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Sollmann returns from injury, makes immediate impact

Joe Hettler | Wednesday, May 12, 2004

Their leader is back.After missing a month of the season with a broken jaw, Notre Dame co-captain and second baseman Steve Sollmann returned for the Irish series against Connecticut May 9-10 and helped the team sweep the Huskies to improve to 38-9, 15-5 in Big East play. Sollmann collected five hits in the series and started all three games at second base. Notre Dame coach Paul Mainieri knows his team needs their senior captain with the most important and toughest games nearing on the schedule. “You can’t even describe how important it was for him to be out there,” Mainieri said. “I told him that even if he didn’t have a base hit the whole weekend he’d be a big contributor to our success this weekend … Just having him out there to play defense and have his steady influence on the team, it just gave us a lot of confidence.”No. 8 Notre Dame has nine regular season games remaining, including six against Big East foes Rutgers and Virginia Tech. The Irish, along with Pittsburgh, sit tied atop the conference standings with 15-5 marks. The Panthers won both games between the two teams earlier this season.Despite such important games upcoming, along with the NCAA Tournament, Mainieri said his team continues to focus on one game at a time.”We’ve looked at it that way since the day they walked on campus,” he said Tuesday. “The challenge is so great that you just can’t look too far ahead. As soon as you catch yourself looking too far away, that’s when it comes up and bites you. We’re not even looking at Rutgers, all were concerned about is Michigan.””Every single game is of critical importance.”After defeating Michigan Wednesday night 7-3, the Irish can now focus on Rutgers this weekend. The Scarlet Knights are 13-5 in Big East play and could still win the regular season conference title if they can knock off the Irish. Rutgers started the season slow, but have played better of late. They are 28-17 overall and have won 21 of their last 25 games.Notre Dame has a two-game series against Central Florida May 18-19 before closing the regular season against Virginia Tech. The Hokies are not contending for the Big East title, but could play the role of spoiler if they beat the Irish. Notre Dame is all but a lock to receive a bid to the NCAA Tournament. If that happens, the Irish will play a double-elimination, round robin tournament against three other schools. The winner of that moves on to the Sweet 16 and a three-game series against another opponent. That winner is one of eight to make it to the College World Series in Omaha, Neb.The Irish played well in their series against Connecticut, knocking off the Huskies 4-0, 11-4 and 16-8 to complete the sweep. Chris Niesel was dominant in the first game, going seven innings, striking six and allowing zero runs. In game two Matt Macri went 4-for-5 and the Irish bullpen combined for 3 2/3 innings and allowed just one earned run. The Irish exploded in the series finale by plating 10 runners in the first inning and cruising to a 16-8 victory. Matt Bransfield went 3-for-6 with five RBIs for the team.Notre Dame had not played a game for over a week before the Connecticut series. Mainieri believes the break allowed his team to rejuvenate themselves and prepare for the stretch run.”We were hoping the break in action was going to be good for us,” Mainieri said. “I think it’s pretty obvious it recharged our batteries.”