Junior righthander Jeff Samardzija - who could become the fifth Notre Dame football All-American ever to earn All-America honors in a second sport - is one of three Irish baseball players who were named to the 2006 preseason all-BIG EAST team (photo by Pete LaFleur).

Notre Dame Ranked 22nd In First National Preseason Poll; Irish Also Picked To Win BIG EAST

Dec. 26, 2005

The Notre Dame baseball team has received a preseason top-25 ranking in the first national poll, as Collegiate Baseball magazine lists the Irish 22nd in its preseason poll. Notre Dame also has been picked by the BIG EAST Conference coaches as the preseason favorite to win the league regular-season title while three Irish players – junior righthanded pitcher Jeff Samardzija, sophomore third baseman Brett Lilley and senior leftfielder/DH Matt Bransfield – are included on the 16-player preseason all-BIG EAST team.

Senior Craig Cooper was overlooked on the preseason all-BIG EAST team, despite winning the BIG EAST batting title in each of the past two seasons. Cooper earned all-BIG EAST honors as an outfielder in both ’04 and ’05 but the hard-hitting senior is shifting to first base for the ’06 season.

Four of Notre Dame’s 2006 opponents – Nebraska (4th), Oklahoma (29th) and Arizona (31st) – are among Collegiate Baseball’s preseason top-40 poll. Three other Irish opponents (Louisville, Central Michigan and Southern Illinois) were among teams receiving votes but outside the top-40.

Notre Dame returns eight of nine position starters and a strong three-man rotation from its 2005 team that went 38-24-1, claimed the program’s fourth straight BIG EAST Tournament title and advanced to the title game of the NCAA Gainesville Regional. That four-team regional included eventual ’05 NCAA runner-up Florida (the No. 2 team in the 2006 Collegiate Baseball preseason poll), plus two other teams among the ’06 CB preseason top-40: North Carolina (7th) and Stetson (37th).

Notre Dame, Pittsburgh and West Virginia each placed three players on the 2006 preseason all-BIG EAST team, comprising more than half of that 16-member team. The Irish received nine of the maximum 11 first-place votes in the BIG EAST preseason poll, with preseason No. 2 Pittsburgh (2) and Villanova (preseason No. 7) receiving the other first-place votes. Other teams projected by the coaches to qualify for the eight-team BIG EAST Tournament include (in order): newcomers South Florida and Louisville, St. John’s, Rutgers and West Virginia.

Notre Dame’s regular lineup in 2006 could feature six seniors among the nine position players, with that veteran core including shortstop and team co-captain Greg Lopez, first baseman Cooper (who has moved from the outfield while replacing the only departed starter, Matt Edwards), centerfielder Alex Nettey, rightfielder Cody Rizzo and the left field/DH tandem of Steve Andres (the only lefthanded batter among the six seniors) and Matt Bransfield.

Overall, 13 of the top-14 position players are back from a 2005 team (38-24-1; 14-9-1 BIG EAST) that used a late-season surge to win its final four BIG EAST regular-season games while knocking off perennial power USC and going on to win another BIG EAST Tournament title.

Notre Dame boasts several strong defensive players on its 2006 roster – with that group including the likes if outfielders Nettey and Rizzo, junior catcher Sean Gaston, the shortstop Lopez and a pair of sophomore infielders (second baseman Ross Brezovsky and Lilley at third base, with both of those players being standout shortstops during their prep days).

Notre Dame’s 21 returning letterwinners include 11 position players, eight pitchers and a pair of two-way players. The 2006 staff is set to be fronted by a three-man rotation that could rank among the best in the nation and has the potential to take its place among the tops in Notre Dame history. Lefthander Tom Thornton returns for his senior season with plenty of clutch outings already under his belt while Samardzija and fellow junior righthander Jeff Manship should round out the strong weekend rotation. Manship – the nation’s No. 3-rated freshman prospect entering the 2004 season – saw his first two college seasons hampered by injuries but the San Antonio native could be due for a breakout season in 2006.

Other veteran pitchers with starting experience include junior RHP Dan Kapala (who will miss all of ’06 due to offseason shoulder surgery, after suffering an injury in his final Cape Cod League outing in the summer of ’05), sophomore LHP Wade Korpi and junior RHP Jess Stewart. Junior LHP Mike Dury had a strong 2005 season out of the bullpen while three sophomores – RHPs Tony Langford and Joey Williamson and LHP David Gruener – also could log some key innings in ’06.

The switch-hitting Dury and righthanded-batting Langford are among the top candidates for DH and pinch-hitting duties in ’06. Other returning letterwinners include junior outfielder Danny Dressman (who totaled 36 starts in the ’04 and ’05 seasons) and senior infielder Eddie Smith.

Notre Dame’s 11 newcomers include seven who signed with the Irish baseball program during the fall of ’05, plus two-sport standout Evan Sharpley and three recent walk-on additions.

Righthanders Kyle Weiland and David Phelps join LHP Sam Elam among the top pitching prospects in the freshman class, with Weiland a possible candidate to fill the open closer spot (Williamson and Langford also could fill that role). Another rookie RHP, Jeremy Barnes, joins the Irish as a versatile player who also could see time as a member of the 2006 infield. The promising group of freshman pitchers also includes RHP Brett Graffy, with third baseman/catcher Eddy Mendiola and utility player Ryan Connolly rounding out the signee group who are set to embark on their first college baseball season.

Sharpley has spent the past few months as a quarterback with the Irish baseball team and soon will shift to his second sport of baseball, as a lefthanded-hitting infielder.

Junior RHP John Seabaugh joins a pair of reserve catchers – sophomore Chris Soriano and freshman Mike Many – as the three players who earned a roster spot following the fall walk-on tryouts.

Collegiate Baseball Newspaper’s 2006 NCAA Division I Pre-Season Poll
Rank School (’05 Final Record; ’06 Preseason Poll Points; Final ’05 Rank)
1. Texas (56-16; 496; 1)
2. Florida (48-23; 492; 2)
3. Oregon State (46-12; 490; 7)
4. Nebraska (57-15; 489; 6)
5. Rice (45-19; 487; 16)
6. Clemson (43-23; 484; 13)
7. North Carolina (41-19-1; 482; 21)
8. Florida State (53-20; 479; 15)
9. Cal State Fullerton (46-18; 476; 9)
10. Georgia Tech (45-19; 475; 10)
11. Miami (FL) (41-19-1; 473; 14)
12. Arizona State (42-25; 470; 3)
13. Pepperdine (41-23; 469; 23)
14. Missouri (40-23; 467; -)
15. Louisiana State (40-22; 466; 19)
16. Long Beach State (37-22; 463; 18)
17. South Carolina (41-23; 461; 26)
18. Florida Atlantic (37-24; 459; -)
19. Tennessee (46-21; 458; 8)
20. Mississippi (48-20; 456; 11)
21. Southern California (41-22; 455; 17)
22. Notre Dame (38-24-1; 453; -)
23. Baylor (46-24; 450; 4)
24. Tulane (56-12; 449; 5)
25. Stanford (34-25; 447; -)
26. Wichita State (51-24; 444; 27)
27. Texas Christian (41-20; 443; 29)
28. Winthrop (44-22; 440; -)
29. Oklahoma (35-26; 438; -)
30. Southern Mississippi (41-21; 435; -)
31. Arizona (39-21; 434; 12)
32. Houston (29-30; 430; -)
33. Arkansas (39-22; 428; -)
34. Mississippi St. (42-22; 427; -)
35. San Francisco (38-18; 425; -)
36. San Diego (30-27-1; 422; -)
37. Stetson (35-28; 419; -)
38. Washington (33-22; 415; -)
39. Georgia (30-25; 413; -)
40. Fresno State (30-29; 409; -)

Other Teams Receiving Votes: Cal Poly SLO, Vanderbilt, Alabama, Auburn, California, UCLA, Ohio State, North Carolina State, Coastal Carolina, Louisville, U.C. Irvine, Virginia Commonwealth, Miami (Ohio), Oral Roberts, Central Florida, East Carolina, Central Michigan, Southern Illinois, Nevada-Las Vegas, San Diego State, Maine, Birmingham Southern, Jacksonville State, South Alabama, Louisiana-Lafayette, Troy, Florida International, Loyola Marymount, Army, College of Charleston, Georgia Southern, Charlotte, Richmond, Western Carolina, Northwestern State, Lamar, Southern.