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Baseball: Aoki changes team culture

Chris Masoud | Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Amid free agency, steroids allegations and commercial breaks between pitching changes, often times the business of winning takes a backseat for a professional baseball manager. While first-year Irish coach Mik Aoki deals with a different set of distractions as a collegiate coach, a professional attitude and a new focus instilled by Notre Dame’s skipper has the program headed back in a winning direction.

“It’s much more of a business approach I would say,” senior pitcher Brian Dupra said. “We’ve all enjoyed coach Aoki a lot this year. He’s done a great job. You get in there, it’s time to work, it’s time to get your job done. He’s not worried to get on you and make sure that you’re focused to get your job done when the time comes.”

Formerly the head baseball coach at Boston College, Aoki was hired on July 13, 2010 to replace Dave Schrage as the skipper of Notre Dame. Aoki inherited a team that finished with an overall record of 22-32 and 10-17 in the Big East last season.

While the Irish stumbled out of the gate to a 4-6 start this season, they have steadily improved to an overall record of 13-16 and 5-4 within the confines of Frank Eck Stadium.

“Overall, it’s been good,” Aoki said. “We’ve played at times at a very high level. At times, we’ve not done that, in particular on the offensive side of the ball with our hitting. For the most part, it’s a good group to be around. They’ve worked hard, they’ve done a good job. The key for us is to continue to improve.”

In addition to a losing record, Aoki inherited a clubhouse unfamiliar with winning at the highest level, as the Irish have not appeared in the NCAA tournament since 2006. Aoki said his responsibilities as a coach extended beyond the fundamental skills taught on the field and in the cages.

“I don’t really have a basis of comparison because I don’t know what [the clubhouse] was like before,” Aoki said. “I know what it is that I want our clubhouse to be like. I think that we’re getting close to that. Guys like Dupra and [seniors] Mick Doyle and Cole [Johnson] and Todd Miller — they’ve done a really good job. Our kids are continuing to be engaged and continuing to be invested in the fortunes of this program.”

Aoki believes 90 to 95 percent of the team has responded positively to the changes Aoki and his staff have brought to the team. Doyle added that Aoki’s intensity is one of the main differences in practice from past years.

“Coach Aoki brings a lot of energy first and foremost,” Doyle said. “He goes 100 miles an hour. He always talks about 100 percent every day. ‘There’s no such thing as 110 percent. I want 100 percent every single day.’ I think that’s a huge deal. He brings a little more focus, a little more energy. I think the guys like it.”

Echoing the thoughts of his teammate, senior infielder Greg Sherry believes Aoki has instilled a new confidence in his players that didn’t exist before.

“One of the biggest things I’ve noticed about coach Aoki is he brings a lot of energy, which translates to the rest of the team,” Sherry said. “He expects a lot of energy from everyone and preaches a competitive attitude. Something about coach Aoki that’s great is he shows confidence in us, which helps us play confidently on the field.”

With 22 games remaining in the regular season, Aoki said that much work still needs to be done before the postseason, where the coach believes his team could be particularly dangerous. Nevertheless, a new attitude could bring Notre Dame back to college baseball’s elite sooner than later.

“The best teams are the teams where the players themselves are policing one another, are holding each other accountable for the way that they work, for the way that they conduct themselves, for the way that they take care of business on and off the field,” Aoki said. “I don’t that we’re quite there yet, but I think we’re getting closer to it.”