Dec. 4, 2002
NOTRE DAME, Ind. – The preseason accolades have begun to pour in for the Notre Dame baseball team, with junior second baseman Steve Sollmann (Cincinnati, Ohio) and sophomore righthander Grant Johnson (Burr Ridge, Ill.) earning individual honors while the Irish have been picked to repeat as BIG EAST Conference champions.
The National College Baseball Writers Association named Sollmann a preseason second team All-American while the BIG EAST coaches tabbed him as the 2003 preseason BIG EAST player of the year. Johnson was named a third team NCBWA preseason All-American and joined Sollmann on the 15-player preseason all-BIG EAST team.
Sollmann – whose .362 career batting average ranks ninth in Notre Dame history (his brother Scott is fourth at .372) – overcame an injury-plagued first half of the 2002 season by hitting .561 (23-for-41) in nine 2002 NCAA Tournament games (he also had 12 RBI, scored 15 runs, made just one error and did not strike out in those nine NCAA games).
After batting just .171 through his first 11 games of the ’02 season (with nine missed due to injury), Sollmann recovered to post a .362 season batting average (matching his 2001 mark). He finished among the BIG EAST overall 2002 leaders in hits (77, fifth), runs (53, fifth) and triples (4, fourth), with his other season stats including 47 RBI, two home runs, eight doubles, 6-of-6 stolen bases and just eight errors in 59 games played (.969 fielding pct.). His clutch hitting included a .443 batting average with runners in scoring position, highlighted by the gametying hit in the ninth-inning rally that eliminated Rice from the College World Series (he also singled and scored all the way from first for the 10th-inning run that gave the Irish their first BIG EAST Tournament title).
Sollmann earned first team all-BIG EAST honors in 2001 (after converting from the outfield to second base) and was a second-team BIG EAST selection in 2002. Collegiate Baseball magazine named him the national player of the week after his MVP effort at the 2002 NCAA South Bend Regional, a 13-for-16 domination that included six hits, seven RBI and six runs scored (setting or tying several NCAA and ND records) in the 25-1 win over the Regional’s top seed South Alabama.
Johnson – who earned Freshman All-America honors from Baseball America and Collegiate Baseball – capped his stellar rookie season by earning a spot on the U.S. National Team (he was part of the starting rotation on an elite staff that set a Team USA record with its 1.48 summer ERA). Johnson’s freshman season with the Irish included a 3.46 ERA in 18 appearances. The 6-6, 220-pounder led the BIG EAST in overall innings pitched (101.1) while ranking second among BIG EAST players in overall wins (9-5), third in starts (14, including nine “game-one’ starts) and sixth in strikeouts (86). His other 2002 stats included 44 walks, 94 hits allowed, a .249 opponent batting average, five wild pitches and nine hit batters.
Collegiate Baseball named Johnson the national pitcher of the week after his one-hit,one-walk masterpiece in the 25-1 NCAA win over South Alabama – becoming just the 13th pitcher (fourth since ’81) ever to toss a no-hitter or one-hitter in the NCAAs. He followed up that win with an opening-game victory in the Super Regional round at top-ranked Florida State.
Grant Johnson and the Irish gear up for the 2003 baseball season.
Notre Dame returns the bulk of its pitching staff and four of nine offensive starters from the 2002 squad that fashioned a 50-18 record and advanced to the College World Series.
The 2003 staff’s 12 returning pitchers combined to log 94 percent of the innings (550 of 584) and made all 68 starts during the 2002 campaign, led by Johnson, his classmate Chris Niesel (3.36, 4-0, 72.1 IP, 62 Ks/18 BB, 68 H) and the current senior trio of closer J.P. Gagne (3.14, 9-4, 6 saves, 94.2 IP, 69 Ks/16 BB, 86 H), Peter Ogilvie (4.65, 7-5, 79.1 IP, 58 Ks, 26 BB, 90 H) and Ryan Kalita (3.16, 5-0, 42.2 IP, 36 Ks, 14 BB, 45 H). Two promising newcomers – 6-foot-6 lefthander Tom Thornton and 7-foor-1 righthander Ryan Doherty – also could see significant innings with the Irish in 2003.
Top returners in the field include Sollmann, senior rightfielder Kris Billmaier (.313, 41 RBI, 3 HR) and junior first baseman Joe Thaman (.272, 33 RBI, 6 HR). Junior Javi Sanchez (.281, 29 RBI, 5 HR, 50 R) started at shortstop in 2002 but is slated to be the 2003 opening-day starter at a new position (catcher) while highly-touted sophomore Matt Macri is set to return to shortstop after missing most of 2002 with an elbow injury. The rest of Notre Dame’s probable 2002 lineup includes freshmen at the other two outfield spots – Craig Cooper in center and Brennan Grogan or Cody Rizzo in left – while sophomore Matt Edwards could make his return from a broken leg as the squad’s new third baseman. Freshman infielder Greg Lopez is among the top DH candidates, as is freshman walk-on catcher Steve Andres. Cooper is the probable leadoff hitter, followed by Sollmann, Macri and Billmaier in the cleanup spot.
Notre Dame received nine first-place votes in the BIG EAST preseason poll (max. 10), with the other top teams in the poll including Virginia Tech, Boston College and Rutgers. Johnson was joined on the preseason all-BIG EAST team by BC’s Chris Lambert (picked to repeat as pitcher of the year) and Villanova closer James Russell.
Russell (1st team) and Lambert (2nd) joined Sollmann and Johnson on the NCBWA preseason All-America list, which also included seven of Johnson’s teammates from the 2002 U.S. National Team: Brad Sullivan (Houston), Kyle Sleeth (Wake Forest), Huston Street, (Texas), Kyle Bakker (Georgia Tech), Phil Humber (Rice) and Cal State Fullerton teammates Wes Littleton and Chad Cordero.
See the following links for the complete preseason releases from the NCBWA and the BIG EAST Conference: www.sportswriters.net/ncbwa/news/allamerica021113.html and www.bigeast.org/sports/baseball/releases/12-04-02.asp