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Irish unable to match miracle CWS finish of 2002

Chris Federico | Wednesday, August 27, 2003

After Notre Dame’s first College World Series appearance in nearly 50 years in the summer of 2002, the bar of expectations for future Irish baseball teams was set remarkably high for a northern school.Even though the Irish were unable to attain their goal of returning to Omaha, Neb., for the College World Series, they made an impressive showing in the NCAA Tournament in 2003 before being eliminated in the NCAA Regionals by Cal-State Fullerton.The Irish began the NCAA post season on a winning note by capturing the Big East Tournament title in Bridgewater, N. J., after finishing only third during the regular season. The feat marked the first time a team repeated as Big East Tournament champion since St. John’s did it in 1986.To capture the title, the Irish knocked off Big East rival Rutgers 11-3 in the championship game. Senior pitcher Matt Laird – starting his first game in over three years – worked a complete game, allowing only two earned runs for the victory.Catcher Javi Lopez capped off his 8-for-11 tournament, for which he was named Big East Tournament MVP, with a 2-for-3 performance against the Scarlet Knights.Third baseman Matt Edwards was also dominant at the plate, going 3-for-4 with three RBIs and a run scored. First baseman Joe Thaman, who experienced an offensive explosion in the post season, added his own 3-for-4, three RBI, one run performance in the victory.But earning the conference title was not enough to convince the NCAA selection committee to grant Notre Dame a host site for the tournament. In fact, the Irish were sent all the way to California to take on No. 7 Cal-State Fullerton.In the opening game of the regional, Notre Dame belted out 17 hits to knock off Arizona 13-5. Again, Edwards, Sanchez and Thaman combined for most of the offensive firepower, as the trio went a collective 7-for-11 with six RBI and six runs scored.The Irish also used a solid pitching performance from Ryan Kalita, who worked eight innings and allowed four earned runs in the winning effort to improve to 7-1 on the season.In their second game, the Irish ran into trouble with Regional host and No. 1 seed Cal-State Fullerton. With the score tied 3-3 in the top of the ninth, the Titans used a two-out double to score the go-ahead run and hold on for the victory.Then trying to play catch-up with the Titans, the Irish staved off elimination with a 6-3 victory to knock out San Diego. The surprising Laird again pitched a strong game for Notre Dame, working 8.2 innings and allowing only one earned run.But the victory would be the last of the season for the Irish, who finished the year 45-18, as they were eliminated from the tournament in an 8-1 loss at the hands of the Titans.Second baseman Steve Sollmann finished the year as the leading hitter for the Irish with a .384 batting average. He also paced the team in runs scored for the year, with 67. Edwards was just behind Sollmann at .376, but led Notre Dame in RBIs and homeruns with 69 and 8, respectively.Right-handed pitcher Chris Niesel was named Big East Pitcher of the Year, as he finished the season 9-1 with a 2.65 ERA and 87 strikeouts in 98.1 innings pitched.