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Baseball: Schrage takes over for Mainieri on diamond

Ken Fowler | Saturday, August 19, 2006

After 16 years of head coaching experience at mid-major Division I colleges, Dave Schrage believes he is fully prepared – and fully enthused – to replace Paul Mainieri as Notre Dame’s skipper.

“I’m excited to take this job,” Schrage said during his introductory press conference July 18. “All the hard work and coaching comes to fruition today.”

Schrage comes to Notre Dame after four years leading Evansville. Before that, he coached at Northern Illinois and Northern Iowa.

The toughest challenge for Schrage might just be becoming associated with the players after Mainieri’s 12-year tenure at Notre Dame.

Schrage said he spent much of the summer contacting players and getting to know the team.

“They need to learn to trust us as a coaching staff, and we need to learn to trust them,” he said in an interview with The Observer Wednesday.

The players’ trust might be easier to gain than otherwise because of their new coach’s background. Schrage began his coaching career in 1984 with Mainieri in Florida at St. Thomas College (then known as Biscayne College), where he served as a graduate assistant working on outfield defense and hitting.

“I just fell in love with coaching, and I think Paul had a lot to do with that – making the experience positive,” Schrage said. “One of the things that Paul taught me was to treat your players in a very caring way and be honest to them.”

Mainieri resigned in July to take the vacant head coaching position at Louisiana State, where he played as a student.

Much like Mainieri, Schrage focuses on the important “fundamentals” of strike-zone pitching and solid defense.

“You’ve got to put your kids in as many situations as possible in practice,” Schrage said. “The players need to know it’s important.”

Schrage built his credentials in fundamental baseball under Jim Hendry, now the general manager of the Chicago Cubs.

Hendry hired Schrage as an assistant at Creighton – his alma mater – after he finished his season with Mainieri at St. Thomas.

“He’s somebody who’s been special to me in my life because I wouldn’t be in this profession today if not for him,” Schrage said of Hendry.

Now, he has another connection to Schrage. Hendry drafted and signed Notre Dame two-sport star Jeff Samardzija in this summer’s amateur draft.

But that means Schrage won’t get to coach Samardzija, as the senior already turned professional in baseball, inking a five-year, minor-league deal with the Cubs.

And Samardzija is just one of many reliable faces from the past several seasons that Schrage will have to replace. The team also lost southpaw starter Tom Thornton, shortstop Greg Lopez, first baseman Craig Cooper and outfielders Matt Bransfield, Alex Nettey, Cody Rizzo and Steve Andres to graduation. What’s more, junior right-handed starter Jeff Manship signed with the Minnesota Twins two weeks ago after being drafted in the 14th round.

But Schrage sees a certain positive in the high turnover.

“I think it’s better to be younger than have eight returning starters,” Schrage said of taking over a new squad.

And he also thinks the coaching change will help the team focus the next few months as it gears up for the spring schedule.

“It helps make the fall [practices] a little bit more meaningful than they have been in the past,” Schrage said. “This fall will be different. Everyone is coming in with a clean slate.”