Dec. 20, 2003

The Notre Dame baseball team is listed 10th in Collegiate Baseball magazine’s 2004 preseason poll – the program’s highest preseason ranking in the 46-year history of that poll – while senior second baseman Steve Sollmann (Cincinnati, Ohio) and junior righthander Chris Niesel (Plantation, Fla.) have received preseason All-America honors.

Sollmann – a second team All-American and second team Academic All-American in 2003 – has been named a preseason first team All-American by both Collegiate Baseball and the National College Baseball Writers of America, as one of six position players and 12 total players named to the first team of both lists. Niesel was a second-team selection on both preseason All-America teams, after receiving second-team honors from CB and third-team from the NCBWA in 2003.

This marks the third time in the last four years that Notre Dame has been ranked in the top 10 of a preseason poll, with the 2001 squad ranked 9th in the Baseball America preseason poll while the ’02 Irish squad was 5th in the BA preseason poll (BA will release its preseason poll in early January, followed by the NCBWA polls and USA Today coaches polls prior to the start of the ’04 season).

Notre Dame is one of 13 teams that placed multiple players on both the CB and NCBWA preseason All-America teams – with just six of those teams (Notre Dame, Miami, Stanford, Baylor, Wichita State and Florida Atlantic) boasting both a pitcher and position player who already have earned preseason All-America honors.

The BIG EAST Conference coaches poll projects Notre Dame to win the 2004 BIG EAST title, with Sollmann the preseason pick for BIG EAST player of the year while Sollmann and Niesel were named to the 14-player preseason all-BIG EAST team.

Sollmann takes a .370 career batting average into the 2004 season, with his All-America 2003 season including 38 stolen bases (ranking 7th in the nation). The 5-11, 195-pound righthanded batter finished ’03 as the BIG EAST overall leader in hits (98; 4th-most in ND history), runs scored (67) and total bases (136), also ranking 2nd among BIG EAST players in SBs, triples (5) and 7th in batting average (.384; 27th in ND history). He closed the ’03 season with a 13-game hitting streak (two shy of his career-best streak earlier in ’03), including a 10-for-17 showing at the NCAA Fullerton Regional.

Niesel finished 3rd among BIG EAST pitchers with a 2.65 overall ERA in 2003 while ranking 2nd in wins (9-1) and innings (98.1), 3rd in Ks (87) and 4th in low opponent batting (.232). The 6-0, 205-pound righthander’s career K-to-walk ratio (4.03 overall; 4.58 in ’03) is on pace to break the Notre Dame record.

The six position players named to the first team of both the CB and NCBWA preseason All-America teams include all four infielders – Sollmann, New Mexico State 1B Billy Becher, Arizona State SS Dustin Pedroia and Baylor 3B Michael Griffin – plus outfielder Jeff Larish (ASU), Jordan Foster (Lamar) and Ryan Patterson (LSU). The other top preseason honorees include Mississippi utility player Stephen Head, the Rice RHP trio of Jeff Nieman, Wade Townsend and Phil Humber, Long Beach State RHP Jered Weaver and Texas reliever Huston Street.

Notre Dame owns the nation’s No. 6-rated freshman class (per Baseball America) while returning the bulk of its offense and several top pitchers from the 2003 squad that repeated as BIG EAST Tournament champions (first team to do so since 1986), fashioned a 45-18 record and advanced to the final of the NCAA Fullerton Regional. The pitching staff also is set to welcome back Grant Johnson (missed all of ’03 due to shoulder injury) but his fellow junior RHP John Axford will miss the ’04 campaign after undergoing “Tommy John” econstructive elbow surgery.

The 14 returning position players combined to make 89% of the offensive starts in 2003 while combining for 99% of the stolen bases (83 of 84), 96% of the triples (25 of 26), 90% of the hits (597 of 664) and runs scored (391 of 433), 87% of the walks (178 of 204) and 84% of the home runs (26 of 31) and doubles (97 of 115).

Top returners in the field (the only departed regular is graduated starting CF Kris Billmaier) include: Sollmann (.384, 40 RBI, 4 HR, 38 SB, 67 R, 16 2B), junior 1B/3B Matt Edwards (.376, 69 RBI, 8 HR, 16 2B), sophomore CF/RF Cody Rizzo (.314, 38 RBI, 4 HR, 53 R, 28 HBP), senior C Javi Sanchez (.303, 26 RBI, 1 HR, 42 R) and junior Matt Macri (.294, 35 RBI, 4 HR, 15 2B), who is slated to make the move from shortstop to third base in ’04.

Other probable starters include: junior LF/DH Matt Bransfield (.310, 10 RBI as last-season DH in ’03), sophomore SS Greg Lopez (.250, 26 RBI) and sophomore lefthanded-hitting DH Steve Andres (.269, 22 RBI, 4 HR). The Irish have many other options in the outfield, including sophomore Craig Cooper (.303, 15 RBI, 22 R, 10 SB) and his lefthanded-hitting classmate Brennan Grogan (.299, 25 RBI, 43 R, 15 SB – plus freshman CF prospect Danny Dressman (San Jose, Calif.), a 5-9, 175-pound lefthanded hitter, and his classmate Chris Fournier (Fairfield, Conn.), a 5-11, 200-pound hot-hitting middle infield prospect.

Freshman Mike Dury (Indianapolis, Ind.), a 6-5, 225-pound switch hitter, also could see some time at first base while 6-0, 170-pound freshman catcher Sean Gaston (Brownsburg, Ind.) could showcase his stellar defense and lefthanded bat (Sanchez is the team’s top utility infielder and could make regular shifts to shortstop, second or third). Another lefthanded hitter, senior 1B Joe Thaman (.280, 1 HR, 23 RBI in ’03), also returns but will have a primary role on the mound, in his first college season as a pitcher.

The 2004 staff’s eight returning healthy pitchers (including Johnson, with his ’02 stats) combined for a 3.23 ERA and 28-8 record in their previous season with the Irish, with their other combined stats from the past season including two saves, 290 strikeouts, 115 walks and 318 hits allowed in 334 innings.

Niesel’s All-America 2003 season included a 2.65 ERA and 9-1 record (87 Ks, 18 BB, 86 H, .232 opp. batting avg. in 98.1 IP) while Johnson’s Freshman All-America effort in 2002 featured a 3.46 ERA and 9-5 record (86 Ks, 44 BB, 94 H, .249 avg. in 101.1 IP). Other top returners from ’03 include the lofty sophomore tandem of 7-foot-1 RHP Ryan Doherty (2.20, 2-2, SV, 44 Ks, 11 BB, 21 H, .200 in 28.2 IP) and 6-6 LHP Tom Thornton (1.81, 5-1, 29 Ks, 14 BB, 54 H, .269, 54.2 IP), with Doherty a top candidate to fill the closer role held by 2003 graduate J.P. Gagne. The Irish will be without the services of Axford, who posted a 4.31 ERA and 9-3 record in ’03 (69 Ks, 50 BB, 63 H, .245, 71.0 IP).

Several freshman pitchers are expected to play key roles in 2004, led by a trio of All-Americans – 6-1, 175-pounder Jeff Manship (San Antonio, Texas), 6-2, 205-pound Derik Olvey (Pelham, Ala.) and 6-3, 250-pound two-way threat Chris Vasami (Mamaroneck, N.Y.) – plus two other RHPs in 6-5, 210-pound Dan Kapala (Royal Oak, Mich.) and 6-3, 215-pound Jess Stewart (Manassas, Va.).

BIG EAST teams were well-represented on the CB and NCBWA preseason All-America teams, with players from five different BIG EAST teams receiving preseason All-America honors. Only the Southeastern Conference can boast more schools (7) with preseason All-Americans.

The other BIG EAST players who received preseason All-America honors include Boston College RHP Chris Lambert (CB 3rd team), Rutgers OF Jeff Frazier (CB 2nd team), St. John’s SS Mike Rozema (NCBWA 3rd team) and Seton Hall lefthanded reliever Chris Noonan (NCBWA 3rd team).

Eight players from Notre Dame’s 2004 non-conference opponents have received preseason All-America honors, among them USC catcher Jeff Clement (NCBWA 1st team, CB 2nd team), Minnesota LHP Glen Perkins (CB and NCBWA 2nd team), Arizona OF Jeff Van Houten (CB and NCBWA 3rd team), Louisville OF Mark Jurich (NCBWA 3rd team) and Minnesota OF Sam Stedl (NCBWA 3rd team). Three Florida Atlantic players also have received preseason All-America honors: LHP Randy Beam (CB 2nd team, NCBWA 3rd team), OF Jeff Fiorentino (CB and NCBWA 3rd team) and 1B Rusty Baron (CB 3rd team).

Rice and Miami (Fla.) are tied for first in the Collegiate Baseball 2004 preseason poll, followed by LSU, Georgia Tech, Texas, Stanford, Arizona State, Cal State Fullerton and Wichita State.

Four of Notre Dame’s 2004 opponents are among the Collegiate Baseball preseason top-40 poll: USC (16th), Florida Atlantic (19th), Arizona (22nd), Minnesota (25th) and Winthrop (28th). The Irish will face one of their most challenging tournament fields of the 10-year Paul Mainieri era at FAU’s Doubletree Diamond Classic on Feb. 27-29 – with all four participants (ND, FAU, Winthrop and Minnesota) among CB’s preseason top-30 teams.

The BIG EAST’s 2004 preseason coaches poll includes Rutgers in the No. 2 spot, followed by Boston College, West Virginia, Virginia Tech and Pittsburgh. BC’s Lambert was picked for preseason BIG EAST pitcher of the year award, an honor he earned in 2002 while Niesel was the ’03 recipient.

Here are links to the preseason polls and All-America teams:

Here are updated bio. notes on ND’s 2004 preseason All-Americans:

Steve Sollmann (Sr., 2B; Cincinnati, Ohio) – Team tri-captain and co-MVP in ’03, when he moved to leadoff spot and became 6th ND player ever to receive three-plus all-BIG EAST Conference honors (1st team in ’01, 2nd team in ’02, ’03) … his top ’03 honors included 2nd team All-America from the American Baseball Coaches Association and 3rd team from Baseball Writers … joined SS Rich Gonski (’64) as only ND middle IF ever named All-America … one of 42 all-time ND student-athletes to be named All-America and Academic All-America in same year (Dan Peltier and J.P. Gagne are the other ND baseball players so honored) … already holds some impressive spots in the ND career record book: 5th in career batting avg. (.370, behind Peltier’s .406, Eric Danapilis’ .405, Steve Stanley’s .384 and his brother Scott Sollmann’s .372), 5th in fielding assists (501; 118 shy of J.J. Brock’s record), 6th in stolen bases (67, behind Stanley’s 116, his brother’s 101, Pat Pesavento’s 94, Greg Layson’s 80 and Dan Bautch’s 68), 8th in hits (255; could become 2nd with 300-plus) … his 172 runs scored rank 11th in the ND record book (could become 3rd with 220-plus) while his 11 triples also rank 11th (just two have 15-plus, including his brother’s record 24) … his 123 career RBI are 43 shy of that ND top-10 list while his 33 doubles leave him 16 short of that ND top-10 … needs to start 51 games in ’04 to become 4th ND player with 230-plus (179) and could became 2nd to appear in 240-plus games (181) … also has racked up 343 career total bases (could be 4th with 450-plus), 77 walks (needs 32 for top-10) and 16 sacrifice bunts (3 for top-10) … his 38 stolen bases in ’03 ranked 7th in nation behind five OFs – Coastal Carolina’s Ryan McGraw (63), Eastern Kentucky’s Josh Anderson (57), Bethune-Cookman’s Sebastian Boucher (48), Tulane’s Jonny Kaplan (48) and Miami’s Danny Figueroa (40) – and fellow BIG EAST 2B Graig Badger of Rutgers (41) … finished ’03 as BIG EAST overall leader in hits (98; 4th in ND history), runs (67) and TBs (136), ranking 2nd among BIG EAST players in 3Bs (5) and 7th in batting (.384; 27th in ND history) … closed ’03 with 13-game hit streak (two shy of career-best streak earlier in ’03), including 10-for-17 showing at NCAA Fullerton Regional … owns .487 career batting avg. in NCAAs (38-for-78 in 18 GP), including .697 (23-for-33) in ND’s last two NCAA Regional tournaments … named Verizon CoSIDA 2nd team Academic All-American, with 3.30 cumulative GPA as marketing major … in addition to above stats, finished 2nd on ’03 team in 2Bs (16), slugging (.533), on-base (.438) and walks (25), and 3rd in HRs (4) and RBI (40) … his other ’03 stats included one time hit-by-pitch, more walks (25) than Ks (23), 2 sac. flies, 4 sac. bunts and just 8 errors in 310 fielding chances (.974 fielding pct.) as key member of defense that set ND record for season fielding pct. (.970, also 21st in nation in ’03; with Sollmann having a hand in 41 of 57 double plays) … posted team-best .550 leadoff OB pct. and ranked 2nd on team in batting with runners in scoring position (.373) while owning team’s 4th-best 2-out batting (.254, 13 RBI with 2 outs) … grounded into just 2 double plays, advanced baserunners 58% of the time (3rd-best on team) and posted nearly identical batting averages vs. LHPs (.388) and RHPs (.383) … rare junior-year recipient of ND’s Francis Patrick O’Connor Award (recognizing student-athletes who most embody “team spirit, inspiration, courage,” etc.) and became first player ever named BIG EAST player of the week three times in the same season (also tying BIG EAST career mark) … selected in 32nd round of 2003MLB draft by Oakland A’s.

Chris Niesel (Jr., RHP; Plantation, Fla.) – Ranks 1st in ND history with a 4.03 career strikeout-to-walk ratio (149/37), also ranking 6th in fewest walks per 9 innings (1.95) … his 2.95 career ERA is just shy of the ND top-10 (2.91) while his .929 career winning pct. (13-1) is on pace to best the ND record held by Herb Kelly (.912, 22-2) … his 149 career strikeouts leave him 52 shy of that ND top-10 list, with 29 starts (7 out of top-10) and 170.2 innings (88 shy of top-10) … named 2003 BIG EAST pitcher of year after going 7-0 with 2.58 ERA in 8 league starts, plus .247 opp. batting and 8-to-1 K-to-walk ratio (49/6) in BIG EAST play … joined WVU’s Zac Cline (9-2) as only pitchers with 7-plus league wins while BC’s Kevin Shephard and Chris Lambert (both 2.36) were only full-time starters with better ERA’s in conference play … nearly averaged one K per IP in BIG EAST play (49 in 52.1), plus just 1.03 walks per 9 IP (his 49 Ks were 4th-best in the BE) … finished 3rd among BIG EAST pitchers with 2.65 overall ERA while ranking 2nd in wins (9-1) and IP (98.1), 3rd in Ks (87) and 4th in low opponent batting (.232; just .216 by RH hitters) … led ND staff in wins, Ks, IP, K-to-BB ratio (4.58, 7th ND history), starts (15), Ks “looking (26), groundball outs (112) and IP per appearance (6.2), also ranking 3rd on staff in opp. batting and 4th in ERA (his other stats included 3 CGs, 86 H, 19 BB, 5 WP, 3 HB) … allowed just 2 HR in 402 batters faced … his 9-inning ’03 averages: 7.9 H (4th on staff), 1.74 BB (12th ND history), 8.0 Ks (4th on staff), 4.58 K/BB (7th ND history), 10.3 GO (5th on staff) and 36.8 BF … his ’03 situational pitching: .222 opp. batting with runners on (2nd on staff), .207 with 2 outs and 29% of leadoff batters reached (both 3rd on staff) … dnp at BE Tournament due to hand injury before strong no-decision at CS Fullerton in NCAAs (8 IP, 2 ER) … since only loss of his ND career (Feb. 28 vs. Nebraska), has dominated in his last 13 outings (9-0) to the tune of a 1.94 ERA, .218 opp. batting avg. and 5-to-1 K-to-walk ratio (84/17) in 13 starts … tossed near-no-hitter vs. hot-hitting West Virginia (.330 team avg.) on May 3, allowing bunt single with 2 outs left in 7-inning opener (23 BF, BB, 9 Ks) … would have been ND’s first no-hitter since ’88 … has won 31 of last 33 overall decisions (13-1 at ND, 3-1 in ’02 Cape Cod League, 2-0 in Blue-Gold fall instrasquad series, 13-0 as Aquinas HS senior) … 11th ND pitcher with 15-plus starts in a season … his ’03 stats also included 12th-best Ks and opp. avg. and BB ratio in ND history … 10th ND pitcher with multiple double-digit K games in career (10 vs. So. Ill. in ’02, 11 vs. Villanova in ’03)… also owns five 9-K games (four in ’03) … 4th ND player to receive multiple BE pitcher-of-week honors in same season … tied for 6th on ND season win pct. list (.900), with just 13 previous ND pitchers posting 10-plus wins.