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Baseball: Irish look forward to Big East, NCAA tourneys

Fran Tolan | Wednesday, May 14, 2008

After playing at an otherworldly clip during the middle of the season, Notre Dame has come back to earth in the past several weeks. But the team still sits in second place in the Big East and appears to be a lock for the NCAA Tournament.

The Irish won 11 straight contests during April before finally falling to West Virginia. Notre Dame was able to take two of three from the Mountaineers to run its record to 25-10-1 but the loss cost the team some momentum.

The Irish have dropped their last three contests – most recently to Michigan Tuesday – to fall to 33-16-1.

Notre Dame is now 16-7 in Big East play and trails only St. John’s in the conference standings. The Irish are one-half game ahead of third-place Cincinnati with one conference series left to play. They will head to South Florida for a three-game set this weekend before traveling to Clearwater, Fla., for the Big East championships on May 20-24.

The nice weather of Florida should be a welcome change for the Irish, who have had one game canceled because of rain, several delayed until later dates, and another called a tie when the field became unplayable.

Several of the Irish season highlights took place during non-conference play. On Apr. 2, Notre Dame took on the South Bend Silver Hawks in an exhibition contest at the minor league team’s home field, Covaleski Stadium. The game was played as a benefit for cancer research in honor of Irish coach Dave Schrage’s late wife, Jody, who died of liver cancer. The Irish lost the contest but Schrage said there was something more important on the line than the game’s outcome.

“I just appreciate the Silver Hawks to give us this opportunity to play,” Schrage said after the game. “[Silver Hawks President] Joe Kernan and [manager] Mark Haley are both very classy individuals. The people of Michiana got a chance to put baseball in the spotlight tonight, and raise money for a great cause.”

Just two weeks later, Notre Dame again played a game that had added significance. On Apr. 16, The Irish faced off against Northern Illinois at U.S. Cellular Field, the home of the Chicago White Sox. The contest raised money for the families of the victims of the shootings that took place on Feb. 14 at Northern Illinois.

“The hook about baseball is it starts during springtime and spring is a time for renewal. And that’s what this is about: renewal,” Northern Illinois coach Ed Mathey said before the game against the Irish.

The Irish defeated the Huskies 5-4 for their tenth straight win.

However, the team has trailed off somewhat in recent weeks. The Irish have dropped games to Connecticut and Pittsburgh, both of which have losing records. The Irish did take two of three against each of those teams and have lost just one conference series – a three-game set to St. John’s.

Notre Dame, who briefly moved into the national rankings after its lengthy winning streak, appears poised to get back to the NCAA Tournament after missing it last year.

The Irish will look to improve their resume in their final Big East series and the conference tournament.