May 29, 2002

The Notre Dame baseball team is set to welcome three conference champions for the 2002 NCAA South Bend Regional at Eck Stadium, as top-seeded South Alabama (Sun Belt Conference), Ohio State (Big Ten) and Kent State (Mid-American) will join the BIG EAST champion Irish in looking to ride the momentum of their recent conference titles.

The Regional opens on Friday at 3:05 (with ND vs. OSU), followed by the South Alabama-Kent State game at 7:05.

South Alabama is ranked 20th by both Baseball America and Collegiate Baseball and 21st in the USA Today coaches poll while Notre Dame is 16th in the BA and coaches polls and 17th according to CB.

Notre Dame is one of nine schools to host three-plus Regionals in the last four seasons, with Florida State, Stanford and LSU being the only teams to host a regional every year since the NCAA field expanded from 48 to 64 teams in 1999.

Here’s a quick look at the four teams (check back to for fact sheets on all four teams, photos from Thursday’s official practice sessions and coaches’ comments from the pre-tournament press conference).

NOTRE DAME heads into the NCAAs sporting a 44-15 record, with the current 35-5 streak matching the team’s 40-game start in the 2002 season (which led to the program’s first No. 1 national ranking).

Notre Dame ranks eighth in the nation for team (ERA) and joins Texas and Rice as the only teams ranked among the nation’s top-20 ERA leaders each of the past three seasons (16th in 2000, fifth in ’01). The depth of the Irish pitching staff fittingly was seen at the BIG EAST Tournament banquet, as no ND pitchers received all-conference honors (due to their similar stats and impact).

On a staff that has seen several pitchers capable of filling the “No. 1 starter” role, junior RHP Peter Ogilvie (3.57, 7-3, 52 Ks in 68 IP) has been announced as the starter for Friday’s game versus the Buckeyes. Ogilvie has posted complete-game victories this season in key series vs. Virginia Tech and Boston College, plus a solid effort in Sunday’s 4-3 loss to Rutgers (8 IP, 10 H, 6 Ks, 3 BB). The 6-3, 215-pounder will be looking to reprise his impressive outing in the 2001 NCAAs, when his complete game helped the Irish fight off elimination in a 5-2 win over Florida International (9 H, 2 BB, 5 Ks).

Freshman RHP Grant Johnson (3.35, 7-4, 74 Ks in 80.2 IP) is the probable starter for ND’s second game of the Regional, after beating Rutgers in the 8-3 BIG EAST Tournament opener (7 IP, 9 H, 2 BB, 7 Ks).

The Irish pitching depth includes three righthanders – Ogilvie, Johnson and junior relief ace J.P. Gagne – with seven wins each, plus three other pitchers with five wins. The staff’s nine regulars each own an ERA below 4.20, led by six with ERAs in the 1.86 – 3.57 range. Notre Dame’s streak of 14 consecutive 40-win seasons is the fourth-longest active streak in Division I baseball, trailing only Florida State (25), Wichita State (25) and Clemson (17). The Irish are making their 17th all-time trip to the NCAAs, including four straight and five in the eight-year Paul Mainieri era.

The Irish have won nearly 82-percent of their home games in nine seasons at Eck Stadium (216-49), including a 23-3 home record during the 2002 season.

OHIO STATE (36-18-1, 18-11 Big Ten) has won 13 of its last 18 games, after winning the Big Ten Conference Tournament as the second seed, with a 6-3 victory over top-seed Minnesota. The Buckeyes are batting .309 with 57 home runs, 101 doubles and 70 stolen bases – led by junior 1B and first team all-Big Ten selection Nick Swisher (.359, 50 RBI, 9 HR) and a pair of second-teamers in junior RF Doug Deeds (.383, 45 RBI, 12 HR) and sophomore 2B Christian Snavely (.371, 39 RBI, 8 HR). Senior catcher Joe Wilkins was named MVP of the Big Ten Tournament, after batting 6-for-11 (HR, 3B, 2B, 3 RBI), while Swisher had a 19-game hitting streak earlier this season. Senior LF Doug Dendinger is OSU’s career leader in walks, with 140. OSU’s 4.27 staff ERA is paced by a pair of All-Big Ten first-team selections: RHP Nate Smith (2.54, 6-0; dnp last week) and LHP Scott Lewis (2.71, 7-2), the Big Ten rookie of the year.

Senior righthander E.J. Laretta (4.82, 8-4) owns 34 career wins and earned second team all-Big Ten while sophomore LHP Josh Newman is 8-5 with a 4.08 ERA. The OSU pitchers have combined for 350 Ks and just 145 walks, with a .279 opponent batting average.

The Buckeyes are slated to send Newman to the mound on Friday while Laratta is OSU’s likely starter for its second game of the regional.

OSU is making its 15th all-time appearance in the NCAAs and ninth in 15 seasons under head coach Bob Todd (three of the last four). The Buckeyes played host to NCAA regionals in 1999 and 2001 (won by Mississippi State, with OSU losing to Delaware and Kent State). OSU advanced from its 1999 Regional but dropped the decisive third game in the Super-Regional vs. Cal State Fullerton (which had won the South Bend Regional at Eck Stadium).

Notre Dame holds a 24-18 series edge vs. OSU but the teams have met just once since 1991, a 5-4 OSU win on the opening week of the 2000 season (at the Service Academies Classic in Millington, Tenn.). Aaron Heilman was working towards a victory in that seven-inning game when his errant throw on a routine double-play ball led to the decisive pair of unearned runs (Heilman went on to win his next 10 decisions and 25 of his final 26). E.J. Laretta picked up that 2000 win over ND, after OSU rallied from a 4-0 deficit by scoring five times in the fifth and sixth.

Just two current OSU players – 1B Nick Swisher and C Joe Wilkins – played in the 2000 ND-OSU game while five current Irish players were active in that game: DH Matt Bok, 3B Andrew Bushey, C Paul O’Toole, CF Steve Stanley and LF Brian Stavisky.

SOUTH ALABAMA – making its 21st trip to the NCAAs and eighth consecutive – is one of only eight schools in the nation to qualify for the NCAAs 13-plus times in the past 14 years. The South Alabama program also ranks among the leading producers of Major League players, including current Arizona Diamondback outfielder Luis Gonzalez (a teammate of former Notre Dame infielder Craig Counsell), Chicago Cubs pitcher Jon Lieber and Colorado Rockies outfielder Juan Pierre.

Despite dropping a 20-9 game to New Mexico State in the title game of the Sun Belt Conference Tournament, South Alabama (41-17, 17-5 Sun Belt) still was able to claim a No. 1 regional seed for the second consecutive season (Seton Hall beat USA twice at the 2001 Clemson Regional). The Jaguars posted 2002 regular-season wins over each of the NCAA’s top three overall seeds (Florida State, Clemson and Alabama) while winning each of their Sun Belt series.

USA junior LF Ryan Mulhern received national player-of-the-week honors after batting .368 with four home runs at the Sun Belt Tournament, including three in a win over Florida International (Mulhern is batting .356 overall, with 16 HR and 62 RBI).

Sophomore 1B Jansen Rayborn (.358, 40 RBI, 4 HR) leads a South Alabama offense that is hitting .321 with 73 home runs, 123 doubles and 78 stolen bases. The Jaguar pitching staff has an ERA of 4.76, with a .266 opponent team batting average, 478 Ks and 233 walks. The Jaguars are slated to send senior RHP Sam Smith (3.36, 8-1, 109 Ks in 109.2 IP) to the mound vs. Kent State, with sophomore RHP Clark Girardeau (5.40, 8-5, 95 Ks in 98.1 IP) then set to start USA’s next game.

Notre Dame and South Alabama now have been placed in the same NCAA Regional three times since 1996, including at Alabama in 1996 and at Mississippi State in 2000 – but the only meeting between the teams remains a 9-7 Jaguars home win in the 1991 Coca-Cola Classic.

Irish head coach Paul Mainieri has plenty of experience in showdowns versus South Alabama, after playing second base for the potent University of New Orleans teams in 1978 and ’79.

KENT STATE – making its sixth appearance in the NCAAs – returned 19 letterwinners, six position starters and eight of 10 pitchers from its 2001 team that went 32-30 overall (16-11 MAC), including 2-2 at the NCAA Columbus Regional. The Golden Flashes head into the 2002 NCAAs with a 37-20 overall record, including 18-8 in Mid-American Conference play before winning the MAC Tournament with a 13-4 win over Ball State.

Phil LeCascio leads the Flashes with a .387 batting average. Chris Welsch is second on the team with a .342 average, but leads the team with 78 hits and 18 doubles. Pat O’Brien has 17 home runs to lead Kent State, which is batting .318 as a team. Dirk Hayhurst is 8-3 with a 2.84 ERA and has 92 strikeouts to lead a staff that owns a 5.06 ERA.

The KSU offense tied a MAC Tournament record by totaling 18 home runs, pushing its season total to 85 (plus 126 doubles, 62 stolen bases and a .318 batting average). Senior C Phil LoCascio (.387, 42 RBI, 38 BB) leads the offense from the 2-hole while junior 2B Chris Welsh is batting .342 (55 RBI, 7 HR) and junior C/DH Pat O’Brien owns a team-best 17 home runs (.338, 56 RBI).

Junior RHP Dirk Hayhurst (2.84, 8-3, 92 Ks in 88.2 IP) has emerged as KSU’s No. 1 starter and is slated to start vs. South Alabama, with junior LHP Chris White (4.62, 5-3, 72 Ks in 74 IP) listed as the probable starter for the Flashes’ second game of the Regional. The Kent State staff owns a 5.06 ERA, with a .288 opponent batting average, 396 Ks and 174 walks.