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BASEBALL: Irish travel to Evansville

| Thursday, March 17, 2005

Time to whip out the extra batting gloves and long-sleeve T-shirts. The Irish (6-7) will take a much shorter road trip than their previous Florida, Arizona and Texas trips when they head south today to southern Indiana. Notre Dame will face Northern Illinois (3-7) in a 4 p.m. meeting at Evansville’s Braun Stadium where the weather is forecasted to be a bit cooler than the heat of the Sun Belt. For the Thursday, Friday and Saturday Aces’ Diamond Classic, the temperatures are predicted to be in the high 50s. “We’re going to start dealing with a different environment than what we had the first four weekends of the season,” coach Paul Mainieri said. “We had warm weather. Now, we’re going to have to deal with some climate conditions, and the guys just are going to have to be really mentally tough to handle those things. I believe that they will.” Sophomore right-hander Jeff Manship will start for the Irish against the Huskies. On Friday, the Irish will send lefty Tom Thornton to the mound to take on the Evansville Purple Aces (16-5) at 7 p.m. Capping the three game stint, the Irish meet the South Dakota State Jackrabbits (2-12) at 1 p.m. Saturday. Right-hander Jeff Samardzija will get the nod for Notre Dame. The Huskies own a deceiving 3-7 record. They were swept in a three-game series by previously No. 22 ranked Texas Tech at Lubbock, Tex. They also suffered a couple of close losses against Southern Illinois and Louisville, including a 10-inning 5-4 setback against the Salukis and a blown 7-4 ninth-inning lead against the Cardinals. In the Louisville loss, the Huskies committed six costly errors – two in the bottom of the ninth to keep afloat the Cardinal rally. “Northern Illinois has played well. They’ve played some tough games,” Mainieri said. The Purple Aces have lived up to preseason hype under fourth-year head coach Dave Schrage. They were picked to finish fourth in the Missouri Valley Conference, and they head into their own tourney with a 16-5 record, a 5-4 victory over then 19th ranked Washington and a close loss to eighth-ranked Texas A&M – a team that pounded the Irish 13-5. A familiar face to the Irish skipper, Schrage coached as Mainieri’s assistant at St. Thomas University in Miami, Fla., in the mid 1980s. Catcher Dustin Knight leads the Aces with a .403 batting average. “I know he’s an excellent coach. They’re doing really well, and they’ll be really tough at home,” Mainieri said. South Dakota State brings a 2-12 mark into the tournament in their first year as a Division I program. A loaded schedule with Kansas, Nebraska and Creighton has contributed to the Jackrabbits’ woes. The Jacks have dropped six straight contests – all in the state of Nebraska. In those 54 innings, they were outscored 70-12 by Nebraska and Creighton combined. Mainieri is still wary of the Jacks. “If you look at South Dakota State, their record’s not very good, but they’ve played a suicidal schedule, really,” he said. Notre Dame will face each of their next three opponents’ pitching aces. The Irish look to build a winning streak and turn their slow start to the season around after winning two out of their last three games, including a 12-11 victory over Southwest Missouri State in the consolation final of the Irish Baseball Classic. After being named to the all-tournament team at the Classic, centerfielder Alex Nettey, leftfielder Steve Andres and third baseman Ross Brezovsky lead the Irish into the Aces’ tournament. Tony Langford – in his first career start at doubleheader – sparked the Irish against SMS with a three RBI day at the plate. Mainieri would like to continue to work Langford into the lineup. Manship is still building up strength after returning from elbow surgery. He was limited to one-inning outings last weekend and will likely have a higher pitch count this week.