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Irish anxious to start season today in the USC Classic

Chris Federico | Friday, February 20, 2004

The Notre Dame Athletic Department could save some money by canceling the baseball team’s flight to Los Angeles this weekend.

After all, Irish head coach Paul Mainieri says his team is so ready for its season opening matchup with San Diego State today in the USC Public Storage Classic that it could fly to the West Coast without the aid of a jet.

“We’re chomping at the bit. We’re so excited, I don’t even know if we’ll need an airplane to fly out to Los Angeles,” Mainieri said.

After being cooped up indoors all winter, the Irish – who are ranked as high as No. 10 by Collegiate Baseball Magazine – are finally ready to hit the field and kick off the 2004 season starting with three games this weekend against San Diego State, Southern California and Louisville.

“After preparing all fall, then the weather turns bad and you’re locked indoors, you’re seeing everyone around the country start to play games before you, you just get real anxious to play,” Mainieri said. “It’s just a natural excitement, but also with the fact that we’ve been indoors for so long. We’re just anxious to get out there and get after it and see what we’ve got.”

Notre Dame’s first test of the season comes today against San Diego State, a team coached by Major League Baseball great and 15-time National League All-Star Tony Gwynn.

“If they have [Gwynn’s] skill, then I’ll be worried,” said Mainieri of the Aztec skipper, who won eight National League batting titles in his 20 seasons and retired with a .338 career batting average. “But I told [Irish pitcher] Chris Niesel that as long as Tony Gwynn is coaching them and not hitting third in their lineup, I feel much more confident about beating these guys.”

The Aztecs (6-8) hold an important advantage over the Irish because they have already played 15 games this year (including an exhibition opener against a San Diego State alumni squad).

“They have a big advantage because they’ve been outdoors and their players have been playing,” Mainieri said. “Certainly their players are further advanced into the season, but that’s just the way it is, and we’ve been dealing with this every year. I think that having a day of practice outdoors when we [got] to Los Angeles Thursday before our first game will help us immensely, and I think we will make up for it in a real hurry.”

Niesel, who was 9-1 last season with a 2.65 ERA, will likely start for the Irish against senior right-hander Scott Shoemaker, who is 1-2 this year with a 6.23 ERA.

Saturday, the Irish will face the host team USC (1-3), who has gotten off to an unusually slow start this year.

Notre Dame sophomore left-hander Tom Thornton, who went 5-1 last season with a 1.81 ERA, will likely face off against sophomore lefty Bobby Paschal who owns the Trojans’ only win this season and allowed one earned run in six innings pitched in his only start this season.

Sunday, a pair of freshmen will square off on the mound, as Notre Dame’s Derik Olvey will face Louisville right-hander Justin Valdes.

Olvey will likely be one of many Irish freshmen to see action in the three games over the weekend. Center fielder Danny Dressman will probably be in the starting lineup against the right-hander Shoemaker today, and Mainieri said that fellow freshmen, first baseman Mike Drury and catcher Sean Gaston, could see time in the field along with pitchers Dan Kapala, Jess Stewart and Jeff Samardzija, who saw playing time on the football field in the fall as a wide receiver for the Irish.

“I’ve always had a lot of guts when it comes to playing freshmen,” Mainieri said. “Sometimes they make mistakes, and sometimes they can be a little inconsistent. My feeling is that if they deserve to play, and they are going to be the best guys to help the team, they are going to be the better ones out there.”

The Irish begin their 2004 season at 5 p.m. today against the Aztecs.