Irish prepare for transition from Big East to ACC
Matthew DeFranks | Tuesday, February 11, 2014
Things may not be the same this year for the Irish, but they will still be familiar to Irish coach Mik Aoki.
Aoki and Notre Dame will move into the ACC this season after spending 18 years in the Big East. Aoki will be returning to a league he coached in during his time at Boston College.
“I think it helps from the standpoint of I kind of know what to expect,” Aoki said. “It doesn’t help from the standpoint that I’m not the one throwing pitches or trying to field a ground ball or field fly balls. I think our kids are going to have to adjust to it.”
The Irish, who finished 34-24 in 2013, were eliminated by Connecticut in the Big East tournament championship game on March 26. This year in the ACC, the Irish will need to contend with national powerhouses North Carolina, Virginia, NC State, Miami, Florida State and Clemson.
Last season, the ACC put eight teams into the NCAA tournament while the Big East only had two (Connecticut and Louisville).
“With all due respect to the Big East, the ACC puts a high value on baseball and I don’t know if that was necessarily matched by the Big East,” Aoki said. “Without any question, there are good teams in the Big East but this is a different deal. … I think it’s exciting for our student-athletes … [to] be able to play against programs with the types of traditions those programs have, whether it’s Miami or North Carolina or Florida State or Clemson or whoever it happens to be.”
Notre Dame will have to replace three of its top four hitters from last season, including first-round pick third baseman Eric Jagielo and eighth-round pick first baseman Trey Mancini. Combined, the two players hit .388 with 16 home runs and 107 RBIs.
Aoki said the Irish would look toward a mix of players to replace their production.
“I don’t think there’s any one guy on our team that’s going to replace Trey Mancini or Eric Jagielo,” Aoki said. “We’re just going to have to do it in a different style. Those guys could change the game with one swing of the bat. We don’t really have that in our lineup anymore.”
Aoki said Notre Dame, who returns just eight of its 26 home runs from 2013, could move more toward a small-ball style of play.
“At times, maybe we had the luxury of waiting to see if one of those guys can run a ball out of the park or run a ball into the gap,” Aoki said. “I think we’ll play a lot more offense than we did last year.”
The Irish need more production from sophomore center fielder Kyle Richardson and sophomore shortstop Lane Richards at the plate, Aoki said.
“I’m not sure we can afford to have .200 years coming from three different guys in our lineup like we did last year,” Aoki said. “We were a good team last year and I think we ended up getting exposed by three or four spots in our lineup that were really not as productive as we needed them to be.”
The pitching staff will be without departed closer Dan Slania (13 saves, 1.21 ERA) and starter Adam Norton (10-5, 2.40 ERA) this season. Notre Dame will also be missing junior pitcher Pat Connaughton until basketball season ends.
Aoki said senior right-hander Sean Fitzgerald would top the rotation, followed by sophomore right-hander Nick McCarty and junior right-hander Scott Kerrigan. Aoki said the pitching situation was a fluid one, though.
“I think we have a lot of guys who have pitched well but I don’t think we have a lot of guys who have a lot of created a great deal of separation,” Aoki said.
In addition to the new conference, the Irish will debut a new field surface when Frank Eck Stadium shows off its new FieldTurf. Aoki said the entire field would be turf — including the pitching mound — and there would be no dirt.
Despite the unique mound, Aoki said the adjustment for pitchers would be a minimal one.
“Almost every kid, regardless of where they’re from, has pitched off of an artificial mound,” Aoki said. “I don’t think it’s going to be a huge transition. For our relievers, it’s going to be great. They’re going to come onto a mound in the seventh inning without the wear and tear, the holes, the davits, the scars that 200 pitches up until that point has worn on the mound.”
Construction on the field was delayed by the early onset of the South Bend winter and has since been pushed back into the season. Aoki said he hoped the field would be ready by mid-April.
The Irish open this weekend in Boca Raton, Fla., against Florida Atlantic.