite spending his prep days in the “laid-back” wine country of Northern California, Andres now has the chance to follow in the footsteps of his great grandfather William Andres, a catcher with the 1917-19 Notre Dame baseball teams (he also played with the ND football squad).
“Five months into it, I don’t know what I’d do without baseball, says Andres, who came back from a major broken-leg injury during his junior-year football season. “It’s such an important part of my college experience now. My roommates have so much time on their hands – I don’t know what I’d do with that much time to myself.
Andres has benefited from the guidance of Grewe and junior Javi Sanchez, a converted infielder and the 2003 starting catcher. “Javi is so knowledgeable about baseball, it’s hard to believer he just started catching. He gives a lot of pointers and is like a mentor,” says Andres. “And coach Grewe really know about the position. He can explain so many of the intricacies and has helped me to improve every aspect of my catching.
“In general, all of the freshmen are hard workers. It’s an extremely proud group and most of the other guys succeeded at a high level in high school. Now we all just need the college baseball experience.
Lopez (Upper Arlington, Ohio/UAHS) was the 2002 state co-player of the year (.484, 32 RBI, 5 HR, 14 SB) and should play a leading role on the pivotal leftside of the infield, with third-year starters on the right side in 2B Steve Sollmann and 1B Joe Thaman.
“Ohio baseball is very competitive and it’s an honor to be following in the footsteps of so many great players at Notre Dame,” says Lopez, in reference to 2002 team leaders Stanley, 3B Andrew Bushey, C Paul O’Toole and DH Matt Bok.
Lopez and “the three Matts” (Macri, Edwards and Bransfield) form a young but promising infield group. “In the last six weeks, the left side of our infield has been developing and we will surprise people with our defensive ability,” says Lopez. “I had played shortstop since I was nine years old and third base has the longer throw, where you have to get set and throw across the diamond. You need to have good footwork, use the backhand and come around the ball. You just have to stay quick on your feet and react.”
Bransfield (Englewood, Colo.) – a talented quarterback, third baseman and pitcher at national power Cherry Creek HS – also has been trying out a new position at first base.
“You can learn a lot about first base from watching Joe Thaman. He does all the little things so well,” says Bransfield. “It’s a position where paying attention to detail and working hard can make all the difference. Offensively, facing such a great pitching staff makes you a better hitter from seeing that level of pitching on a daily basis.
“Overall, I’m having a blast at Notre Dame. It’s the right mix of social life and academics that I was looking for. It’s also fun to come into a program where you can quickly get a sense of how it got to this point of success. There are a lot of great players who made it this way and you want to do what you can to keep it going.”
The 7-foot-1 Doherty and 6-6 lefthander Thornton pack plenty of talent and upside into their nearly 14 feet of combined height.
Doherty was named state player of the year as a senior at Toms River (N.J.) East HS, after posting a 1.14 ERA, 85 Ks and just 19 walks in 63 innings (his career stats included a 1.22 ERA, 185 Ks and just 31 BB in 32 appearances).
“It’s been great working with (associate head) coach (Brian) O’Connor. He does a great job of getting you prepared, emphasizes being very aggressive and gets me in the right mindset by showing confidence in me,” says Doherty. “The older players also have been a great help, because there are a lot of things that you never have to deal with in high school. I’m really excited to get out there and start playing.”
Thornton posted similarly dominant numbers t Middleboro (Mass.) HS, with a 1.09 career ERA, 19-4 record, 236 Ks, just 48 walks and 26 hits allowed in 148 innings.
“It’s great to come in and play at a high level with a group of players who also aspire to that same high level,” says Thornton. “In working with coach O’Connor, I’ve been able to gather a lot of information on situational pitching to go along with adjustments in mechanics.
“I’ve met some great people here at Notre Dame and the baseball and academics both can be a grind. There’s not much room for error sometimes but the key thing is just to go out and enjoy it and that’s what I’m doing. I can’t wait for the season to start.”