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Irish enter 2017 season with depth, experience

| Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Notre Dame’s season doesn’t get underway until next week when the Irish travel to San Antonio for the season-opening Alamo Irish Classic, but the program has already been hard at work constructing a fresh look for 2017.

“When it’s all said and done, [our new team building] will encompass the existing locker room,” Irish head coach Mik Aoki said Tuesday, sitting in the visitor’s locker room on the first-base side of the field. A mud pit surrounded the Irish locker room on the third-base side, almost completely hiding bits of the expansion’s concrete foundation from sight. “It will be a larger area for the guys to hang out, have team meetings, there will be a small study room off that space. The [current] locker room’s kind of tight.”

The expansion of the home locker room, slated to be finished mid-April, gives Frank Eck Stadium a facelift that corresponds with the team’s entering the season: a sense of familiarity with just a touch of something new.

The core of last year’s Irish club, its pitching, returns most of its staff in 2017, Irish head coach Mik Aoki said.

“We’re deep there,” Aoki said. “We’re especially talented there as well.”

Aoki said the four starters he picks for San Antonio will come out of a group that includes right-handers senior Ryan Smoyer and juniors Peter Solomon, Brandon Bielak, Brad Bass and Sean Guenther, and graduate student lefty Michael Hearne. Aoki also mentioned junior right-hander Charlie Vorsheck and freshman lefty Cameron Brown as potential starters as the season progresses.

In the field, the Irish will be steadied by veterans like seniors catcher Ryan Lidge and shortstop Kyle Fiala, both of whom have seen extensive playing time in their careers at Notre Dame.

“Kyle Fiala has basically started every day since he has been a freshman,” Aoki said. “ … Ryan Lidge has played — I don’t know, he’s got to be approaching the record for games played as a catcher at Notre Dame.”

Mainstays from last year’s lineup like junior outfielder Jake Shepski and sophomores center fielder Matt Vierling — both of whom also pitched for Notre Dame in relief at times last season — and utility man Nick Podkul also return for the Irish, while sophomore infielder Cole Daily will also look to build on his increasing presence in the second half of last season.

Fiala, Daily and Podkul will be among the new faces making appearances in an Irish infield that lost starters at three of its four positions. First baseman/third baseman Zak Kutsulis and shortstop Lane Richards both graduated last May. Junior second baseman Cavan Biggio decided to forego his final year of eligibility to pursue his MLB dreams after being selected by the Toronto Blue Jays in the fifth round of the MLB entry draft last June.

It’s the first time in six years Notre Dame doesn’t have at least one Biggio on its roster, with Cavan and older brother Conor each playing their college ball in South Bend; they represent one of a couple pairs of brothers who have found success in South Bend over Aoki’s tenure at Notre Dame. Their younger sister, Quinn, is also verbally committed to play for the softball team.

Utility man Ricky Sanchez, who spent time at first, third, home, designated hitter and in the outfield last season, also graduated. All told, Notre Dame said goodbye to nine seniors — the 10th, lefty Michael Hearne, is back for a fifth year, the only graduate student on the roster.

Fiala has his claim on shortstop this season after spending most of his time at third base last year, but the other positions around the infield are still competitive, Aoki said. He added if he had to put a lineup out right now, it would have Lidge behind the plate with freshman Connor Power — who also catches — at first base. Continuing around the horn, Aoki described second base as “a little up in the air” between some combination of Daily, Podkul and freshman Nick Neville, while third base could be Podkul or Neville, too.

This year’s senior class is smaller than the last, numbering just four: Fiala, Lidge, left-hander Scott Tully and the righty Smoyer, who threw 61 1/3 innings while making 11 starts for the Irish in 2016.

“This year’s class has a little bit more daily, on-the-field impact,” Aoki said. “ … This group, they’re all, have been and probably will continue to have the potential to be very impactful on the field. … I think our senior class, Mike and Kyle in particular, are responsible really a high level for that.”

Aoki said although the ups and downs of a baseball season have yet to begin, he senses a good camaraderie among this group.

“I think we’re in a pretty good place from a mindset standpoint,” Aoki said. “ … I really like this group. They’re fun to be around, and there are some potentially really exciting things from them, both from a group standpoint and also from an individual standpoint. … I really like being around them. I like the way they go about their daily business.”

Notre Dame travels to the Lone Star State next week to get its season underway at the Alamo Irish Classic on Feb. 17.

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About Zach Klonsinski

A History graduate, Zach spent all four of his years on campus as a resident of Knott Hall. Hailing from Belgrade, Montana, he covered a wide variety of sports in his time at Notre Dame, including Football, Hockey, Men's Basketball, Men's Soccer, Women's Tennis, Fencing, Rowing, Women's Lacrosse and other events around campus. You can contact him in his post-graduation travels and job search at [email protected]

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