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Baseball: Season kicks off early with trip down south

Andrew Gastelum | Thursday, February 16, 2012

Spring will start early for the Irish as they make their annual trip to the Sunshine State for the Big East/Big Ten Challenge to kick off the season.

Last year at the Big East/Big Ten Challenge, the Irish took two of their three games, outscoring their opponents by 20 runs. But following the tournament, Notre Dame went on to lose five of its next seven, keying a season-long slide the Irish struggled to turn around. Irish coach Mik Aoki, now in his second year with Notre Dame, said he expects the team to have a different approach entering the new season.

“You don’t want to overstate anything and make it more seem more important than it really is,” Aoki said. “I want to see them play well. I’m anxious to see how some of these guys who are turned from role players into full-time players react to the opportunity they have.”

According to Aoki, the biggest challenge for the Irish this season will be replacing last year’s senior-laden starting rotation. Departed right-handers Cole Johnson, Brian Dupra and Todd Miller each logged over 80 innings in 2011 and provided a consistent force to aid a struggling Irish offense. Aoki said he is confident in his new rotation of senior Will Hudgins, sophomore Sean Fitzgerald and junior Adam Norton — all of whom built ERAs under four from the bullpen and occasional spot starts last season.

“I fully expect [the starting rotation] to contribute and help out the team,” Aoki said. “They have some big shoes to fill, but now they will have the opportunity to start and potentially have some success. Hopefully, these guys can jump right in and do a good job for us.”

Meanwhile, the Irish return their young offensive core in junior second baseman Frank DeSico, sophomore center fielder Eric Jagielo and sophomore first baseman Trey Mancini. As a freshman, Mancini carried the Irish offense with nine home runs and 34 RBIs while hitting .323 — the only Irish player to bat above .300 last season.

“We are really looking to build upon what we started last year,” Aoki said. “We really can’t get too much worse when looking at our offensive output, but we are looking to get going with the guys we have. We need to build some more depth around Mancini and Jagielo in the lineup, but I am optimistic we will have a better offense this year.”

The Big East/Big Ten Challenge provides Notre Dame with an early-season opportunity to compete against NCAA Regional contenders in Illinois, Iowa and Purdue, which Aoki said would considerably test his young team.

“Illinois almost went to the Super Regionals last year, while Iowa beat us twice,” he said. “Purdue has a lot of hype around them as well because they have basically returned all their starters. So we are in for a test but the guys are excited to get out there and see what we can do.”

Notre Dame will start its season against Illinois today at 1 p.m. in St. Petersburg, Fla.