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Jacobsen: Squad ends slump, looks to build on recent wins

Vicky Jacobsen | Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Remember when the Irish were ranked No. 15 in the country?

I do – Notre Dame had several buzzworthy players returning, opened the season with a 12-5 record and appeared ready to hang with anyone in the Big East.

Well, it looks like the Irish (26-16, 7-8 Big East) finally remember that team, too. For some time it seemed like the players who swept Tulane, dropped just one game in each of their three early-season tournaments and took victories from top-20 teams like Virginia Tech and UCLA had forgotten how to win games.

Starting March 28, Notre Dame lost nine of 13 games, including six in a row. Call it bad luck; call it a funk. Either way, the Irish were stuck in it.

But they’ve found a way out in the past week. Seven wins in eight games is not a meaningless fluke, even if the streak started with a three-game sweep of 10-29 Quinnipiac, a team whose .256 winning percentage would still be disappointing if it were a batting average.

Friday’s 12-2 win over Connecticut was promising enough; a 17-hit game will always be welcomed by a team that’s developed a knack for hitting the ball straight into fielders’ gloves. But it was the come-from-behind win Saturday that should really encourage Irish fans.

Despite what you hear on sports radio, I think it’s very rare for athletes and teams to give up on a season and “mail in” the rest of their games. But it’s plenty easy to lose focus, especially when things just aren’t going your way.

There’s no denying it takes a good deal of mental fortitude to hold on for two error-aided, go-ahead runs in the bottom of the eighth when your team has trailed for an entire game. you don’t see that kind of grit and focus from a team that has accepted the disintegration of a once-promising season.

As Irish coach Mik Aoki said over the weekend, the Irish wasted a lot of the collateral they built up in the first month of the season. They can’t afford to drop mi-week matc-ups against directional Michigan schools and other non-conference opponents, which the Irish have done too much of in the past season and a half. Another Tuesday dud would be bad enough for the win-loss record, but Notre Dame really doesn’t want to tempt a return of the recently-exorcised doldrums.

There are three more weekend series left on the Big East calendar, which make three more opportunities for the Irish to pull themselves up from sixth-place in the conference standings, or at least finish with a winning record in the Big East. Remaining conference opponents St. John’s and Cincinnati currently inhabig the bottom half of the Big East standings, and while USF is 29-15 with just two conference losses, the Bulls do not exactly schedule world-beaters for their out-of-conference match-ups. Despite the struggles the Irish faced at the beginning of the conference season, Louisville is the only Big East team ranked above the Notre Dame in RPI, and the Irish are in control of their own destiny when it comes to an NCAA tournament bid.

This Notre Dame squad has gotten more buzz than the program has seen in years. If this past week is any indication, they might just live up to it.

Contact Vicky Jacobsen at [email protected]

The views expressed in this Sports Authority are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.