Nov. 30, 2015

By Sean Tenaglia ’16

After an impressive 2015 campaign that featured its first NCAA postseason trip since 2006 and sweeps of traditional Atlantic Coast Conference powers Florida State and North Carolina among other noteworthy accomplishments, the University of Notre Dame baseball team now turns its attention toward the 2016 season. The Irish took the first step toward replicating their success from last year by turning in a highly competitive fall ball practice schedule.

In 2015, the Irish took some people by surprise, finishing with a 37-23 record and placing third in their sophomore campaign in the ACC. The program reached its first NCAA Regional in nine years, where the Irish were eventually eliminated following losses to Illinois and Wright State.

Irish head coach Mik Aoki was pleased with the continued growth of his team during fall ball and is looking forward to the upcoming season.

“We have a really talented team,” Aoki said. “We’re extremely deep on the mound. I thought it was a good fall. It took us a little time to come together and gel as a team but the fall break Dominican trip was a huge help with that. Spending all that time together was really good and I think we’re in a really good place.

“The guys are working really hard and making the decisions on a daily basis that they need to put us in a place to compete and deal with the upcoming season. We have a chance to be really good.”

Junior RHP Ryan Smoyer earned first team Mideast-ABCA/Rawlings all-region honors and third team all-ACC accolades in 2015 after posting a 9-1 record with a 2.27 ERA in 79.1 innings of work. Smoyer was also impressed with the team’s attitude during the fall practices.

“I think we all came back hungry, especially after the season didn’t end exactly how we wanted,” Smoyer said. “We came in with an attitude to get better and we’ve carried that through the fall. We just rally around it. The level of attention to detail has been out of this world and it’s helped us get a lot better.”

The Irish return the entire starting infield, a starting outfielder and an impressive 472.2 of 554.2 innings pitched during the 2015 season. The team’s experience will be a key factor as the Irish hope to improve upon last year’s growth.

“It’s huge,” junior second baseman and Rawlings Gold Glove winner Cavan Biggio said. “This year is going to be a big year, especially with all the guys we have returning in our lineup and rotation. In the past, we’ve had to rely on a few pitchers and hitters. This year, we have more talent across the board than in any past year. We’re pretty excited about that.”

From Smoyer’s perspective, having an experienced rotation gives the pitcher an extra level of confidence on the mound.

“We’re loaded from top to bottom,” the Toledo, Ohio native said. “Coming off a season where I was relied on more, it’s nice to know we have a bunch of guys coming back. The amount of innings we had last year will be dispersed evenly, and it’s nice to know that you have guys behind you who can come in and get the job done.

“Whatever my role ends up being, I know I have guys with just as good of stuff behind me. Up and down the lineup, everyone can compete and just going into the season knowing that there won’t be a letdown is a great feeling. From a team perspective, there’s not a lot you can be more confident with than knowing you can count on your entire staff.”

With so many experienced arms on the team, managing the bullpen has the potential to become a challenging task. However, Aoki views the excess of arms as a major benefit for his team.

“If you follow any college or major league team, you find out that guys get hurt,” the Irish head coach said. “The old saying that there’s no such thing as too much pitching is without a true statement. It’s a great problem to have. It fosters competition on the team and will hopefully make us a better team overall on the field.”

Joining the returning Irish upperclassmen is a talented freshmen class, which was ranked 34th nationally by Perfect Game. Aoki was impressed with the dozen freshmen and their ability to quickly transition to the team and college life in general.

“I think some of them have a chance to make a big impact for us,” Aoki said. “I don’t know yet how it will all flush out, but I’d say there’s a good chance to see them help out.

“I’ve been really impressed with this group as a whole, in terms of handling the academic and social transition. They understand how to work and have integrated themselves into the team. Our upperclassmen and the seniors in particular have a lot to do with that and they’ve done a good job of making them feel welcome and helping them through the process of leaving home and high school for Notre Dame.”

The fall ball season came to a close on Halloween weekend with the annual Blue-Gold Series. The series gave the Irish players a fun, yet highly competitive opportunity to showcase their skills before the winter break.

“The fall is a long season. It’s a grind,” Smoyer said. “It’s getting cold and it’s not always the best playing conditions. Everything’s changing and the variables change. So the Blue-Gold Series was really fun. The guys all were competitive.

“Just to be able to get out there and cap off it off with a little rivalry and bragging rights in the clubhouse was a fun way to end the season on a high note. Especially this year, it was fun to have position players pitching too.”

With the conclusion of the fall, the Irish now transition to a new period in preparation of the 2016 campaign.

“Our schedules are a lot lighter,” Biggio said. “Right now, we’re going to focus on meeting with professors and preparing for finals. We need to focus on hitting the weight room as well and taking care of our nutrition. Those are probably the biggest things right now.”

“Now we’re in an individual period so we’re just working on our own stuff,” Smoyer said. “There aren’t a lot of team activities going on except our conditioning and lifting. It’s more personal development and making sure that your mechanics are good and you’re paying attention to those details that might get overlooked during the regular season.

“This is a time for us to work on getting better. When we come back after the break in January, that’s when we really get back into the team mentality and start working together to achieve our goal.”

After their program-changing year, Aoki notes that the upcoming season will provide new challenges for the Irish.

“The expectations are much higher than they’ve been at any point since I’ve been here,” the Irish head coach said. “Last year, we took a lot of people by surprise based on how we finished the season in 2014. This year, we won’t be sneaking up on anybody, and now we have a greater sense that we’re going to be good. We have to go out there and execute that. No one is going to decide to give us a win because they think we’re going to be good.”

Smoyer echoed Aoki’s sentiments and said that the team knows they are capable of competing and winning any given series.

“I think it’s just about keeping our culture and staying true to what we did last year and not getting too complacent with what happened,” Smoyer said. “We believed that we could do what we did last year, but I think the difference is that this year we expect to be there again and go further. For us, we just need to go out there with a good mentality.

“Now, there’s a target on our back. People will know that Notre Dame is for real. They’ll be ready when we come into town now. That’s something that we take pride in. Teams know us now. We’re not just any old team. We’re going to come to play, and we know we can lean on that.”

Aoki reminded his team that keeping things simple in the months ahead is their easiest path to success.

“We need to follow a similar recipe,” Aoki said. “We just need to worry about the things we can control, and the pitches ahead of us. We can’t get too ahead of ourselves and think about things on the horizon.

“We have lofty goals, but our key to success is taking one step at a time. I know that sounds incredibly simplistic and cliché, but that’s just how it goes. We have to make all of the right decisions on a daily basis to put us in a position to go out and compete at a really high level.”

The Irish still have a lot of work left to do in preparation for the 2016 season, but Biggio believes the team can exceed the successes of 2015.

“It all started with this fall,” Biggio said. “It’s going to take a lot of focus and preparation between now and the start of the season. We need to get everybody healthy and ready to go for February. We need to get our swings right and get stronger.

“We have a really good team and hopefully have a chance to make the College World Series. The sky’s the limit for us.”