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Baseball: Connaughton defies naysayers by playing two sports

Vicky Jacobsen | Friday, April 5, 2013

Some athletes might have gone out to celebrate, reveling with the students who stormed the court after the Irish knocked off No. 1 Syracuse. Some might have spent the night relaxing and recovering in the training room.

But sophomore guard Pat Connaughton capped off the most exciting night of the 2011-2012 basketball season with a workout. After all, baseball season was coming.

“They beat Syracuse here last year, and I think 45 minutes later we have him throwing long toss over in Loftus,” Irish coach Mik Aoki said. “Pat can move seamlessly from basketball to baseball, literally within minutes. It’s like he never left.”

And while that can mean missing out on a night of celebration, it also means the right-handed pitcher doesn’t have time to dwell on disappointment. Connaughton started in his season debut against Kent State on March 26 – registering a no decision in an 8-1 Irish win – just four days after the basketball team exited the NCAA tournament with a 76-58 loss to Iowa State in the round of 64.

There were doubters, of course. There still are. Last summer, after he had already finished one year balancing both sports, he struck up a conversation with the father of a major leaguer in the parking lot of his former high school.

“The guy said you have to pick at some point, you can’t physically give all your effort to both sports,” Connaughton said. “And obviously I respect his opinion. It’s not something that people think is possible, but I respectfully disagree because I’ve been doing it and it’s something that I think I can do successfully.”

Connaughton gives no indication he was ever swayed by naysayers. On the contrary, he thrives on defying expectations.

“I’m not a dummy – there’s a lot fewer 6-foot-5 white kids in the NBA compared to 6-5 pitchers in the MLB, that’s just the way it happens to be,” Connaughton said. “That’s partly why I decided not to go straight to professional baseball after high school. I kind of wanted to see if I could prove people wrong with basketball.”

While playing one Division I sport is difficult enough, Connaughton is not the only two-sport Notre Dame athlete in recent memory. It is relatively common for football players to run track in the spring, and current Seattle Seahawks receiver Golden Tate played in the outfield as a freshman and sophomore. Jeff Samardzija first made a name for himself as a star receiver for the Irish, but now pitches for the Chicago Cubs.

“I’ve talked to Jeff Samardzija a little bit, but [he and Tate] are different because they did football and baseball,” Connaughton said. “They couldn’t play fall baseball, but they’re there for the whole baseball season. With basketball, I miss half of the baseball season, but I’m there for fall ball and for the end of it.

“It’s just something you kind of have to work through. It’s something that even if I was able to talk to someone who did do both sports, I don’t know that their situation would’ve been the same as mine.”

So far, though, the transition between sports has gone smoothly.

“I think it worked out as well as we could’ve hoped,” Aoki said. “[Basketball coach Mike] Brey has been over-the-top gracious in terms of how he’s handled this whole thing. Both coach Brey and Pat really make this thing possible. I don’t think it would work out all that well with different personalities.”

Connaughton said staying in shape for both sports hasn’t been particularly difficult.

“It’s not as hard as a pitcher,” Connaughton said. “You pretty much get your arm in shape; it’s just a matter of easing into it. And you only really need to throw twice a week, so I do it on my free time.

“I usually only need 15 to 30 minutes. I try to throw when the baseball team practices. They usually have them later at night, so that makes it a little bit easier because basketball’s usually in the afternoon.”

Connaughton said he doesn’t mind the extra work in the gym, especially after working for his father’s construction company in Massachusetts one summer as a St. John’s Prep student.

“The deal was I was either going to work for him or I was going to work out at this place called Athletic Evolution back home,” Connaughton said. “I was either going to do that from nine to three like a job or I was going to actually have to have a job. And after working with him for that one summer, I definitely did not want to do that [again].

“I was so passionate about sports that it was easy for me and it wasn’t even like work. Nine to three is a long time in the gym, but you can work on a bunch of different things when you’re there.”

Although the Notre Dame baseball coaches would’ve liked to see Connaughton play in the Cape Cod league, last summer he played with the South Bend Sultans so that he could stay close for the basketball team. The schedule and priority conflicts between the two sports are unavoidable and likely to increase as he progresses, but for right now, Connaughton is taking them as they come.

“I’ve still got two-and-a-half years left, so we’ll see how that works out,” Connaughton said. “Obviously right now for the professional level, there’s more baseball scouts knocking on my door than there are basketball, but when it comes down to it, I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

Contact Vicky Jacobsen at [email protected]