Dec. 23, 2002

The Notre Dame baseball team is listed 19th in the first preseason national poll, released today by Collegiate Baseball magazine (Baseball America’s preseason poll will be released on Jan. 2, followed by the USA Today/ESPN coaches poll prior to the start of the 2003 season). Collegiate Baseball also listed Irish sophomore righthander Grant Johnson (Burr Ridge, Ill.) as a preseason third team All-American, matching an honor that Johnson earlier had received from the National College Baseball Writers Association.

Three of Notre Dame’s 2003 opponents are listed in the CB preseason poll: Arizona State (12), Wake Forest (15) and Nebraska (22). Other Midwest teams in the preseason top-40 poll include Southwest Missouri (24) and two teams that participated in the 2002 NCAA Notre Dame Regional: Ohio State (29) and Kent State (31).

Notre Dame junior second baseman Steve Sollmann – who earned second-team preseason All-America honors from the NCBWA – was not on the CB preseason list, which included just three second basemen (preseason player of the year Rickie Weeks of Southern University, plus Georgia Tech’s Eric Patterson and Tim Moss of Texas – with each of those players being part of the 2002 national team pool).

Johnson – who earned 2002 Freshman All-America honors from BA and CB – capped his stellar rookie season by earning a spot on the U.S. National Team. The 6-6, 220-pounder’s freshman season included a 3.46 ERA in 18 appearances and he led the BIG EAST in overall innings (101.1) while ranking second among BIG EAST players in overall wins (9-5), third in starts (14, with nine “game-one” starts) and sixth in strikeouts (86). His other 2002 stats included 44 walks, 94 hits allowed, a .249 opponent batting average, five wild pitches and nine hit batters.

CB named Johnson the national pitcher of the week after his one-hit, one-walk masterpiece in the 25-1 NCAA win over South Alabama – becoming just the 13th pitcher (fourth since ’81) ever to toss a no-hitter or one-hitter in the NCAAs. He then posted an opening-game victory in the Super Regional round at top-ranked Florida State.

Notre Dame returns the bulk of its pitching staff and four of nine offensive starters – plus highly-touted sophomore shortstop Matt Macri – from the 2002 squad that fashioned a 50-18 record and advanced to the College World Series.

The 2003 staff’s 12 returning pitchers combined to log 94 percent of the innings (550 of 584) and made all 68 starts in ’02, led by Johnson, his classmate Chris Niesel (3.36, 4-0, 72.1 IP, 62 Ks/18 BB, 68 H) and the current senior trio of closer J.P. Gagne (3.14, 9-4, 6 saves, 94.2 IP, 69 Ks/16 BB, 86 H), Peter Ogilvie (4.65, 7-5, 79.1 IP, 58 Ks, 26 BB, 90 H) and Ryan Kalita (3.16, 5-0, 42.2 IP, 36 Ks, 14 BB, 45 H). Two promising newcomers – 6-foot-6 LHP Tom Thornton and 7-foot-1 RHP Ryan Doherty – also could see significant innings in ’03.

Top returners in the field include Sollmann (.362, 47 RBI, 2 HR), senior RF Kris Billmaier (.313, 41 RBI, 3 HR) and junior 1B Joe Thaman (.272, 33 RBI, 6 HR). Junior Javi Sanchez (.281, 29 RBI, 5 HR, 50 R) started at shortstop in 2002 but is slated to be the 2003 opening-day starter at a new position (catcher) while Macri is set to return to shortstop after missing most of 2002 with an elbow injury. The rest of Notre Dame’s probable 2002 lineup includes freshmen at the other two outfield spots – Craig Cooper in center and Brennan Grogan or Cody Rizzo in left – while sophomore Matt Edwards could make his return from a broken leg as the squad’s new third baseman. Freshman infielder Greg Lopez is among the top DH candidates, as is freshman walk-on catcher Steve Andres. Cooper is the probable leadoff hitter, followed by Sollmann, Macri and Billmaier in the cleanup spot.

The top 10 teams in CB’s preseason poll include five of the seven other teams that joined Notre Dame in the 2002 College World Series: preseason No. 1 Texas, Rice (4), Georgia Tech (5), South Carolina (8) and Stanford (9). Others in CB’s preseason top 10 include Florida State (2), USC (3), LSU (6), Cal State Fullerton (8) and Houston (9).

The bottom half of the top 20 also includes Mississippi State (11), Long Beach State (13), Miami (14), Richmond (16), Baylor (17), Clemson (18) and South Alabama (20).

Six position players from teams on Notre Dame’s 2003 schedule are among CB’s list of 71 preseason All-Americans, including: Eastern Michigan OF Ryan Goleski (first team); a pair of second teamers in Wake Forest 3B Jamie D’Antona and Nebraska OF Jeff Leise; and third-team picks of Arizona State C Jeremy West, Bowling Green 1B Kelly Hunt and Eastern Michigan SS Brian Bixler. Four opposing pitchers also received preseason honors from CB: first-team RHP Kyle Sleeth (Wake Forest) and the third-team group of Villanova relief ace James Russell, Vanderbilt LHP Jeremy Sowers and Arizona State RHP Ryan Schroyer (Johnson and Sowers were roommates with the 2001 U.S. Junior National Team while Sleeth and Johnson were starters on the record-setting 2002 U.S. National Team staff).

See for the Collegiate Baseball official site.