May 19, 2015
By John Patrick Bruno `18
Growing up in Minnesota, senior Robert Youngdahl found his home in the sports world on the baseball field. Son of a college hockey player, Youngdahl played football, basketball, hockey and soccer growing up, but his heart was always set on baseball.
“It’s hard playing baseball in Minnesota,” says Youngdahl. “You have to either travel or play indoors from November to April. I did both. At Hill-Murray, my high school, we were lucky enough to have a nice indoor facility that we worked in throughout the winter months.”
Since then, Youngdahl has spent his collegiate baseball career finding his “home.” A highly touted recruit out of high school, Youngdahl was faced with the choice between college and professional baseball after being drafted in the 37th round of the draft by the Boston Red Sox.
“By the time the draft came around, I had my heart set on playing college ball,” says Youngdahl. “Even still, being drafted in high school was one of the coolest things in my baseball career. I think my dad screamed even louder than I did.”
Notre Dame was always Youngdahl’s top choice. After coming for a visit and seeing the facilities, he fell in love. However, when scholarships and finances didn’t work out, Youngdahl headed to Kansas State.
It wasn’t long before he realized Kansas State was not the baseball home he was seeking.
“I had been excited about getting to play in the Big 12,” Youngdahl says. “But out of high school I had been recruited as an outfielder. When I went to Kansas State, they decided to exclusively use me as a pitcher. My arm slot dropped, and things just weren’t working out.”
Still, Youngdahl knew his home was out there. Rather than sit out a year, he transferred to Iowa Western Community College for his sophomore season.
When Irish coach Mik Aoki heard that Youngdahl had transferred, he sent Notre Dame recruiters to watch him play.
“Transfers from junior colleges for athletics are rare at academic institutions like Notre Dame,” Aoki says. “But Robert was special. He was a recruitable kid for us from an academic standpoint, especially since he had continued to succeed at Kansas State as well as Iowa Western.”
Less than 48 hours after the Irish coaches came to watch him, Youngdahl committed to play the next year at Notre Dame.
“I was just honored that they were still interested in me,” he says.
And just like that, Youngdahl had found his home.
In his first season with the Irish, Youngdahl batted .225 with three home runs. Coaches saw it as a transition season, especially since it was Notre Dame’s first season in the ACC after switching from the BIG EAST. Youngdahl saw it as a transition season because it was his first year of fully hitting.
“I was mainly pitching at both of my previous schools and not getting very many at–bats,” Youngdahl says. “My first year here was definitely a struggle, but it was all part of the development process. I got a lot of at-bats, but still had to work on getting better with the bat.”
Coach Aoki saw many of Youngdahl’s struggles as unusual considering how well he fit in with the other guys in the locker room.
“The thing about Robert is that he is such a great kid,” says Aoki. “I think he just pressed a bit too much last year. He came into a new environment–a new team–and wanted to make his mark. Even though he fit in inside the clubhouse, he wanted to prove that he fit in on the field. Frankly, he just put too much pressure on himself.”
Youngdahl, besides just changes in baseball and college, was also facing another lifestyle change in his new home: he got engaged in the fall of his junior year, shortly after arriving at Notre Dame, to his college sweetheart, Benet.
“I tell people that she is the reason I ended up going to Kansas State at first. It was just meant to be that I met Benet there,” says Youngdahl. “We met in kinesiology class, and she stayed there my sophomore year when I was in Iowa, but coming up here she followed me. Last fall I decided it was the right time to propose. I knew she was the one. I wanted her to feel secure in following me up here so she wouldn’t have anything to worry about. We couldn’t be happier.”
Since settling into his new home, Youngdahl has truly grown into the player Aoki knew he could be.Â This season, he is first on the team in doubles (19), RBI (40) and slugging percentage (.475), second in average (.295) and homers (6) and third in runs (33). For his efforts, Youngdahl was named a third team all-ACC performer, one of three Irish standouts to earn the honor (Kyle Fiala and Ryan Smoyer being the others).
Both Youngdahl and his coaches attribute this growth to confidence within the batter’s box and in the clubhouse.
“A lot of the mental training we’ve done this year has helped,” says Youngdahl. “The more confidence I have at the plate, the better I perform.”
Despite the looming draft, Youngdahl is focused on maximizing his time at Notre Dame. He is doing everything possible to make sure his Irish have the best season, and that he can leave his mark on the place he calls home.
“We have a great group of guys,” says Youngdahl. “Whatever happens with myself and the other juniors and seniors later this spring, it’ll all happen however it’s meant to be.”
The Irish are a team loaded with a talented group of underclassman that relies on the seniors for leadership and motivation. Youngdahl, along with all 11 other seniors, takes the responsibilities associated with leadership very seriously.
“It’s nice that the responsibility gets spread out among so many of us,” says Youngdahl. “The freshmen all know that this is a very experienced team. They see us putting in the work every day and get an idea of what it takes to succeed. When I work hard hitting, push myself in the weight room and running in Loftus (Sports Center), I think they see that and look up to that and try to emulate that.”
But Youngdahl recognizes that community building can take many different forms. This year, he was one of two “Spirit Animal Commissioners” on the baseball team.
“Ryan Bull and I sat down one day after practice with a roster and went through and determined an animal that best represented someone in both looks and personality,” says Youngdahl. “Mine was a dolphin, mainly because there weren’t that many left by the time we got to me.”
But the antics didn’t end there. Freshman Brandon Bielak remembers the next week Bull and Youngdahl announced the animals to the team, and had each player, coach and traveling support staff member pitch in to buy shirts that had the animals on them.
“I was a hedgehog,” Bielak says. “We all wore the shirts as our travel gear one day. We got some funny looks in the airport and lots of questions about our outfits.”
Through embodying many different types of camaraderie, Youngdahl has maximized his leadership potential in the clubhouse.
As far as life outside baseball, Youngdahl has experienced major differences in his three schools.
“At both of my previous schools, I lived with only other baseball players,” says Youngdahl. “Here, even though my closest friends are on the team, I have so much more exposure with students across campus because of the dorm life. You learn to get along with anyone, no matter what.”
As the end of his senior year approaches, Youngdahl feels a mix of nostalgia and excitement for the future.
“Whatever opportunity I’m given would be an honor,” says Youngdahl. “But Notre Dame has been my home for two years and will always hold a special place in my heart.”
It may have been a long journey for Youngdahl to find his “home,” but it was all worth it.
“We tease him a lot about how he should’ve just chosen us in the first place,” Aoki says. “But at the end of the day, we’re just blessed to have him.”