Irish rebound, look to add to postseason history
Mary Green | Friday, May 15, 2015
Above the right-field corner of Frank Eck Stadium stands a board listing each year Notre Dame has earned a bid to the NCAA tournament, with the most recent trip in 2006.
The Irish won’t know for another week if “2015” will be printed on that board when they open their season next year, but head coach Mik Aoki is keeping his team’s success in 2015 in perspective, no matter what the postseason holds.
“It’s like I told our guys going into this thing is that, look, one year ago today, we were completely eliminated, and we were sort of playing out this stretch, and the way that we had played the first 48 games dictated that that was the case,” Aoki said. “This year, the way that we had played the first 48 games dictated that we’ve changed that.”
One year ago, Notre Dame struggled in its first season in the ACC, when a prolonged winter kept them from competing at the Eck until May 9. The team toiled to a 22-31 record, picking up just nine of those wins against conference opponents.
It’s safe to say the second time around in the ACC has been the charm for the Irish, who surpassed last year’s win total with an April 11 victory over Florida State and have compiled a 33-18 record headed into this weekend’s series at Boston College.
“To a certain extent, I think there’s a breaking-in period with this conference, especially when you go from the Big East, which, rightly or wrongly, isn’t really perceived as a baseball power conference, going to a place like the ACC, which is perceived as a baseball power conference. To make that transition, I think there needs to be a little bit of a level of familiarity,” Aoki said.
Notre Dame has proven it can keep up with the perennial powers of its new conference, collecting 15 wins against ACC teams this season, including three-game sweeps of then-No. 7 Florida State, No. 20 North Carolina and Pittsburgh and series wins over Clemson and North Carolina State.
Aoki said he attributed the turnaround from last year’s difficulties to this year’s success to a complete culture change within the program, stemming from its veteran players.
“Our kids are excited about coming to the field on a daily basis, and I think that a lot of that has to do with the way the seniors have led us and kept it loose and kept it fun, and they’ve shown some of these younger kids who have made such a major contribution to our team the right way of sort of going about the process, so I think this is a great reward for them,” he said.
The Irish kicked off the season by taking 10 of their first 11 games, including two on the road against Oklahoma. Aoki said that hot start validated the hard work Notre Dame had put in during the offseason more than boosting its confidence.
“I think we, to a certain extent, redefined where confidence comes from, and confidence comes from the work we put in, the way in which we control the process of trying to be good,” he said. “ … I think our confidence doesn’t go up and down with the ebbs and flows of the season. We should, if we’re doing it right, our confidence should stay at a pretty high level because we’ve paid the price to be successful.”
A few months after those first few weekends of competition set the tone for Notre Dame’s rebound season, the Irish closed out their home season last weekend with the sweep against the Tar Heels, capped by a walk-off home run from junior center fielder Kyle Richardson in the series finale.
Aoki said being able to practice and compete for the entirety of the season on the one-year-old FieldTurf of their stadium has allowed the Irish to put in that work and build their confidence.
“The playing surface is the same today as it will be in July, if we’re fortunate enough and Mother Nature cooperates and we can get out in December,” he said. “ … So this thing has been an absolute, 100-percent game changer for us.”
Notre Dame wraps up its regular season this weekend with a series against Boston College in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, before heading to Durham, North Carolina, for the ACC tournament, beginning May 19.