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Irish Ready To Embark On Another Deep Run In 2004 College Baseball Season

Feb. 1, 2004

The practice of filling out the lineup card for a college baseball coach often involves certain elements of strategy, mixed with a timely hunch or a reward for hard work. There also typically are tough decisions to be made, an agonizing process that can lead to second-guessing.

Notre Dame head coach Paul Mainieri isn’t too worried about his starting lineup for 2004 opening day. He has more pressing concerns, such as the seemingly simple task of figuring out what 25 players will comprise the travel roster for that opening trip to the USC Classic.

That’s what happens when you don’t lose any of your veterans or signees who had been selected in the previous Major League draft. Or when you return 14 of your top 15 position players (including the top nine batting average leaders from ’03) from a 45-18 team while welcoming five freshman position players who could start at most Div. I programs and are part of the nation’s No. 6-rated freshman class.

“This is the deepest team – in terms of quality of talent more than simply the quantity of players – that we’ve had in my 10 years, and its rare because we don’t overrecruit,” says Mainieri, whose teams have extended the nation’s third-longest streak of seasons with 40-plus wins to 15 (plus five straight trips to the NCAAs).

“That depth has led to intense competition during practice, with players looking to separate themselves by showing consistency, diverse skills and the ability to deal with adversity. I’ve never felt more confident in a team and this lineup could be comparable to the 2002 group that went to the College World Series.”

The returners combined to make 89% of the offensive starts in ’03 while combining for 99% of the stolen bases (83 of 84), 90% of the hits (597 of 664) and runs (391 of 433), and 84% of the home runs (26 of 31).

Top returners in the field (the only departed regular is graduated centerfielder Kris Billmaier) include senior All-America second baseman Steve Sollmann, junior corner infielder Matt Edwards (the likely starter at first base), sophomore outfielder Cody Rizzo (who will open in center or right), senior catcher Javi Sanchez and junior Matt Macri – who is slated to make the move from shortstop to third base in ’04.

Other probable starters include three sophomores: leftfielder/DH Matt Bransfield, shortstop Greg Lopez and lefthanded DH Steve Andres. Outfield options include sophomore Craig Cooper and lefthanded-hitting classmate Brennan Grogan, plus freshman centerfield prospect Danny Dressman.


Sophomore Greg Lopez’s emergence at shortstop led to several likely postion shifts in the Irish infield.



It’s rare that an intact-returning infield leads to new starters at three positions. The emergence of Lopez at shortstop set the dominoes in motion, with Macri sliding to the third-base spot where he played impressively with the Cape Cod League’s Brewster Whitecaps in the summer of ’03. Edwards – who split time at third and first in ’03 – then headed across the diamond to first while senior Joe Thaman has forsaken his role as one of college baseball’s top defensive first basemen to try his hand as a lefthanded pitcher. The resulting infield combination includes three prep shortstops and one of the top defensive second basemen in all of college baseball.

Junior All-America righthander Chris Niesel leads the veteran pitchers, with the staff set to welcome back Grant Johnson (missed all of ’03 due to shoulder injury) while his fellow junior righthander John Axford will miss ’04 after “Tommy John” reconstructive elbow surgery. Niesel, Johnson and Axford each were among the top 45 players on the Oct. ’03 Perfect Game/Baseball America list of the nation’s top college prospects (prior to Axford’s injury).

The 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, plus two saves, 290 strikeouts, 115 walks and 318 hits allowed in 334 innings.Other top returners include the lofty sophomore tandem of 7-foot-1 Ryan Doherty and 6-6 lefty Tom Thornton, with Doherty a top candidate to replace 2003 All-America closer J.P. Gagne. Several freshmen also could play key roles, led by All-America righthanders Jeff Manship, Derik Olvey and Chris Vasami.

The most important newcomer is pitching coach Terry Rooney, with seven years of experience as a Division I assistant (last at Stetson).

“Even with the unfortunate injury to Axford, I like our pitching depth,” says Mainieri. “Terry’s gameplan focuses on things the pitchers can control – being mechanically sound and physically fit, controlling the running game, situational pitching, and aggressively challenging hitters. It’s truly a recipe for winning baseball.”

Sollmann (Cincinnati, Ohio) in 2003 became just the 11th Notre Dame student-athlete to couple All-America and Academic All-America honors as a non-senior, entering his final semester with a 3.38 GPA as a marketing major. His three-season totals already place him near the top of many Notre Dame records, including fifth in career batting average (.370), sixth in stolen bases (67) and eighth in hits (255).

Beyond his steady production, the second-year captain and converted prep centerfielder impressively has raised his game in NCAA Tournament play – batting .487 in 18 career NCAA games.


Senior second baseman Steve Sollmann is considered one of the nation’s top all-around players for the 2004 season.



“Steve is tough as nails, loves pressure and always delivers in big-game situations, in addition to his amazing consistency the past three seasons,” says Mainieri of Sollmann, who hit .384 with 67 runs and 38 SBs in ’03 (40 RBI, 4 HR, 5 3B, 16 2B, 25 BB/23 Ks).

“One of the keys to Steve’s success is his great opposite-field hitting. That makes him a tougher two-strike hitter and tougher out, because there’s no weakness the pitcher can exploit.”

Sollmann opted to return for his senior season, after being a 32nd-round selection of the Oakland A’s in the ’03 draft, and is the No. 12 senior prospect listed in the BA 2004 college preview (also cited as BIG EAST’s “best defensive second baseman” and “best baserunner”).

“Steve does so many things on a high level, whether it be bunting or using his compact, level swing for key situational hitting,” says Mainieri. “Steve’s ability on the bases is a credit to his athleticism but also to his intelligence and fearlessness. A lot of stealing bases is about attitude and Steve has a great mindset for this game.”

Sanchez (Miami, Fla.) – who holds the unique dual role of starting catcher and top utility infielder – joins Sollmann and Niesel as the ’04 tri-captains, a fitting title of leadership for a player focused on hard work and team goals.

“Javi is a great role model because he hardly played as a freshman but came back and seized the opportunity, after injuries to Macri and Edwards, as the starting shortstop for our 2002 College World Series team,” says Mainieri.

“Then, last season, we had a need at catcher and Javi stepped in again despite no experience at the position. He salvaged the last two seasons for us and it’s hard to imagine where we’d be without his contributions.”

Sanchez’s development into a viable catching prospect has come under the guidance of second-year assistant David Grewe, a utility player in his own right during his playing days at the University of Dayton.

“Javi made a strong commitment to learn the finer points of catching from coach Dave Grewe,” says Mainieri. “It’s a huge challenge receiving pitches from our talented pitchers and you have to learn new throwing mechanics. It also took time to finetune his blocking skills … but now it’s as if he’s been catching all his life.”

Sanchez will be hoping to take a page from the book of Mike Amrhein, who converted from infield to catcher late in his Notre Dame career. Amrhein saw a major boost in his batting (.323 to .394), RBI (49 to 71) and draft stock (rising from a 99th-round pick in ’96 to 10th-round as a senior in ’97), crediting his position switch with helping provide the offensive surge. Sanchez saw a similar effect in the final weeks of ’03, as the BIG EAST Tournament MVP (tourney record .727 batting/8-for-11, plus 6 RBI, 4 BB, 4 sac. bunts) and an NCAA Regional all-tournament selection (6-for-15, for a .330 final average, 42 R, 13 2B, 20 BB and just 16 Ks).


Freshman Sean Gaston is considered to be one of the nation’s top freshman catchers and could combine with senior Javi Sanchez to form a solid tandem behind the plate.



“As a catcher, you learn how to set up hitters and about positive and negative counts – all of which can help that catcher when he is hitting, because he has a better perspective of how the pitching is attacking him,” says Mainieri.

“Javi has become a very disciplined hitter and smart baserunner, in addition to his unselfish qualities as a great bunter and situational hitter. He even could bat second in the lineup, that’s how much confidence we have in him.”

Lefthanded-hitting freshman Sean Gaston (Brownsburg, Ind.) arrives as a polished catcher capable of spelling Sanchez on a regular basis (unlike in ’03, when Sanchez caught 90% of the innings). The runner-up for Indiana’s Mr. Baseball Award is not limited to defense, after batting .478 as a senior (8 HR, 8 3B, 35 R).

“I believe we have the best freshman catcher in the country and he’s a great all-around player,” says Mainieri of Gaston, who threw out 80 percent of basestealers in his prep career.

“Sean has excellent receiving skills, good hands, a strong arm, and his blocking has improved greatly. He also is a very clutch hitter who uses the whole field. The Chicago White Sox knew Sean was committed to attending Notre Dame but they still picked him in the draft. That’s an indication of his talent and I think sharing time with Javi will be very beneficial for him.”

The heavy-hitting Edwards (Mechanicsville, Va.) steadily has made progress on his defensive skills at first base while improving his baserunning, after an inspiring return from the freak broken leg suffered early in the ’02 season.


Junior corner infielder Matt Edwards hopes to again be a top run producer for the Irish in ’04.



“I’m so proud of Matt for the way he has come back from a serious injury. He played a leading role last season and we expect him to produce a lot of offense in ’04. Matt never gets cheated with his cuts at the plate and has such a violent swing – the ball jumps off his bat,” says Mainieri of Edwards, named first team all-BIG EAST and ABCA second team all-region in ’03 after batting .376 with a team-high eight home runs and BIG EAST-leading 69 RBI (16 2B, 25 BB).

Freshman first baseman Mike Dury (Indianapolis) – who also could see time as a lefthanded pitcher – has impressive switch-hitting ability, despite not hitting from the left side until ninth grade. An accomplished three-sport athlete at Bishop Chatard High School, the 6-5, 225-pounder quarterbacked two football state-title teams and added a basketball title in his senior year (he received Indiana’s prestigious “mental attitude” leadership award for both sports). Dury then capped his Indianapolis athlete-of-the-year performance as an all-state two-way baseball player, batting .420 (10 HR, 37 RBI) while posting a 1.08 ERA (8-1, 77 Ks, 5 BB).

“I’m excited to see what Mike can do,” says Mainieri. “He’s very hardworking and can punish the baseball from both sides of the plate.”

Vasami (Mamaroneck, N.Y.) provides another option at first base, with his biggest impact in ’03 fall workouts coming on the mound.

Lopez (Upper Arlington, Ohio) sparkled at shortstop in ’03 fall practice, playing error-free through the first 15 days of practice. The Academic All-America candidate (3.36 GPA) has proven to be a high-energy player with aggressive defensive reactions and improvement at the plate, after hitting .268 in the summer of ’03 with the wood-bat Delaware (Ohio) Cows.

“Defense is the top priority in choosing a shortstop because it makes you a championship-caliber team. But you also want to be tough from 1-9 in the batting order so that the opposing pitcher never gets a break,” says Mainieri.

“Greg was an outstanding linedrive hitter in high school but struggled at times, as many freshmen do. Now he’s stronger, more experienced and swings the bat well. He simply needs to have productive at-bats -by hitting in the clutch, moving runners up and drawing walks.”


Junior Matt Macri is slated to make the move from shortstop to third base.



Macri (Clive, Iowa) – the highest-rated recruit in the program’s history – could combine with Lopez for an airtight left side. Despite his freshman-year elbow injury and an inconsistent sophomore season (.294, 35 RBI, 4 HR, 19 Es), Macri remains highly-regarded and was slotted 33rd on the PG/BA list (Oct. ’03) of top college prospects (he was the fourth infielder on that list).

“Matt had an impressive summer playing third for Brewster and made some major-league plays during the fall. There’s no question he can be an elite player at that position, with his arm strength, glove skills, range and athleticism,” says Mainieri, with Baseball America dubbing Macri the BIG EAST’s “best defensive third baseman” and “infielder with the strongest arm.”

“Matt knows he will go as far in baseball as his bat takes him. Last year was a unique challenge, after being sidelined almost a year, and he was a little rusty. But he has some great offensive skills and has worked very hard in the offseason to become a more consistent hitter.”

Senior infielders Tim Murray (Shrub Oak, N.Y.) and Zach Sisko (Belleville, Ill.) round out the squad, each noted for the standard set by his work ethic. Sophomore Nick Mainieri (South Bend, Ind.) – son of the Irish head coach – also has joined the program as a reserve catcher.

There are plenty of outfield options but only one player has a spot nailed down, as Rizzo likely will open as the starter in center or right.

“We’ve had seasons where the outfield was set but this can be a great situation because we have a wide variety of players with different qualities, defensively and offensively,” says Mainieri.

Rizzo (Temecula, Calif.) earned preseason first team all-BIG EAST honors (per BA) and was a rare soccer/baseball star as a prep, with his unending hustle and deft footwork evident in several aspects of his game – including stellar defensive plays such as the full-extension catch he made in the NCAAs after racing from right field to shallow center. Irish fans should expect a big jump in Rizzo’s production (.314 in ’03, with 4 HR, 38 RBI, 53 R, 11 2B) but it’s unlikely he will approach the 28 times he was hit-by-pitch, ranking seventh in the NCAA record book.


Sophomore Cody Rizzo is the only player in a crowded outfield who has locked down a starting role (in center or right).



“There’s something special about Cody’s demeanor and the way he plays the game – he won’t back down from any challenge,” says Mainieri. “He’s a great baserunner and clutch hitter to all fields, but Cody really has reshaped his offense with a lot more power. He’s developed his short, quick swing and the ball jumps off the bat. He hit eight home runs in fall ball while facing some great pitchers.”

Cooper (Plainview, N.Y.) combines good size (6-2, 205) with hard-hitting offense, a strong arm and tremendous basestealing ability. The Chaminade High School product hit .303 as a freshman (22 R, 15 RBI, 10 SB) and will be looking to build off an impressive summer with the Hays (Kan.) Larks (.337, 24 SB, 5 HR).

“Craig has the skills but he needs to put it all together on a consistent basis,” says Mainieri. “We need him to draw walks and lay down timely bunts to go along with those great linedrives, because he puts pressure on the opponent with his basestealing ability.”

Grogan (Tequesta, Fla.) – who joined Cooper in platooning as the 2-hole hitter for the stretch run in ’03, en route to batting .299 (5 3B, 15 SB, 25 RBI, 43 R) – can impact the game as a pesky hitter and table setter. “Brennan can fill an important role by continuing to be a clutch hitter who puts the ball in play,” says Mainieri.

Yet another sophomore, Alex Nettey (Dolton, Ill.), adds to the outfield options after batting .229 in ’03 (11 R). “Alex has a very quick bat and is one of the team’s hardest workers. He just needs more consistent production to emerge as one of our top options,” says Mainieri.

Dressman (San Jose, Calif.) faces a stiff test trying to beat out the veterans in center, where four of the current sophomores and Billmaier each started for portions of ’03 (All-American Steve Stanley patrolled center in every game from ’99-’02). The 5-9, 175-pound speedster joins Gaston and Dury as three new lefthanded bats in the lineup and he eventually could fill a leadoff role, after batting .402 as an all-state cleanup hitter in ’03 (8 HR, 40 RBI, 15 SB).

“Danny came in under the radar screen but has the skills to make an impact,” says Mainieri of the second-generation Notre Dame student-athlete whose mother, the former Diane Shillinburg, played tennis for the Irish.

“We have a need for an effective centerfielder and Danny has a lot of similarities to Steve Stanley – his size, mannerisms, speed, lefthanded bat, lefthanded throw. When he gets his turn, it will be up to him to take advantage.”


Sophomore Matt Bransfield could emerge as the starter at left field or DH, after an impressive summer and fall season in 2003.



Freshman Chris Fournier (Fairfield, Conn.) is yet another player involved in the DH/outfield derby, due to his classic righthanded swing that produced a .514 career batting average as a prep shortstop. He was named state player of the year and was an ABCA all-region pick, after setting a school record by batting .671 in ’03 (20 2B, 30 BB, 42 RBI, 3 HR).

Bransfield and Andres return as top DH candidates but each could see time in left field or behind the plate (they also boast similar GPAs, 3.34 and 3.40 respectively, as Academic All-America candidates).

Bransfield (Englewood, Colo.) emerged in ’03 by supplying clutch hits before finishing with a .310 season average (10 RBI, 3 2B) while typically batting fifth vs. lefthanders. A bulked-up Bransfield (6-1, 200) then turned in a strong summer with the wood-bat Colorado Sox (.381, 13 HR, 36 RBI), boosting his confidence for ’04.

“Matt has worked hard on his swing, really attacks the baseball and can change the game by knocking it out of the park,” says Mainieri of Bransfield, one of eight former prep quarterbacks who dot the Irish roster. “We’re not sure what his best position will be but Matt has a chance to be in the lineup because of that aggressive approach at the plate.”

Andres (Napa, Calif.) – a fourth-generation Notre Dame student, with his great-grandfather William Andres serving as a catcher on the 1916-18 ND baseball teams – completed a classic walk-on story as a freshman, sparked by his last-minute decision to attend the Notre Dame tryouts (his mother had to ship his catcher’s gear). The linedrive-hitting lefthander then served as the opening-week spark and remained a regular throughout ’03 (.269, 19 RBI, 4 HR).

“Steve hit in the 3-hole vs. righthanders for the final part of what was an up-and-down season that is typical from any freshman. With so many DH options this season, there will be a high premium placed on consistency,” says Mainieri.

Junior DH Brent Weiss (Cockeysville, Md.) will be looking to return after being sidelined by nagging shoulder injuries that date back to high school. A potent hitter with power to all fields, the 6-1, 195-pounder launched a pair of memorable grand slams in limited duty as a freshman.


Junior Chris Niesel posted a 2.95 ERA and 13-1 record in his first two seasons with the Irish while his 4.03 career K-to-walk ratio is on pace to break the Notre Dame record.



Niesel (Plantation, Fla.) -rated by PG/BA (Oct. ’03) as the nation’s No. 39 draft prospect (16th RHP) – already ranks as one of the top pitchers in Notre Dame history, particularly in the postseason with a 2.05 ERA in six career appearances. Baseball America named Niesel as one of five pitchers on its ’01 high school All-America team (the other four entered pro ball) and the Irish ace has not disappointed, going 13-1 while compiling a 2.95 ERA and 4.03 K-to-walk ratio that is on to pace to set the Notre Dame record.

“You always like to know what you’re going to get with a player and Chris is that type of bulldog competitor,” says Mainieri. “He has pinpoint location with his low-90s fastball, a tough curveball and an improving changeup and slider. In addition to being such a polished pitcher, he exudes confidence and has developed into a daily leader for this pitching staff.”

Niesel’s senior season as a prep (13-0) sparked a 22-1 overall streak that stretched into the ’03 season. After suffering the only loss of his Irish career in ’03 (vs. Nebraska), the eventual BIG EAST pitcher of the year responded to the tune of a 1.94 ERA and 9-0 record in his final 13 outings (84 Ks, 17 BB in 88.1 IP).

Johnson (Burr Ridge, Ill.) – rated by PG/BA (Oct. ’03) as college baseball’s No. 24 prospect (12th RHP) – hopes to ease back into the starting rotation. The 6-5, 215-pounder is noted for his classic three-quarters delivery and a low-90s fastball that helped yield a 3.46 ERA and 9-5 record in 2002 (86 Ks, 44 BB, 94 H, 101.1 IP) en route to Freshman All-America honors and a spot on the U.S. National Team.


Junior righthander Grant Johnson – a Freshman All-American in 2002 – will be looking to return from injury that held him out of the 2003 season.



“Grant has shown a tremendous work ethic throughout the recovery process,” says Mainieri of Johnson, whose ’02 postseason included a 1-hitter vs. South Alabama and a win at top-ranked Florida State. “He’s always been a tremendous competitor but Grant truly is on a mission to be a top player again for the program – and it’s obviously exciting any time you have a player of Grant’s ability rejoin your club.”

The 6-5, 180-pound Axford (Port Dover, Ontario) had a blistering 9-0 start in ’03 (finishing 9-3 with a 4.13 ERA, 69 Ks, 50 BB, 63 H in 71 IP), validating the Seattle Mariners’ decision to pick him in the seventh round of the ’01 draft. He remained a top prospect in the Oct. ’03 PG/BA ratings (44th among college players, 18th RHP) before suffering the injury.

“We expect John to make a full recovery and his attitude has been great,” says Mainieri of Axford, who made key mechanical adjustments in the fall after going 14-5 with a 4.31 ERA in his first two seasons (133 Ks, 109 BB, 141.2 IP).

“John always has featured electric pitches, with a mid-90s fastball, hard-breaking curve and great changeup. He keeps the ball low and produces a lot of groundballs – I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s a top pitcher in 2005.”


Senior Joe Thaman quickly has dveloped into a top lefthanded pitcher with the Irish, after serving as the starting first baseman from 2001-03.



Thaman (St. Louis, Mo.) – who hit .279 as ND’s starting first baseman from ’01-’03 (9 HR, 28 2B, 81 RBI) – now has the chance to help the Irish on the other side of the pitches. A two-way player at St. Louis University High School, the 6-4, 210-pound lefthander posted a 3.23 ERA and 7-1 record as a prep senior (57 Ks, 25 BB, 45 IP).

“This move always has been an option and it should be a huge boost for our team,” says Mainieri of Thaman, who takes his elite defensive skills to the middle of the diamond. “Joe had a great fall and a lot of that is due to his experience in pressure situations and his great athleticism. He has been totally committed to re-learning the position and can pound the strike zone with all three pitches.

“Another intangible is Joe’s approach to pitching with a hitter’s perspective. He has an inherent feel for the game and is able to make pitch-by-pitch adjustments, which is one of the keys to being a great pitcher.”

The 6-6, 210-pound Thornton (Middleboro, Mass.) could emerge as a top starter, after registering the fourth-best season ERA ever by a Notre Dame freshman in ’03 (1.81, 5-1, 29 Ks, 14 BB, 54 H, 54.1 IP) before a solid summer with the Newport Gulls (2.91, 3-1).

“Tom is a classic thinking-man’s pitcher who uses his deception and ability to hide the ball. He also has good offspeed pitches and always is around the zone,” says Mainieri of Thornton, whose 3.29 GPA qualifies him for Academic All-America consideration.

Doherty’s 7-foot-1, 220-pound frame cast a big shadow on college baseball in 2003, despite an inauspicious beginning that saw him yield five runs in 0.2 innings of work. But the Toms River, N.J., native responded with 14 straight appearances in which he did not allow an earned run (spanning 23 innings), shaving his ERA from 67.50 to 2.20 while averaging nearly 14 Ks per nine innings (44, in 28.2, plus 11 BB, 2-0, SV, 21 H, team-best .220 opp. avg.) – followed by a dominating summer with the Delaware (Ohio) Cows (0.46, 3 SV, 28 Ks, 5 BB, 19.2).


Sophomore Ryan Doherty could inherit the closer role, after an impressive rookie season in which he posted a 2.20 ERA with 44 strikeouts and just 11 walks in 28.2 innings.



“Ryan always competes on a very high level and has made some great mechanical improvements to create a sharper downward plane for his high release point. He still has that low-90s fastball with good movement, to go along with a developing slider,” says Mainieri of Doherty, who was rated by BA as the nation’s No. 47 prospect among college sophomores (15th RHP).

Righthanders Martin Vergara and Tyler Jones and lefty Scott Bickford add to the highly-regarded junior class that was rated by BA as the nation’s top freshman class in 2002.

Vergara (Paterson, N.J.) – a 15th-round draft pick of the Cleveland Indians in ’02 – is a tremendous fielding pitcher with a low-90s fastball. His first two seasons included a 4.14 ERA and 6-1 record (55 Ks, 38 BB, 63 IP). “Martin has the work ethic and tools to be a great college pitcher but his success hinges on command and consistency,” says Mainieri. “We’ve worked on cleaning up his arm action and he has the potential to be an effective strike thrower.”

Jones (Arlington, Texas), who logged 27 innings in his first two seasons (5.40, 3-1, 21 Ks, 11 BB), heads into ’04 with a new-look sidearm delivery. The 6-4, 205-pounder was a 30th-round draft pick of the Atlanta Braves in ’02 and could be reborn as a sidearm prospect. “Tyler grasped the change very quickly and now it’s just a matter of executing the delivery on a consistent basis,” says Mainieri.

Bickford (Owings, Md.) made seven appearances in his first two seasons but could take on a bigger role. “Scott’s breaking ball has become a tough pitch and the key thing for him is simply staying within himself. If he can stay around the zone, Scott has a chance to contribute more this season,” says Mainieri.

Senior lefthander Cody Wilkins (Hudson, N.C.) logged four relief outings in his first three seasons with the Irish but could find a regular role due to his “tough slider and ability to throw strikes with regularity,” says Mainieri.

Manship (San Antonio, Texas) – whose brother Matt pitches for Stanford – is the highest-rated pitcher to join Notre Dame, with BA listing him as the No. 3 prospect among college freshmen (the Arizona Diamondbacks made him a token 50th-round pick in the ’03 draft, due to signability issues stemming from Manship’s strong commitment to the Irish). Any discussion about the top prospect begins with his devastating curveball, a classic knee-buckler that some scouts have labeled as the best to come out of the high school ranks in recent years.

“We want to bring in players who can throw offspeed pitches for strikes and Jeff’s been comfortable with that pitch since he was 10,” says Mainieri. “His over-the-top arm slot, tremendous ’12/6′ rotation, arm speed, self-confidence and work ethic are a blueprint for curveball success. Of course it helps that Jeff has a tremendous fastball that he can locate on both sides of the plate.”

Manship’s pair of All-America seasons at Reagan High School included a 0.64 ERA and 13-1 record as a senior (133 Ks, 18 BB, 33 H in 77 IP) for an eye-popping 7.4 K-to-walk ratio. His time with the U.S. Junior National Teams included a 15-strikeout performance vs. homestanding Curacao at the ’03 Pan Am Games.


Freshman Derik Olvey is one of the top-rated freshman pitchers in the nation.



When Olvey (Pelham, Ala.) signed with the Irish, he bypassed the chance to play in his backyard in the Southeastern Conference. Months later, the All-American delayed his entry into pro baseball (the L.A. Dodgers had drafted him in the 13th round) by sticking to his commitment to join the Irish. Now he’s a key member of one of the nation’s top freshman classes and is 22nd on BA’s list of top freshman prospects (9th RHP).

“Derik had plenty of chances to go somewhere else but he believes in our program and wanted to be a part of it,” says Mainieri of Olvey, who could become the program’s first monogram winner from Alabama since 1917.

A prototypical power pitcher due to his husky 6-2, 205-pound frame and heavy, low-90s fastball, Olvey also has a mature mound presence and fierce competitiveness. Those ingredients combined for a senior season that included a 1.49 ERA, 9-3 record and nearly a 9-to-1 K-to-walk ratio (93/11, plus 36 H in 70.2 IP) for the nation’s No. 3-ranked team.

Three other freshman righthanders – Dan Kapala (Royal Oak, Mich.), Jess Stewart (Manassas, Va.) and Vasami – could emerge as prime contributors.

Kapala – an ABCA all-region pick and Michigan player of the year – is a raw commodity whose skills are quickly being polished by Rooney. Blessed with a major league body (6-5, 210), a low-90s fastball and a classic 10/11 o’clock arm-slot, Kapala has shown why the Seattle Mariners took a shot at signing him as their 47th-round pick. His stellar senior season included better than two Ks per inning (193, in 93.0), plus a 1.05 ERA and 11-4 record.

“Dan made important mechanical adjustments and you really can see what a projectable talent he is, particularly with that whip-like delivery and late movement on his fastball,” says Mainieri.

The 6-3, 215-pound Stewart – who follows in the footsteps of his grandfather Jack Stewart, a pitcher on the 1945 Notre Dame squad – posted a 1.41 ERA and 90 Ks in 51 innings as a senior (6-3, 12 BB).

“Jess has very advanced mechanics, with fluid delivery and a heavy, low-90s fastball to go with a great changeup and quality slider. We expect him to develop into a great strikeout/groundout pitcher – and that usually translates to great success,” says Mainieri.

Vasami, known for his tough slider and low-90s fastball, turned in a 0.67 ERA, 10-1 record and 120 Ks in 62 innings in ’03. “Chris has impressed us because he goes right after hitters and throws his offspeed pitches for strikes. He could log some valuable innings,” says Mainieri.

Three freshmen – LHP Matt Whittington (Melbourne, Fla.) and righthanders Rico Bertucci (Belleville, Ill.) and Jeff Samardzija (Valparaiso, Ind.) – round out the staff.

Whittington – whose father Mike was a linebacker on ND’s 1977 national-title team – is best known for a tough changeup that earned him a 2.14 career ERA. Bertucci follows Thaman and Sisko as the third St. Louis University High School product on the ’04 squad and proved to be a “strike machine” during ’03 fall workouts. Samardzija – a monogram-winning receiver on the ’03 Irish football team – is ND’s first football/baseball player since Scott Sollmann (’94-’96). The 6-5, 205-pounder is noted for his arm strength, clean delivery, athleticism and upside on the mound after posting a 3.28 ERA, 6-3 record and 50 Ks as a prep senior.