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Baseball: Questions abound at season-opening banquet

Joe Meixell | Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Despite the departure of the head coach who guided Notre Dame to Big East titles in each of the past five years, as well as 10 letterwinners from last season’s team, first-year Irish coach Dave Schrage expressed high hopes for his new squad at the sixth-annual “Opening Night Dinner” in the Joyce Center Fieldhouse Monday night.

“It’s always tough when there’s a transition,” said Schrage, referring to the change that saw him replace Paul Mainieri as Irish head coach in the fall.

The squad will also have to adjust to the arrival of 15 newcomers and three veterans who did not play last year.

At the banquet, where Detroit Tigers manager Jim Leyland and Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Craig Counsell also spoke to the crowd of about 1,500, Schrage talked about his adjustment to life at Notre Dame.

“I’ve only been here seven months but I’m honored to be your coach,” he said.

Schrage, who led Evansville of the Missouri Valley Conference to a 43-22 record last season, also declared that he has “got the Notre Dame spirit.”

Shrage, whose wife Jody passed away this January, introduced his two daughters to the crowd.

“I want to thank you all publicly for the support you’ve given us,” he said. “When they say Notre Dame’s a real community, they really mean it.”

Shrage also said that this year’s team has worked very hard to adjust to the new system he has instituted. “There are new coaches, new terms, new plays,” Shrage said. “I’m really proud of these players. They’ve worked very hard.”

Shrage, who coached at Northern Illinois and Northern Iowa before spending the last four seasons at Evansville, expressed enthusiasm for a season that is sure to include new faces in the Irish lineup card.

“Isn’t it great to talk about baseball on a night when a winter storm’s coming in?” he joked.

On a more serious note, the new coach outlined the major goals that he has for his players. He stated that he wants all of his players to graduate and win a championship ring. At the banquet, members of last year’s team received Big East Championship rings. Shrage also said he wants his players to leave with a “great feeling in their heart about Notre Dame.”

In their speeches, Leyland and Counsell touched on their experiences at many different levels of baseball. Leyland, 62, spoke about his eleven years as a coach in the minor leagues, as well as his fifteen seasons as a major league manager. Leyland, who was named the 2006 American League Manager of the Year, led the Detroit Tigers to the World Series last season after they had finished 30 games below .500 in 2005. “[The 2005 Tigers] had good players but they didn’t have a good team,” said Leyland. “It took a while to make them realize they were good.”

Leyland also said he spoke to Irish baseball players Monday afternoon before the banquet.

“I was telling them that they’re good players but I want them to develop a confident swagger,” he said.

Counsell, who captained the Irish to within a game of the College World Series in 1992, told the audience that he was honored to be back at his alma mater. He applauded the state of the school’s baseball program, saying that it had definitely progressed in the past several years.

“What I remember about being here is how hard we worked and how we wanted Notre Dame baseball to matter,” Counsell said. “The program is obviously in great shape.”

Shrage has adopted the motto “Tradition Never Graduates” for this year’s team. He repeatedly stressed his high expectations for his players, including his first Irish recruiting class.

“There’s a sense of responsibility that comes with putting on a baseball jersey at Notre Dame,” he said. “These players have it.”