Irish Return to 96 NCAA Tourney

Notre Dame wins 44 games, advances to fourth NCAA Tournament in five years.

A wild 62- game season, spanning early season tournaments and a first season of competition in the BIG EAST Conference, ended for the 1996 Notre Dame baseball team with a return to the NCAA Tournament.

The Irish opened the season ranked 24th in the nation and headed to Atlanta for a pair of games against then-#6 Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets claimed the opener, 12-4, with a four-run first inning and three-run third. The Irish jumped out to a 2-0 lead the next day and totaled five doubles but the Jackets again came out on top, 9-4.

Notre Dame next posted three straight wins at the Service Academies Classic (in Millington, Tenn.)–over Army (12-3), Navy (1-0) and Air Force (12-8)–before Memphis edged the Irish, 4-2, on the final day. The win over Army featured two or more hits from eight Irish players, while a five-hit gem from junior Darin Schmalz helped sink Navy. Four RBI from both senior George Restovich and junior J.J. Brock highlighted the win over Air Force before the Irish fell behind early to Memphis, unable to overcome a four-run deficit.

The Irish remained in the South for a three-game series at then-#22 New Orleans and came away with an opening 8-3 victory, sparked by a four-run fifth inning and solid pitching from sophomore Christian Parker and relievers Mike Balicki and Alex Shilliday. UNO bounced back the next day for an 11-7 win, as a late Irish rally could not undo an error-filled effort that led to four unearned runs for the hosts in the final two innings. The Privateers took the series with a 12-7 win, scoring five times in the second and holding off another Irish rally.

Notre Dame next headed to the Northwest and the Seattle Kingdome, site of the Husky Baseball Classic. The Irish opened with a 12-6 win over Lewis and Clark State, as Restovich’s double, triple and home run paced a 17-hit attack. Notre Dame returned to the Kingdome the next day and handed then-#20 Long Beach State an 8-4 loss. Senior Bob Lisanti’s 4-for-4, three RBI game sparked the Irish and junior Wally Widelski picked up the win after recording four outs and not allowing a hit. The trip ended on a strange note, as the host University of Washington ended Notre Dame’s run with a 2-1, five-inning game that was halted due to time constraints.

The Irish returned to a warmer climate three days later, as hosts of the Irish Baseball Classic in San Antonio, Texas. Notre Dame opened the tourney with 6-2 wins over Oral Roberts and Southern Illinois, and then beat Indiana (10-4) before again topping ORU (10-6) to take the tournament title. Shilliday allowed just three hits in seven innings of the first win over ORU while senior Rowan Richards turned in a four-RBI day. Richards then homered the next day, on the third pitch of the game, to get the Irish on their way against SIU before seven runs in the first three innings–highlighted by a two-run homer from junior Justin Scholl and a two-run triple by Richards–pushed the Irish to a comfortable lead against IU. The title game featured a six-run fifth for the Irish, with home runs from senior Mike Amrhein and freshman Jeff Wagner.

Notre Dame opened BIG EAST play with a doubleheader sweep at Boston College (9-0, 6-1), with the first win featuring a four-hitter from Schmalz and home runs by senior Scott Sollmann and junior Randall Brooks. Amrhein and Brooks added home runs in the second game while sophomore Dan Stavisky logged six shutout innings. The roadtrip continued at Providence, where the Friars rocked the Irish 18-2 before Notre Dame bounced back later in the day. That 10-7 win was helped by one of the most memorable individual performances of the season, as Wagner took just four swings but belted two home runs, just missed a third homer on a triple to the deepest part of the park, and added a line-drive double off the wall–all vs. reigning BIG EAST pitcher of the year Matt Macone.

The Irish returned home to post seven consecutive non-conference wins over Indiana State (5-4), Northeastern Illinois (6-3), Indiana Tech (5-0, 13-4), Butler (3-0), Bowling Green (7-2) and Eastern Illinois (5-0). Junior Gregg Henebry’s six innings of one-run ball helped down ISU while Schmalz and Widelski combined for a five-hitter in the first win over Indiana Tech. Sophomore Christian Parker added to the solid pitching stretch with six shutout innings vs. Butler and, a day later, the Irish broke open a 2-2 game in the eighth behind RBI hits from Richards, Sollmann and Lisanti to surge past Bowling Green. Notre Dame put another five-run eighth on the board vs. EIU while senior Craig Allen, Balicki and senior Rich Sauget combined for the five-hit shutout.

Notre Dame extended its win streak to 10 games with conference home wins over St. John’s (7-3) and Connecticut (7-6). The Irish weathered the Red Storm behind a leadoff home run from Richards, a four-run fifth and a seven-inning effort from Schmalz. A storm of the real variety canceled the second game but the Irish returned to Eck Stadium two days later for a doubleheader split vs. Connecticut. The Irish rallied to beat the Huskies with three runs on the fifth and a pair of runs in the seventh and final inning, with Lisanti plating the game-winner on a sacrifice fly. Later in the day, the Huskies jumped ahead 9-2 en route to a 10-9 win that ended the Irish run of victories.

The Irish bounced back with an 8-6 win over Wisconsin-Milwaukee and then came back to defeat Chicago State after the Cougars took a 6-0 lead in the top of the first. Wagner and Restovich keyed the comeback, combining for five RBI. The Irish then swept a two-game series at Georgetown, 7-3 and 7-0. Schmalz tossed Notre Dame’s first nine-inning complete game in the first contest, with a career-high 12 strikeouts, while Parker held the Hoyas hitless through five-plus innings in the second game. Notre Dame then suffered a road loss at Illinois.

The Irish returned home to sweep a doubleheader from St. Norbert. Freshman Chris McKeown notched his first complete game and shutout in a 13-0 win. In game two, Parker hit his second home run of the day and junior utilityman Bret Poppleton pitched a scoreless inning. The Irish then returned to the BIG EAST schedule against West Virginia. The Mountaineers led 3-0 in the top of the first but the Irish came back to tie the game in the fifth. WVU took the lead for good in the sixth, defeating Parker. In the second game, Irish pitching was touched for 14 hits in an 8-5 loss.

Notre Dame returned to the field three days later for a twin bill against Pittsburgh. Brooks led the way in game one with a long home run, two triples and three RBI, while Henebry went the distance. Stavisky dominated game two, facing just one batter over the minimum in a 2-0, three-hit shutout. Next up was Michigan, at Notre Dame’s first “Turn Back the Clock” game, and nearly 1,800 fans saw the Irish beat the Wolverines 8-3, with junior Balicki earning the win in relief.

In the final regular-season series, the Irish took on Seton Hall at home. Home runs from Amrhein and Wagner, and a complete-game performance from Schmalz, led the Irish to a 7-1 opening victory. Parker no-hit the Pirates through six-plus innings and Sollmann became the Irish’s all-time leading base-stealer, as the Irish took the nightcap, 15-1. Brock then hit his third career grand slam in the final, as the Irish won, 10-1, to clinch a spot in the BIG EAST Tournament.

Notre Dame moved on to Norwich, Conn., where they took on West Virginia in the tournament’s first day. The Irish were pushed into the losers’ bracket with a 10-8 loss but they reeled off four consecutive wins to get to the title game. They defeated Villanova, 7-3, as Schmalz did not give up an earned run in a complete-game effort. Providence was the next victim, as Amrhein and Wagner contributed two-run homers in a 4-2 win. Stavisky stretched his scoreless-inning streak to 22, in a 4-0 shutout of St. John’s, and Henebry then led the Irish to the title game with five innings of work, as the Irish defeated WVU, 5-2. But in the title game, the Mountaineers scored five runs in the third to win, 7-4.

Notre Dame’s performance led to an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. The Irish went to the South I regional in Tuscaloosa, Ala., where they took on Virginia in the first game. Schmalz contributed seven innings of one-run, one-hit ball, and Restovich added four hits and five RBI as the Irish defeated Virginia and eventual second-round draft pick Jason Sekany. The Irish lost a 6-1 lead against Stetson in the next game, giving up four runs in the seventh and two more in the eighth, to lose, 7-6. Notre Dame then faced the nation’s ERA leader, Virginia’s Seth Greisinger. He limited the Irish to six hits and one run as the Cavaliers won, 7-1, ending the Irish season.