Aug. 29, 2001

Highly-touted shortstop Matt Macri and the rest of the Notre Dame baseball team were all smiles on the first day of the 2001 fall semester.

It’s official! Notre Dame’s highly-touted group of freshman baseball players has arrived for the 2001 fall semester and has been projected as one of the nation’s top incoming classes. Five of the freshmen joined three Irish returners as players who were selected in the 2001 Major League draft-but none of the draftees signed during the summer, with the teams ultimately losing rights to the players after the players had attended their first classes on Tuesday morning.

The talented group of newcomers is led by shortstop/pitcher Matt Macri (Dowling, Iowa) and righthander Chris Niesel-who some consider to be the nation’s top incoming freshmen at their respective positions. Righthanders Martin Vergara (Paterson, N.J. and Grant Johnson (Burr Ridge, Ill.) joined Macri by earning Gatorade player-of-the-year honors for their states while another righthander, John Axford (Brantford, Ontario), elected to attend Notre Dame rather than signing as the seventh-round pick of the Seattle Mariners.

The other newcomers include righthander Tyler Jones (Arlington, Texas), shortstop Matt Edwards (Mechanicsville, Va.), catcher Jay Molina (Moline, Ill.) and lefthander Scott Bickford (Owings, Md.).

The all-around talent of the 11-player class-which includes two recent additions in outfielder/catcher Brent Weiss (Cockeysville, Md.) and infielder Geoff Millsom (New York, N.Y.)-stands as a tribute to the diligent recruiting effort of head coach Paul Mainieri, assistant coach/recruiting cooridanator Brian O’Connor and assistant coach Dusty Lepper.

“There’s no question that Notre Dame’s is one of the strongest recruiting classes in college baseball, and maybe the best,” said Baseball America editor Allan Simpson, after confirming that the class had arrived intact for the fall term.

“Matt Macri was the best high school shortstop in the country and would have been a first-round pick if he hadn’t been so intent on playing at Notre Dame. They’ve also got at least four pitchers who should make major contributions as freshmen.

“Don’t be fooled by the (relatively low) draft position of some of these players. Most would have made a much greater impact (in the draft) if they were signable, they weren’t, so teams just passed on them. Paul Mainieri and Brian O’Connor have reason to be really ecstatic about this class.”

Player Pos. Ht. Wt. Bats Hometown Previous School
John Axford RHP 6-4 180 Brantford, Ontario Assumption College HS
Scott Bickford LHP 6-4 160 Owings, MD Northern HS
Matt Edwards SS/OF 6-2 180 R Mechanicsville, VA Lee-Davis HS
Grant Johnson RHP 6-6 205 Burr Ridge, IL Lyons Township HS
Tyler Jones RHP 6-5 190 Arlington, TX James Martin HS
Matt Macri SS/RHP 6-2 195 R Clive, IA Dowling HS
Geoff Milsom IF 6-1 195 L New York, NY Poly Prep HS
Jay Molina C 5-11 195 R Moline, IL Moline HS
Chris Niesel RHP 6-0 185 Plantation, FL St. Thomas Aquinas HS
Martin Vergara RHP 6-1 180 Paterson, NJ DePaul Catholic HS
Brent Weiss OF/C 6-1 225 R Cockeysville, MD St. Paul’s HS

The five freshmen who were selected in the 2001 draft included Axford (7th round, Seattle), Vergara (15th round, Cleveland) and Macri (17th round, Minnesota). Jones-who joined Axford as Notre Dame’s pair of spring signees-was a 30th-round pick of the Atlanta Braves while Niesel’s strong commitment to Notre Dame dropped him to the 47th round (where he was picked by the Chicago Cubs). Johnson’s strong position on attending Notre Dame resulted in him not being selected during the 50-round draft.

Brian O’Connor meets with freshman pitchers (from left) Tyler Jones, Grant Johnson, John Axford, Scott Bickford, Chris Niesel and Martin Vergara in the dugout of Frank Eck Stadium.

Three veteran Notre Dame players also were selected in the 2001 draft but elected to return for the 2002 season: junior rightfielder Brian Stavisky (33rd round, Chicago Cubs), senior catcher Paul O’Toole (48th round, San Francisco) and senior centerfielder Steve Stanley (50th round, Florida).

Notre Dame’s 2001 roster included just six seniors, led by three-righthanded starters Aaron Heilman and Danny Tamayo and shortstop Alec Porzel-who were drafted and recently began their pro careers. The Irish are set to return eight starting position players and each of their top five leaders in batting average from the 2001 season.

Notre Dame’s wide-reaching roster base is evident in the fact that the 11 freshmen hail from nine different states/provinces-Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Ontario, Texas and Virginia-with the 2002 Irish roster now set to include players from at least 20 different states or provinces (also Arizona, California, Hawaii, Indiana, Minnesota, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Washington).


Matt Macri’s first workout in an Irish uniform drew the attention of the local media.

Macri hit .465 from the No. 2 spot in the batting order during his senior season (Iowa prep baseball is played in the summer), with 10 home runs and 65 RBI while leading Dowling to its 42-3 state championship season (he homered in the 13-2 win over Marshalltown in the state title game). Last fall, the 6-2, 195-pounder passed for over 2,000 yards and 22 touchdowns while rushing for 1,500-plus yards and 11 TDs for Dowling’s 11-0 team that beat Bettendorf 35-28 in the state title game.

Niesel’s eye-popping senior season for the nation’s 12th-ranked team (Aquinas High School) included a 13-0 record and 0.35 ERA, plus 120 Ks and just 11 walks in 81 innings-for nine-inning averages of 13.3 strikeouts and 1.2 walks, with a 10.9 K-to-walk ratio. The 6-0, 185-pounder was one of five pitchers named a first team All-American by Baseball America and was named Broward County pitcher of the year. He pitched Aquinas to victory in the state semifinals, with Aquinas losing in the state title game vs. the nation’s top-ranked team Seminole High School (he did not play summer ball).

The 6-1, 180-pound Vergara was the Gatorade player of the year for the state of New Jersey, after posting a 10-0 record, 0.30 ERA, 127 strikeouts and just 17 walks in 67 innings at DePaul Catholic-for a whopping 17.1 Ks per nine innings, plus 2.3 walks per 9 IP and a 7.5 K-to-walk ratio.

Brian O’Connor works with (from left) Matt Macri, John Axford and Martin Vergara.

Johnson’s stellar senior season at Lyons Township included a 12-1 record and 0.70 ERA, plus 120 strikeouts and just 17 walks in 91 innings pitched (for nine-inning averages of 11.9 Ks and 1.7 walks). The 6-6, 205-pounder was named Gatorade player of the year for the state of Illinois, after helping Lyons Township finish fourth in the state tournament. He then posted a pair of wins and 0.93 ERA during the summer of 2001, while pitching in Cuba with the U.S. Junior National Team (he had 18 Ks and just four walks in 9.2 innings).

Axford, 6-4, 180, pitched for Team Canada during a 2001 summer tour of the Dominican Republic. His 2001 combined stats with his Port Dover club team, the Team Ontario 18s and Team Canada included a 9-2 record, 1.47 ERA, 97 Ks and 31 walks in 61.2 innings (his high school does not sponsor varsity baseball).

Jones was an all-district and all-area selection as a senior at James Martin High School, with a 6-2 record, 3.12 ERA and 61 strikeouts in 51.2 innings. The 6-5, 190-pounder played summer ball with the Dallas Tigers.

Edwards’ senior season included a .460 batting average, eight home runs and 35 walks while leading Lee-Davis High School to a 23-5 record and the state championship. The 6-2, 180-pounder earned all-state and district player-of-the year honors, playing mostly third base and batting in the third spot.

Molina, 5-11, 195, was named his area player of the year despite playing sparingly due to injury during the 2001 season at Moline High School.

The 6-4, 160-pound Bickford was named all-metro and all-county as a senior at Northern High School, after posting a 4-3 record, 2.52 ERA and 58 strikeouts in 50 innings.

Weiss-who is listed as an outfielder/catcher with the Irish-was named all-city, all-county and all-metro as a senior (he was invited to the all-state game but was unable to attend), after batting .450 with eight home runs at St.Paul’s High School. The 6-1, 225-pound power hitter set team records for home runs in a season (9, in 1999) and career (26). His father Paul Weiss was an All-America lacrosse player at Johns Hopkins.

The lefthanded-hitting Milsom-who could play in the infield or outfield-hit .510 with seven home runs as an all-city shortstop at Poly Prep. He then played for the Long Island Tigers during the summer of 2001.

“This is a day we’ve been waiting for a long time. The excitement of what was coming in for this team really started to prevail during the summer. There’s a feeling of excitement and energy. We had a very special season last year and it was a great group of guys. We have a lot of those guys back and when you add these 11 into the mix, I think some good things are in store for us. To see the fruits of your labor from the recruiting process come to play out here is really exciting. To see these rookies in uniform gives it a new energy level. I think it’s going to be fun this year and we’re going to have a great season.

“This is part of the process that you have to go though if you attract good players, then you run that risk that they might sign professionally. But we felt it was worth the gamble because we really got to know these kids well and they all were oriented towards going to college and were all good students. So we rolled the dice and went for some real quality kids. They all are outstanding players in their own right.

“I think it’s very possible that we might have the best recruiting class in the country. From a pitching standpoint, we really filled a need. Aaron Heilman and Danny Tamayo were two of the best pitchers in college baseball last year. And we brought in a half-dozen guys that have really good arms and have the potential to be as dominating as Heilman or Tamayo. Now they’re all young kids and you’ve got to let them develop. But I’m anxious to see Brian O’Connor work with them. He has a tendency to perform some magic with those guys that show potential. We have some guys with tall bodies who throw real hard and to see Brian work with them and teach them the fine points of pitching is going to be exciting.”

“We also lost Alec Porzel, who was an excellent shortstop for us, but we recruited two very good shortstops in Matt Macri and Matt Edwards and we’re going to let those two battle it out. Filling the shortstop position with freshmen is difficult, as well as having a majority of your pitching staff be freshmen. The thing that makes it soothing for us is to know that eight starting players are back, so that gives a level of maturity and poise to our team and allows the freshmen to get their feet wet and go at their pace.

“This is as outstanding a class as you’d ever hope to put together. Not just for their tremendous ability, but they also are outstanding young men who have a great deal of maturity, poise and confidence-all the attributes that you are looking for-and they all love Notre Dame. It’s a great combination and I think this class is going to contribute great things during their career. None of them has done anything on the field yet and they’re going to have to go out and earn their role. There is going to be tremendous competition and it’s going to be an exciting and intense time as we determine the makeup of our team.”