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Slugging Kavadas helps lead Irish baseball turnaround, eyeing senior-year Omaha run

| Friday, May 21, 2021

When making his college decision, Notre Dame senior first baseman Niko Kavadas–a somewhat lightly recruited prospect at the time–chose the Irish over Purdue and Dartmouth. He felt it was the ‘best blend’ of academics and athletics, particularly given Notre Dame’s ACC schedule. Kavadas, who grew up about fifteen minutes from campus and frequently attended Notre Dame games as a kid, remembers that first semester in South Bend as a tough “I think I got, like, one hit the entire fall, and the academics were really tough,” he said.

But that semester did not foreshadow Kavadas’s career with the Irish, as the freshman worked his way into the Opening Day lineup that spring and started 38 games that season. Since that freshman season, Kavadas has started every single game for the Irish–54 in 2019, 13 in the abbreviated 2020 campaign, and 36 thus far in 2021. This year has been a career season for Kavadas, as he has hit his way to a .314 batting average, a .479 on-base percentage, and a .752 slugging percentage and has totaled 23 extra-base hits (15 home runs) and 45 RBI, all career-highs. He did this while setting himself up to graduate from the Mendoza College of Business this spring.

Four years after being that lightly-recruited corner infielder, Kavadas has elevated himself into the discussion to be a top-100 draft pick in the upcoming 2021 MLB Draft while being named to the watch list for the Golden Spikes (top college baseball player) and a midseason All-American by D1 Baseball and Perfect Game. For these reasons, among others, Kavadas was named The Observer’s Male Athlete of the Year. 

After grinding through that opening semester, Kavadas got his official collegiate career off to a hot start, as the Irish visited No. 9 LSU.

“LSU set an attendance record with 13,700” Kavadas recalled. “My first ever hit was an RBI double off an All-American in Zach Hess, so that’s something I can always hang my hat on.”

Hess was an All-American and future 7th-round draft pick of the Detroit Tigers, and Kavadas not only drilled the double, but also finished the game 2-4 with 3 RBI as the Irish went on to take two of three from the Tigers. However, the on-field success was not always consistent for the Irish. Kavadas hit .299 his freshman season with ten extra-base hits, but Notre Dame finished 24-30. They matched that record the following season while Kavadas’ average dipped a little to .274, but his power numbers went up as he notched 12 bombs and 13 doubles, driving in 43 runs. 

Kavadas’s junior season started off promising, both individually and for the team, but after blasting seven home runs in 13 games, Kavadas and his teammates saw their season canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“We were 11-2 when the season got canceled,” Kavadas said. “My previous two years, we severely underperformed, but when Coach [Link] Jarrett got hired, he transformed the culture…We stepped on the field against UNC, at their place, in a series that nobody expected us to win, and we swept them. It was really cool, and that was the confidence we needed…that was our coming-out party, and now we are here to stay.”

Ari Denning | The Observer
Irish senior left-fielder Niko Kavadas steps up in the box during Notre Dame’s 10-9 win over Georgia Tech at Frank Eck Stadium on Apr. 9.

The Irish stunned the ACC with their opening sweep of the Tar Heels, and they followed that up with a gritty non-conference win against Radford, pushing the record to 11-2. The next day, the Irish got on the bus for Louisville, who had swept the Irish the previous two seasons–and whom Notre Dame had not beaten since 2011–before they joined the ACC. 

“My [now-senior] class had had Louisville circled on the schedule forever,” Kavadas remembered. “We hadn’t beat them my first two years…We got on the bus to get to Louisville for a lift, and we got Twitter notifications that the NCAA was suspending spring sports, and the bus just pulled a U-Turn. It was devastating.”

The sudden end to the season was difficult to deal with, but ultimately, Notre Dame’s hot stretch to the season they never saw play out led them to what was been a wildly successful 2021. Kavadas has been at the heart of the turnaround, after setting lofty individual goals for himself ahead of the season.

“My two big goals were to have a 1-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and a 3:1 strikeout-to-home run ratio,” Kavadas said. “In order to make that happen, my goal was to put the ball in play early in counts, not miss hittable pitches – not only working on two-strike hitting but not getting myself into as many two-strike counts.” 

The preparation has translated to the field, where Kavadas is a staple in the middle of the Irish order, ranking fourth in the nation in home runs per game with 15 in 36 contests. As for those goals? Kavadas currently has 34 strikeouts, 38 walks, and 15 home runs, reaching both of his statistical goals and marks which he had not hit in any of his prior three seasons. His OPS (on-base percentage + slugging percentage) ranks 11th in the nation and second among Power-5 hitters. And defensively, although it doesn’t always show up in the stat sheet, Kavadas has been nothing short of fantastic at first base for Notre Dame after switching from third base, where he started his career. “I’ve improved my left-to-right range, my lateral mobility, and I’ve also improved my stretch,” Kavadas said of his defensive ability, “I think I’ve saved some errors and saved some big runs for our team making some picks and some difficult plays”. Over the last two seasons, Kavadas has made just a single error. He’s also a vacuum on balls in the dirt, helping the Irish to the second-best fielding percentage in the nation. 

One of the best parts of enjoying a career year in a senior season is playing in front of the student body, and Kavadas has noted a significantly improved atmosphere at Frank Eck Stadium this season as the Irish have fought their way from being picked to 13th out of 14 teams in the ACC to ranked as high as No. 2 in the country. 

“It’s been really cool. My freshman and sophomore year, we didn’t have many students come to the games” Kavadas noted, also recalling the fact that the Irish didn’t play at home in his abbreviated junior campaign, “This year, that’s been the most fun part. You can hear the students that are here – they make it loud, and they make it fun. It’s a lot more fun to play when the students are engaged”. 

The Irish have performed well this year at home, racking up a 14-6 record, and they’ve accumulated some fantastic moments throughout the season. They made their triumphant return to South Bend March 19 with a 13-inning victory over Duke, a game in which Kavadas blasted a game-tying home run and fellow senior Ryan Cole walked it off with his first career home run. The next weekend, Notre Dame finally got their matchup with Louisville. After dropping the first game of the series, Cole did the honors in the victory the next night, blasting a two-run home run to win the contest. The Irish grabbed the college baseball world’s attention by splitting the series with the No. 6 Cardinals, ending a 20-game losing streak against Louisville. 

“My favorite memory has to be the walk-off home run against Louisville,” Kavadas said, “That sparked the interest in college baseball, and seeing a fellow senior in Ryan Cole walk it off was really cool”. 

Kavadas also notched a home run in the Louisville series, but now, the goal has become a lot bigger than snapping a losing streak. Kavadas noted the goal at the beginning of the season was to host one of the 16 four-team regionals that start the NCAA Tournament, but also stated “The ultimate goal is to make it to Omaha.”

While the Irish already had their Senior day, their top-10 ranking gives them a probable chance at hosting an NCAA regional, and potentially a best-of-three Super Regional series, should they advance through the first round. It would be a storybook ending to a fantastic career for Kavadas and the senior class, which together has brought the Irish program from an ACC afterthought to championship contenders. 

“I think we are one of the best teams in the country, so putting ourselves in position to host a regional and make that Omaha run is something that we know we can do,” Kavadas said.

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About Aidan Thomas

A junior marketing and ACMS major at Notre Dame, I've countered the success I've enjoyed as a New England sports fan with the painful existence of a Notre Dame football fan.

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