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Sollmann’s injury another hurdle for Irish

Chris Federico | Thursday, April 8, 2004

“What tho the odds be great or small/Old Notre Dame will win over all.”

Those were words written to describe the Irish football team – an American institution of greatness in sports throughout the past century.

But more recently, those two lines seem to fit the Irish baseball program even better.

In 2002, star freshmen Matt Macri and Matt Edwards both suffered season-ending injuries at the start of the year, and the Irish stumbled to a 9-10 start.

But the Irish did not tuck their tails between their legs and run away scared.

A relatively unknown sophomore named Javier Sanchez came off the bench to play shortstop, filling the role admirably. Then Steve Stanley, the six other Irish seniors and a couple of gutsy freshmen pitchers named Chris Niesel and Grant Johnson led Notre Dame to its first appearance at the College World Series in 45 years.

Last year, when the Irish learned they would be without Johnson for the entire season because his ailing right shoulder required surgery, they didn’t throw in the towel knowing they’d be without their ace. Instead, Niesel stepped into the spotlight, earning Big East Pitcher of the Year honors and leading the Irish to a Big East Tournament title.

Before the start of this season, Notre Dame lost both junior right-hander John Axford and freshman phenom Jeff Manship to season-ending surgeries.

No problem. Sophomore Tom Thornton has stepped in to go 4-1 and defeat some of the best hitting teams in the country in schools like Southern California and Texas Tech.

So last Saturday, when senior second baseman and tri-captain Steve Sollmann was knocked out of Notre Dame’s contest against Villanova with a broken jaw, did anyone expect the Irish to wipe the drawing board clean and look to next year?

Of course not.

After all, the signature of this Notre Dame ball club for the past few years has been success in the face of adversity.

“I think it’s a thing that’s been kind of the hallmark of our program, that when someone has gotten hurt, our hearts have bled for the guy, but it hasn’t destroyed our confidence in our team,” Irish coach Paul Mainieri said.

True, everyone at that game Saturday watched in horror as the ambulance carried Sollmann off the field. True, even Mainieri said he had trouble turning attention back to the game. But every player in an Irish uniform also knew they must fight on.

Ask Sanchez, who for the third time in as many years, has been asked to step up and bear a new load.

The senior, who switched to catcher just last season, will likely now have to fill the newly-formed void at second base in place of his fellow classmate and co-captain Sollmann.

“It was unfortunate what happened to Steve [Sollmann], but if this isn’t fate, I don’t know what is,” Sanchez said. “Matt Edwards went down with that leg injury [in 2002], and we ended up going to the College World Series. Steve Sollmann goes down this year, and who knows what could happen.”

With that attitude, Sanchez wants to prove to his teammates and the country that this Irish team is best with their backs up against the wall.

“I told the guys, we’re not at our best until the situation is at its worst,” he said. “Right now we’re pretty banged up, but I think we’re going to be able to pull through this.”

Now, with Sollmann out for an uncertain length of time, many would say those odds are stacked pretty high against the Irish.

But with this team that’s already fought through so much, would they have it any other way?

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

Contact Chris Federico at [email protected]