Irish rely on youth, senior leaders to weather tough ACC slate
Connor Mulvena | Friday, May 18, 2018
The Irish have fielded a largely young team this season, and despite ups and downs on the mound, Notre Dame has managed to put up a solid effort.
Playing in arguably the nation’s toughest conference, Notre Dame managed to claim several victories against top-ten opponents, including Florida State, Clemson and NC State. The Irish have also proven themselves a force to be reckoned with at the plate, as the squad ranks sixth in the ACC in team batting average thus far.
“I think we’ve had a lot of [highlights] this season,” Aoki said. “From winning a series on the road at LSU to open the year to wins against top ten opponents — NC State, Florida State, and Clemson… And then on an individual level Kersch [senior outfielder Alex Kerschner] and Tully [graduate student southpaw Scott Tully] and guys like [junior infielder] Nick Podkul and [junior outfielder] Matt Vierling, [junior infielder] Cole Daily and [junior outfielder] Eric Gilgenbach have been really good success stories as well. So I think both at a team level and at an individual level we’ve had some really good moments.”
Podkul has been a driving force in this respectable offense, leading the Irish in batting average, runs scored, hits and on base percentage.
“Nick has been really really good from beginning to end,” Aoki said. “I don’t know that he’s had much more than a two or three game stretch where he wasn’t getting hits or something. Even on the days that maybe the ball wasn’t dropping for him, he was often times able to affect the game with his defense, being able to steal a base — I think Nick has been all around not just at the plate, a really really high level performer.”
Gilgenbach has also powered the Irish to success at the plate. The junior outfielder has come up with a number of clutch hits throughout the season for the Irish and leads the team in slugging percentage, RBIs and home runs.
“For me, the story with Gilgy is just the really upward trajectory of his overall game,” Aoki said. “Two years ago as a freshman he was a kid who, we just weren’t really able to play him. He just wasn’t really ready at all. Last year, he wins a starting job at the beginning of the year and then really really scuffled and didn’t get back there for a while. He finished the year on a really good upswing and played well throughout the course of the summer for the most part and has carried that into this year… The overall trajectory of his play has been a steady climb, and I’m really happy. He’s a terrific kid, and I think he’s helped a lot of our younger players. He’s taken on a really positive leadership role in the clubhouse.”
With a largely young team, senior leaders have been an important part of the team’s progress this season. Senior outfielders Kerschner and Jake Johnson have been a huge part of this leadership unit for the Irish this season. Johnson ranks tied for fourth in batting percentage. Kerschner has similarly been a huge part of the Irish offense, ranking fourth in batting average and first in triples for Notre Dame. Coach Aoki lauded the two outfielders for their perseverance and presence on the team.
“I think Kersch is just a great story. This is like the Rudy of baseball in some way shape or form,” Aoki said. “He was on the club team as a freshman, tried out for the team as a sophomore, and we just happened to sort of have the numbers work in his favor for that particular year. He just works hard. Here’s a kid who is going through, I guess at Notre Dame we call it the pre-professional program, but pretty high-level academic stuff. He certainly has his eyes set on the future, going to be a doctor and all that stuff, and then playing summer baseball and getting better and just working at trying to be the very best player that he can be. Finally in his senior year he has this great kind of storybook ending to his Notre Dame career. He’s had a really good year … He’s had some really big hits for us, and you’re just thrilled for him.”
“JJ — here’s a guy who, legitimately every single time he’s been in the lineup for any stretch of time, he has been a really really steady and productive college baseball player,” Aoki said. “He’s been bit by the injury bug a little bit unfortunately, but he has been able to show some of our younger kids persevering through that and continuing to relentlessly grind at being as good as he can be.”
Still, a number of younger players have really stepped up for the Irish this season, especially freshman infielder Niko Kavadas. Kavadas has proven to be a consistent force at bat for the Irish, and he was named ACC player of the week on May 7 and hit a walk-off home run against Boston College on April 27.
“I think that all of our younger guys have had some ups and downs, and they all, for the most part, have had some really good moments too,” Aoki said. “If I had to say the kid who has been most consistent from beginning to end and a guy that- we all thought he had really good ability- but has really improved that ability and the skill set, I would have to say Niko Kavadas. I think that Niko came in here a little bit under the radar … But he won the opportunity and ran with it. Certainly the last two or three weeks he was as hot as any hitter we’ve had in our program all year long.”
Overall, despite the ups and downs throughout the season, coach Aoki said his players have been a pleasure to be around this year, and he is especially sad to see his group of seniors go on.
“It’s been a lot of fun to be around them, and this year’s team, through all the ups and downs, was a really good group of players to be around — hard working, positive and just really fun to be around, and that was driven a lot by our seniors,” Aoki said. “So, I’m sorry to see them go, that’s for sure.”