Oct. 18, 2012
By Pete LaFleur
The University of Notre Dame’s two College World Series baseball teams may be separated by five decades, but they will be forever linked in a number of ways – including the 2001 football weekend for the game versus Michigan State. Members of the 1957 CWS team had the chance to visit that weekend with the Irish team that was preparing for the 2002 baseball season and that visit proved to be an ominous one, as Notre Dame ultimately made a spirited run to the 2002 College World Series.
Members of both teams have returned to campus this weekend to celebrate the respective anniversaries of their College World Series appearances, when each reached that final destination showcasing college baseball’s eight remaining teams for those seasons.
The 1957 team’s accomplishment of essentially reaching the NCAA semifinals (CWS final-four) is a significant one in a sport typically dominated by warm-weather schools. One week earlier, Notre Dame had won the NCAA Midwest District playoffs at Western Michigan to claim the Midwest spot in the College World Series, with key wins over host Western Michigan (4-2) and Northwestern (6-1).
The postgame celebration included dousing head coach Jake Kline, in full uniform, in the team shower. “Jake was all wet, but I saw the tears rolling out of his eyes,” says ace pitcher Chuck Symeon. “That was the highlight of the season – helping our coach make his first trip to the CWS.”
The 1957 team actually had felt extra motivation to “win one for the skipper” throughout the season. “Jake had said he wasn’t sure how much longer he’d coach and we thought 1957 might be his final year,” says co-captain Cusack, the usual three-hole hitter.
“Next thing I know, it’s 20 years later and Jake still was coaching – so it may have been a ruse like in those Knute Rockne movies. It might have given us a boost, but we also had the experience and talent to put it all together.”
Kline actually had played baseball at Notre Dame during the start of the Rockne era (1915-17) and later spent 42 seasons as head coach of the Irish baseball team, from 1934-75. His 1957 team closed strong, sparked by a midseason shift placing senior Steve Johnson at third base and moving top hitter Jim Morris to right field.
Notre Dame entered the 1957 postseason led by its senior infielders, with Cusack and Johnson at the corners while second baseman Ed Hurley and shortstop Jim Carideo provided air-tight defense up the middle. Two-time All-America catcher Elmer Kohorst directed a pitching staff rounding into form – led by strong righthanded starters Symeon (1.30 season ERA; 5-1 record) and Tom Bujnowski (2.37; 7-3), plus lefty reliever Paul Besser (1.04).
Hurley’s hot hitting from the two-hole (8 for 19; .421) paced the Irish in the Midwest District games but nobody could match Morris in Omaha, as he set a still-standing CWS record by hitting at a .714 clip (10 for 14, eight RBI, two HR, two 2B) – well before aluminum bats became part of the college game.
“Everything looked so big, you could see the seams and the rotation – it was a dream,” says Morris, who was back in Omaha 45 years later to see his alma mater play in the 2002 CWS.
The other 1957 outfielders also had strong showings in Omaha, as leftfielder Bob Senecal hit seven-for-18 with a team-high 10 RBI, three doubles and a pair of triples while spunky centerfielder Gene Duffy went eight-for-22 and scored four times from his leadoff spot. The Irish ended up batting .338 and scored 44 runs in their four CWS games.
Notre Dame bounced back from an opening loss to Iowa State by blowing out Colorado State, 23-2 (the most runs ever in a CWS game). Symeon was pulled early after four shutout innings, allowing him to return the next day versus Texas. The Stamford, Conn., native responded with a solo shutout in a 9-0 win over the Longhorns that included seven strikeouts, five singles allowed and five walks.
“Chuck had his stuff going, keeping it down and throwing it away, and the infield was gobbling up the groundballs,” says Senecal.
The next day saw Notre Dame nearly rally to earn a spot in the championship game, as two Irish runs cut Penn State’s lead to 5-4 in the ninth.
The most noteworthy absence at the 1957 team’s reunion in the fall of 2001 was Duffy, who died tragically in his 30s after serving in athletic administration at Creighton and with the Big Eight Conference. Duffy – credited with helping popularize Omaha as home of the CWS – hit .333 in 1957 while leading the team in runs (26), home runs (four) and triples (five), in addition to starring as a point guard on the Irish basketball team.
Morris posted the best season batting average in Notre Dame history (.386; primarily as the five-hole hitter) before outdoing himself in 1958 (.394). The cleanup batter Kohorst added a .343 average in 1957 while Senecal had a team-high 21 RBI.
“That 1957 team just got along so well,” says Carideo, nephew of former Notre Dame football star Frank Carideo. “We had so much fun simply playing the game – and we won.”
For many years, the Midwest District was guaranteed a spot among the eight-team field at the College World Series, but those geographical allotments were eliminated in the mid-1980s – essentially ensuring that multiple teams from a single region could reach Omaha in the same year. For Notre Dame and other northern-based teams, that change in the NCAA regional structure made the dream of reaching the CWS even more unlikely.
The historic trek to Omaha in 2002 had given Notre Dame distinction as the “northern-most” team to reach the College World Series since the geographical allocations were abandoned in 1986. Cinderella team Stony Brook (a Long Island-based school) took that distinction from the 2002 Irish when it reached the CWS four months ago.
Most Notre Dame baseball fans have much clearer memories of the 2002 CWS than the 1957 edition and many know the importance that the 2000 and ’01 seasons played in the landmark 2002 campaign. The 2000 season had ended with Notre Dame’s memorable battle-to-the-end effort in the NCAA regional at Mississippi State, forever endearing those Irish players to the baseball-crazed denizens of Dudy Noble Field’s “Leftfield Lounge.”
A couple months later in the early fall of 2000, ace pitcher Aaron Heilman spurned a first-round contract offer from the Minnesota Twins and returned for his senior season – helping spark Notre Dame to a breakthrough 2001 season that included ascending to the No. 1 ranking in all of college baseball.
Many key components from those 2000 and 2001 teams formed the 2002 squad’s veteran core, led by four senior starters: All-America centerfielder Steve Stanley, fellow team captain and third baseman Andrew Bushey, catcher Paul O’Toole and DH Matt Bok. Juniors Brian Stavisky (left) and Kris Billmaier (right) added greater veteran depth, from their corner outfield spots.
Sophomores comprised most of the infield on head coach Paul Mainieri’s 2002 squad, with slick-fielding first baseman Joe Thaman, second baseman Steve Sollmann and shortstop Javi Sanchez, who performed admirably after early season-ending injuries to freshmen Matt Macri (one of the nation’s top-rated recruits and a future major leaguer) and Matt Edwards.
Juniors J.P. Gagne, Peter Ogilvie and Ryan Kalita led the returning pitchers while highly-touted freshmen Grant Johnson, Chris Niesel and John Axford (current big-league closer with the Milwaukee Brewers) delivered in many big-game situations. The collection of talented arms had been assembled and nurtured by Notre Dame pitching coach and recruiting coordinator Brian O’Connor, who ultimately served alongside Mainieri from 1995-2003 before becoming head coach at the University of Virginia.
A rash of early injuries spread like a virus throughout the 2002 starting lineup, with the injury bug and generally uneven play contributing to a 9-10 start for an Irish team that had opened the season ranked as high as fifth in the nation.
Any Notre Dame fan on hand for the doubleheader at West Virginia on March 28, 2002, never will forget that day for two reasons: (1) the devastating injury suffered by Stavisky in the opener (a 4-2 loss), as he was hit by a fastball and suffered multiple broken bones in his face; and (2) the stirring comeback later that day in game-two, as the Irish rallied to win 10-6 in 10 innings while evening their record at an uninspiring 10-10.
Several unheralded players filled key roles in that momentum-shifting win at West Virginia, led by five strong relief innings from senior Drew Duff. The turnaround was not a spark but rather an ignition – as the Irish blasted off to win 25 of their next 27 games, ultimately blowing away that 9-10 start by going 41-8 after the Stavisky injury for a 50-18 final ledger (one win better than the 2001 squad).
Throughout the 2002 surge, Notre Dame vanquished teams led by numerous future major-leaguers – including the Arizona State trio of Dustin Pedroia, Andre Ethier and Jeff Larish, Virginia Tech ace lefthander Joe Saunders, a brash, young Nick Swisher (Ohio State) and Florida State shortstop prodigy Stephen Drew.
Notre Dame’s 2002 season began with claiming an elusive BIG EAST Tournament title before rolling through its NCAA regional at home, featuring a pair of wins over Swisher’s Ohio State team and one historic 25-1 dismantling of higher-seeded South Alabama. The combination of Johnson’s one-hit, one-walk dominance and Sollmann’s hitting clinic (six for seven, seven RBI, six runs, home run, rare back-to-back triples) made Notre Dame’s all-around dominance that day one for the ages.
Despite that eye-popping result, there still were plenty of doubters the following week when Notre Dame hit the road to face a top-ranked Florida State team that already had 59 wins and was riding one of the longest winning streaks (25 games) in college baseball history. A few days later, those doubters were transformed into believers – as the Irish won that best-of-three Super Regional series at Florida State (10-4, 5-12, 3-1) to earn its place at the CWS table for eight.
Billmaier’s penchant for big-game postseason production continued in that Super Regional battle, while Stavisky (wearing a football-style facemask) coupled a massive home run with some key defensive plays. Sanchez, who had limited shortstop experience prior to 2002, turned in his own series of web gems during the series while fellow Florida native Niesel became a Notre Dame legend by winning the decisive third game, doing so in a Monday matinee (Saturday had been rained out) with nearly 5,000 raucous fans on hand at Howser Stadium.
Rice took over the nation’s No. 1 ranking heading into the CWS, so it was only fitting that the Irish would face the Owls and register their third win over a top-ranked team in a span of 11 days. Sandwiched around a pair of hard-fought losses to Stanford, the Rice game produced Notre Dame’s 22nd comeback win of the season (5-3) – punctuated by a heartstopping bottom of the ninth that saw Stanley stroke a leadoff triple, Sollmann drive an RBI single back up the middle and Stavisky end the game on a blast over the rightfield fence.
The 2002 senior class, which also included pitcher Matt Buchmeier, DH Ken Meyer and outfielder Matt Strickroth, departed with a Notre Dame record total of 188 career wins, besting the class of 1992’s four-year run.
As the team was en route to the College World Series, Mainieri was conducting a phone interview and was asked what he had been thinking back when his team was scuffling with its 9-10 record.
“I was happy we’d found a way to win those nine games,” quipped the former Notre Dame coach, now the skipper at LSU.
Little did he know, back in late March of that season, what an amazing ride was about to unfold for the members of the 2002 Notre Dame baseball team.