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ND BASEBALL: Diamond beckons to senior ace

Tom Dorwart | Tuesday, September 6, 2005

Tom Thornton wears a coat of many colors.

In June, he negotiated with the Chicago White Sox on a possible contract but decided to return for his senior year at Notre Dame.

Instead of playing in the Cape Cod Summer League for the rest of the break, he knew he needed to rest his well-used arm. So, he interned with the Smithsonian in Colorado, “doing some archeology out there,” he said.

Now, he’s back with his Irish teammates at fall practice, wearing the coat he says fits him best – a Notre Dame jersey.

“It’s just a wonderful feeling to get out here and put on the Notre Dame uniform again and be part of this program,” said Thornton, a hard-throwing lefty and the staff ace. “That’s what it’s all about. To me, right now, this is where I belong, and I believe we came here to get together and do something special this season.

“It [returning for his senior year] took a little of adjustment to at first, in June, but I definitely believe now that this is finally the place for me to be. I’m really excited, especially after getting back and seeing the way the first day [went], the way the guys came on and played with some intensity.”

Fall practice began yesterday for the Irish, and coach Paul Mainieri was pleased with the opening day.

“It was great, I’ll tell you,” he said. “We had a great practice, one of the best first days of practice I think we’ve ever had.”

Thornton was equally optimistic.

“We’ve got a real strong, real young team this year,” he said. “I just can’t say enough about the new intensity, the new attitude we’ve got this fall. I think we’re really ready to take our game to the next level this year.”

That next level would be a pretty high level.

Last season, the Irish finished 38-24-1, swept through the Big East conference tournament, finished third in the regular season and reached the Gainesville regional final before falling to the host Florida Gators, the eventual national runner-ups. But Mainieri agrees with his veteran pitcher.

“Our standards are really high at Notre Dame, and we know that there’s better for us than what we did last year,” he said. “I was really proud of our team at the end of the year. There were so many times during the course of the year where we could’ve just packed our tent up and given up, but our guys never did.”

Before the crucial last week of the 2005 season, after such a roller coaster campaign, Mainieri did something major to motivate his players.

“I had challenged our team before that last week that we needed to do something for this team to be remembered by,” he said. “And I think we did, when you consider we had to win our last four games of the regular season just to make the conference tournament; we beat a top 20 team, Southern Cal and then we went to the conference tournament and swept that thing.”

The Irish lost their regional opener to No. 15 North Carolina but battled their way through the loser’s bracket to meet Florida in the championship.

“We ran up against a better ballclub in Florida,” Mainieri said. “I think they showed that they were pretty good. There was no shame in losing to those guys. I thought we did a lot of great things at the end of the year and had a lot to be proud of.”

With a 20-9 career record, 146 career strikeouts and 250.1 career innings pitched, Thornton looks to hold down a strong Irish pitching staff, which returns 11 of its top pitchers. The Irish also return 11 top position players and add nine talented freshmen. With the eclectic mix of experienced returnees and promising potential, Thornton and his teammates hope to better last year’s results.

“I think there is that bitter taste in your mouth,” he said. “And you really want to look to get over that hump. We’ve really got a bit of a new attitude this year.”

“This year” for the Irish baseball team starts this week. And Mainieri likes what he sees so far.

“I thought the seniors showed great leadership in practice, and it was nice to see the young kids, the freshmen – a lot of reason for optimism.

“I feel confident that we’re going to have a great fall practice.”