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‘A-O-K’ again: The song and story that ended the Phillies’ 11-year wait

The first time the song blasted out of the speakers at Citizens Bank Park was in the bottom of the second inning on April 8, 2022. It had been 3,836 days since the last time the Philadelphia Phillies had played in the postseason. The world had changed countless times since. Every other team in the National League had made at least one postseason trip in the interim.

It wasn’t enough to just hope things would be different this time. Sure, Kyle Schwarber homered on the first at-bat of the year in his Phillies debut, but that wasn’t enough. After all, Andrew McCutchen did the same thing in 2019 and the season still ended in sadness. A clearer sign was needed.

“Livin’ in this big blue world, with my head up in outer space, I know I’ll be A-O, A-O-K. I know I’ll be A-O, A-O-K,” were the words dancing in the background as rookie infielder Bryson Stott stepped to the plate for his first Major League at-bat. “When I see trouble come my way,” the 2021 tune by Tai Verdes continued, “I be makin’ lemonade.”

“I know I’ll be A-O, A-O-K. I know I’ll be A-O, A-O-K.”

There is no denying that is what the Phillies are right now. On Monday, they clinched their first postseason berth in 11 years in magical fashion. Kyle Schwarber launched the first pitch of the game 394 feet to start the wire-to-wire win, then smoked another in the eighth for good measure. Aaron Nola, maligned for his September struggles of years past, retired the first 20 Houston Astros hitters he faced. José Alvarado and Zach Eflin came out of the bullpen and did not allow a base-runner.

But perhaps the moment that made it truly inevitable came from the kid. The Phillies could have clinched Monday not just by winning, but with a loss from the Milwaukee Brewers as well. The latter looked inevitable as the Brewers trailed the Arizona Diamondbacks 4-1 in the ninth inning. But then, Hunter Renfroe homered to spur a remarkable comeback. Milwaukee won 6-5. The type of momentum that a team could ride, especially in competition against a club that had bombed the final month of the season the last four years.

But less than 60 seconds after Renfroe homered, Stott laced a laser over the right field wall to double Philadelphia’s lead. There were plenty of “terrible, horrible, no good, very bad days” for Stott between his introduction and that exclamation point. He struggled to start the season and spent most of May in Triple-A. After a strong summer, he tired in September, sporting a poor .610 OPS. But October has been different. Stott drove in the game-winning run Sunday with a two-run double in a crucial 8-1 victory over the Nationals that set the stage for Monday.

In Philadelphia’s first postseason clinch since 2011, Stott went 3-3 with a walk. He made a diving play in the second inning to rob Alex Bregman of a base hit. He finished a triple shy of the cycle.

It would have meant a lot to any team, but it was especially fitting for the Phillies. After the team missed the 2020 postseason by just one game, owner John Middleton said, “I think the problem the Phillies have had for a hundred years is they don’t evaluate talent well.” From 2002-2017, only one Phillies first-round pick (Aaron Nola, taken No. 7 in 2014) played at least 100 games for the franchise.

The Phillies have always spent money, and they have hit on high-end free agents at a remarkable clip. But it has meant nothing without the depth. This year, however, is different. The stars once again largely lived up to the hype, but their impact was limited. Bryce Harper missed two months with a broken thumb. Jean Segura missed six weeks with the same injury. Zack Wheeler was sidelined for a month. Seranthony Domínguez and Nick Castellanos missed three and a half weeks each. The road back was as steep as ever.

This time, though, they had more help pushing them up the hill. Help that either didn’t know or didn’t care about the scars of the past. Twelve of the 28 players on Philadelphia’s active roster were drafted by the team, and the contributions they account for are significant.

There have been big swings from Harper and Schwarber and J.T. Realmuto. But there have also been ones from Alec Bohm and Dalton Guthrie and Darick Hall and Notre Dame’s own Matt Vierling. Nola, Wheeler and David Robertson have thrown masterpieces. So have Bailey Falter, Connor Brogdon and Ranger Suárez. The team picked up José Alvardo, Garrett Stubbs and Andrew Bellatti off the scrap heap. There wasn’t always a next man up in years past. This season, there was always someone to not only answer the bell, but ring it.

It all finally came full circle. The Phillies had turned one of their greatest weaknesses into a true strength. The incredible success they achieved from 2007-2011 — five consecutive NL East titles, two World Series appearances, and a championship in 2008 — were finally bookended with something other than heartbreak. The Phillies had been present for clinching celebrations in past seasons, but they were the ones sitting in the other dugout wondering what went wrong. This time, they jumped for joy.

It means so much because of how much has happened in the 4,017 days since the Phillies last played in a postseason game for everyone who held back tears or let them flow on Monday night. Any Phillies fan would be “lyin’ if they said they knew the way” back to a Red October would be the one that has transpired over the last eleven years. It was so difficult for so long.

This is the story of a franchise that held onto the glory days until they were anything but. A rebuild became inevitable, and the Phillies sunk to the bottom of the sport. From 2018-2021, the Phillies had their spurts and their chances. They were 63-48 in early August 2018 ,only to finish 17-34. They started 2019 33-22, but on their sixth straight loss immediately after, Andrew McCutchen tore his ACL and everything went south from there.

The 2020 team struggled early, but after Bryce Harper said they needed to win nine of ten to get back in it, they won 10 of 11. Then, they finished 1-6 when even 2-5 would have been enough to clinch. An incredible eight-game winning streak to start August 2021 vaulted them to first place in the NL East with 50 games to play. For the second time in four years, they were swept out of Atlanta near season’s end, and in doing so forced to watch the Braves celebrate the division title that was so close to being theirs.

But it was a different feeling sitting in room 248 in Siegfried Hall on Monday. A different tune — “Kilby Girl” by the Backseat Lovers, the entrance song of starter turned tragic figure turned renaissance reliever Zach Eflin, on for the first save opportunity of his Major League career — blasted through my speaker as the end neared. If it was easy, it would not have meant as much.

The view has changed so much since the last time. I watched the Phillies’ last postseason game as a fourth grader in the house of a friend I have not seen in person since 2015. A year and a half later, I started middle school, and he and my other best friend, also in attendance that fateful night in 2011, moved away. Three years later, high school began, and new, amazing friendships were eventually made. On March 20, 2020, a week after the world shut down, I found out I was going to attend my dream school. I watched the drought from all of these places and countless more. Agonized by the shortcomings and anxious to learn what it would take to end it.

In 2022, I watched Schwarber hit lead-off bombs from two different Siegfried quads and back home in Haddonfield, New Jersey. I watched from the stands at Citizens Bank Park and in the tucked away, almost invisible office within it as an intern in the Phillies’ ticket sales department, finding out just how special this organization is. One last stark reminder of all of the good the Phillies have brought about over the last 11 years in spite of all of the sadness that has happened on the diamond in that same time.

There have always been happy memories. But they felt a bit hollow without a happy conclusion to pair them with. Therefore, the ending was always going to be special. There are so many things to look back on now that the wait is over. The friendships that were and are. The growth from an energetic nine-year-old to a passionate but calculated college upper-classman. All of the feels — the good, the bad, the ugly and everything else.

All of those memories are all still here. Thanks to Bryson Stott and the 2022 Phillies, there is now another: sitting in ballpark seats in this big blue world, singing with new friends about makin’ Minute Maid. And fittingly, after the Phillies punched their postseason ticket, Minute Maid Park appeared to play “A-O-K” from its speakers, making the moment that much more special.

It is, as the third line of the most beautiful song in this “big blue world” says, “so sweet.”

Contact Andrew McGuinness amcguinn@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this Sports Authority are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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Belles soccer battles but falls to No. 9 Calvin Knights

The Saint Mary’s Belles’ soccer team fought hard, but ultimately fell 4-0 against the No. 9 ranked Calvin Knights on Tuesday.  

Within the first two minutes of the game, Calvin had a shot on goal, however it would miss left. A little over two minutes later, the Knights would have another shot on goal and this time, Belles’ sophomore goalkeeper Kara Stacey would save it. 

However, the Belles’ would not be able to hold back the Knights for much longer, and within the sixth minute of the game Calvin player Lindsey Houtsma would find the back of the net, setting the Belles back 1-0. 

Saint Mary’s would not allow for a complete Knight takeover, and for a stretch of time the Belles were able to maintain possession. However, they were unable to capitalize on an opportunity. In the eighteenth minute, Mia Judd capitalized on a corner kick by  Tatum Goodling to bring the Calvin lead 2-0.

The Belles would have the ball in scoring range multiple times throughout the match, however they were unable to ever find the back of the net. 

While their offensive side was weak, the Belles were able to keep up on the defensive end of the field. Within the thirty-third minute of the half, the Knights had another breakaway opportunity. However, freshman defender Lauren Ryan was able to stop it before the Knights had another scoring play. 

Possession would then return to the Belles, which would give senior forward Jillian Bowen a corner kick. While she was able to get it into the middle of the box, the Belles would prove unsuccessful again. 

While Saint Mary’s would have multiple scoring opportunities and hold possession for a decent portion of the remaining ten minutes, the halftime score sat at 2-0 Knights. 

The Belles’ defense came out hot in the second half. But again, they were only able to hold off the Knights for so long. By minute 58, Calvin had scored, increasing their lead 3-0. The Knights would have another scoring opportunity a few minutes later — this time, Stacey stopped the ball. Again, three minutes later, Stacey made another save to keep the score 3-0. 

The fourth and final goal for the Knights would come in minute 74. While the Belles then had a scoring chance, again they were unable to finish it. The Knights would end the game with a 4-0 advantage. 

After their loss to Trine, head coach Farkhod Kurbonov said, “The score is gonna get out of control.” But the Belles were able to keep the nationally-ranked team to only four goals. 

This is even more impressive when one accounts for the fact that the Knights had 27 shots to the Belles’ three. Stacey was also able to match her career high of 11 saves for the Belles, keeping them from a blowout loss. 

The Belles will return home to play Adrian on Saturday, Oct. 8. Saint Mary’s has played Adrian College practically every year since 1998 (excluding 2009 and 2020). At the moment, the Bulldogs have the advantage with 19 wins to Saint Mary’s 16. However, at home the Belles have won 9-8. The Bulldogs currently have a 5-4-2 schedule on the season. But the Belles will look to put a win to their record.

Kickoff begins at 2 p.m. EST. 

Contact Olivia Schatz at oschatz@nd.edu

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Belles volleyball falls 3-0 against Hope

Saint Mary’s volleyball lost three sets to none in a conference match-up on the road against No. 14 Hope College. Belles head coach Denise Van De Walle was straight-forward about the outcome of the contest.

“So, tonight was a tough match,” Van De Walle said. “Hope is very physical. They hit the ball well, and they had a good night against us.”

Van De Walle pointed toward the Flying Dutch’s above .300 hitting percentage, the telling statistic as to how the night went for the Belles.

“I mean, as a team, they hit .312 which is really high for a team,” Van De Walle said.

The match’s first set, the closest of the night, saw an 8-1 Belles run early on.

“We started out in set one and we were neck and neck. I mean, it was a great set to about 15 points,” Van De Walle said. “Then they kind of took over, we lost 25-19 and it was a good game.”

The Belles went on to drop the second and third sets by scores of 25-16 and 25-13, as Hope was more physical at the net. After the game, Van De Walle spoke with her players about some of the areas that needed improvement.

“We know that when we come in to practice tomorrow, it’s a new day, and we need to be ready to work on some of the things that are causing us to fall short. We need to be able to kill more
balls, we need to be able to dig more balls and that’s where our focus will be,” Van De Walle said.

She stressed a process of improvement that doesn’t need be tied to the win-loss column.

“But I also have been talking to them a lot about ‘let’s not put the focus on winning. Let’s put the focus on getting better.’ I want each one of our players to get better and then see what the outcome is by the end of the season,” she said.

The 14-member Belles volleyball squad is a young team still looking to get their feet out under them with six new freshmen and a sophomore transfer. The 3-12 Belles have now lost 11 games in a row. Van De Walle acknowledged that it has been a tough stretch for the team.

“But when you’re still eager to get better, it’s easy to come in the gym and that’s what I want them to be, just focusing on getting better. Better first touch, better swing on the ball, better setting, better defense and see what that translates to by the end of the year because we’re halfway there. We’re halfway done,” Van De Walle said.

Next up for the Belles is a road rematch against Trine on Saturday at 1 p.m.

Contact Peter Breen at pbreen2@nd.edu

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‘We know we belong’: Leivermann confident in team ahead of regular season

Graduate student defender Nick Leivermann is prepared to lead the eighth-ranked Irish this season starting this Friday against Denver.

Leivermann has been an integral part of the Irish defense over the course of the last few seasons, and last season he recorded a team-leading 21 assists. 

Although Leivermann and the Irish lost to the United States National Team Development Program (USNTDP) U18 team in Sunday’s exhibition, he is confident in his team ahead of the start to the regular season.

“We feel really good heading into the season. We obviously don’t want to pay too much attention to the preseason rankings, but we know we belong probably in the top-five based on our year last year, and what we brought in this year, so we are excited,” Leivermann said.

Leivermann felt that Sunday’s game was a good opportunity to improve as a team and get some real game experience.

“It’s always good to get this game in early.” Leivermann said, “I think that’s why our coaches want to do it so that we can work some stuff out early.”

Leivermann was disappointed with the loss on Sunday night, but he thought Sunday was a great opportunity to get younger players some much needed playing time.

“Obviously you want to win that game, and losing to that team two years in a row is never fun,” Leivermann said. “Winning is the number one goal, but it’s also about getting new guys in and getting a feeling for what our team is going to be this year.”

The Irish are typically a defensive oriented team, but Leivermann was encouraged by the team’s movement of the puck on the offensive end on Sunday night.

“We moved the puck really well in the offensive zone, which is good to see. We are a team that is always trying to better ourselves on that end of the ice because normally we are more of a defensive type team.” Leivermann said.

Despite the positives from Sunday, the Irish surrendered some costly penalties that ultimately lost them the game. 

Leivermann felt that the Irish gave the U18 team too much space and time during their power plays on Sunday. 

“We just really weren’t intense enough tonight, and giving some of those skilled players too much time and space, that’s going to come and bite you,” Leivermann said.

Leivermann stressed the importance of taking less penalties in the future, and he knows that his team will improve on the penalty kill as the year goes on.

“The number one goal is obviously not to take penalties at all, and that’s going to benefit us a lot,” Leivermann said. “[Head] coach [Jeff Jackson] has always been really dialed in on the penalty kill and that’s why we had the best PK in the country last year. So, it’s just taking some tidbits of what we did last year, but you also have to change things because we have new personnel on the backhand.”

Leivermann is the sole captain on the team this year, and he has enjoyed being a mentor to his younger teammates.

“Being a fifth year, you are a little bit older, and it has been fun taking in some of those younger guys like [freshman defenseman Michael] Mastrodomenico and [freshman forward] Fin Williams. They’re really good kids,” Leivermann said. “It’s obviously not just me; our leadership stems from our juniors, seniors and four or five grads, and everyone of those guys can be a leader and a captain on the team.”

Mastrodomenico and Williams are joined by two other freshmen in forward Niko Jovanovic and goaltender Jack Williams, and Leivermann feels like all four have made great strides so far.

“It’s obviously a little bit difficult being a freshman in college hockey, but they’re finding their way and I think all four have improved on a day-to-day basis,” Leivermann said.

Jackson is confident in Leivermann and the rest of the leaders on his team ahead of the season.

“I like our leadership group.” Jackson said, “There was some adversity coming into today’s game. For the most part, I thought we handled it pretty well. I have to rely on them in the locker room because I am not always in there.”

Leivermann believes the Irish have grown significantly as a team since the summer.

“We have grown quite a bit,” Leivermann said. “We have obviously been together now since early June. Just as a group, we are really tight knit and we have really good leadership.”

Contact Nate Moller at nmoller2@nd.edu.

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Irish face off against Wolfpack, look to stay in playoff contention

Notre Dame women’s soccer hosts NC State this Thursday in their fifth conference game of the season. The sixteenth-ranked Irish take on the Wolfpack one week after a win against Boston College. Notre Dame dominated Boston College last week, winning three to nothing and leading the Eagles sixteen to seven in shots and six to two in corner kicks. Junior midfielder Eva Gaetino returned to play against BC after exiting early with a head injury in the game against Pitt.

Now 2-2 in the ACC, the Irish are looking to dominate in their next six games leading up to the ACC tournament at the end of the month. 

The game against NC State will test Notre Dame’s ability to perform consistently against ACC competition. The Irish have had trouble performing consistently in ACC play so far, alternating wins and loses across their four conference games. The team hopes that last week’s strong performance against Boston College will set the tone for the rest of conference play. NC State is currently ranked 9th in the ACC, three spots behind the 6th-ranked Irish.

Notre Dame averages 2.36 goals per game compared to NC State’s 1.38. Notre Dame also only gives up an average of .73 goals per game, while NC State gives up an average of 1.23. 

Also 2-2 in the ACC, the Wolfpack has had similar struggles with consistency as the Irish have. NC State recently suffered a crushing 6-0 loss against Duke, but rebounded last Thursday to beat Clemson, who beat Notre Dame 2-1 earlier in the season. Their performance against Clemson proves that the Wolfpack can’t be overlooked. That being said, NC State has yet to beat a nationally ranked team, going 0-1-2 against ranked opponents. It seems NC State has been unable to deliver in tough games so far. This bodes well for the sixteenth-ranked Irish, especially on their home pitch. 

At this point in the season, both teams are competing to earn a spot in the ACC tournament.. The top six teams in the ACC qualify for conference playoffs. Currently Notre Dame is sixth in the ACC, so from here on out every game is important for keeping the Irish in playoff contention. The Irish face two more nationally ranked opponents in their final six games of the regular season. Given this challenging schedule, the Irish will look to earn a win while they can.

NC State is currently ranked ninth, but the sixth through ninth-ranked teams all have the same ACC record. A few wins could easily put NC State in the running for the playoffs as well. 

This match up kicks off on Thursday at 8 p.m. in Alumni Stadium. It will also be streamed on the ACC Network.

Contact Sammie McCarthy at smccart9@nd.edu

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Irish are ‘hungry’ for 2022 season

Notre Dame hockey takes to the ice to start their official season on Friday Oct. 7 against defending National Champion Denver at 9 p.m., and then Air Force at 8 p.m. the next day. The two games are part of the Ice Breaker Tournament, an invitational tournament that invites four of the country’s best to start the collegiate season.

The matchup between Denver and Notre Dame happened almost by accident, according to head coach Jeff Jackson.

“We owed Air Force to go out there, and [head coach] Frank Serratore asked me if, in lieu of us coming out there to play them two games, would we play in the Ice Breaker, so I said yes. At the time a couple of years ago, when I made that agreement with them when they came in here for two, I did not realize we’d be playing Denver the first night, nor did I realize that Denver would be the reigning national champs.”

The two games will serve as a measuring stick for the Irish, who in national pre-season polling ranked 11th in the country, behind St. Cloud State and ahead of Harvard.

The team that Notre Dame is bringing back this year shares some similarities to the squad that made the NCAA tournament as an at-large team, but Jackson has noticed some key differences.

“There are some similarities to last year’s team, but this group so far…they go hard in practice, they are an impressive group…We are bigger than I remember us and just as fast.”

The speed and size are not the only pieces Jackson noticed. This year’s team features a hunger that last year’s team did not.

“Any time you don’t get to the Frozen Four or win a championship, yeah, there should be some hunger. They were close. That team was very close to getting to the Frozen Four, and anytime you get there, anything is possible. And that core of that team is back.”

The hunger that Jackson noticed in his team came from the squad’s shortcomings in the NCAA Regional Finals last year. After Notre Dame beat North Dakota in OT 2-1, the team faced Minnesota State in the Regional Finals. The Irish ultimately came up short against the Mavericks in a hard-fought game, with the Mavericks advanced to the Frozen Four National Championship game, where they then lost to Denver.

Coach Jackson praised the team’s overall depth, highlighting some new defensive players who would bolster the team’s defense.

One such player was Ben Brinkman, a grad student defensman who transferred from Minnesota to play for the Irish. Brinkman, drafted by the Dallas Stars in 2019, was a cornerstone of the Gophers’ defense, playing in 140 games during his time at Minnesota.  

The other transfer mentioned, junior Drew Bavaro, transferred from Bentley. Bavaro was a huge part of the Bentley offense, boasting nine goals and leading the team in assists with 27 points.

Jackson also highlighted a few returning core defensive players. The first mentioned was Grad Student Nick Leiverman, who played in 34 games, earning 27 points and a second team-best plus/minus of 16.

The next player mentioned was junior Zach Plucinski. While Plucinski may not have Bavaro or Leiverman’s statistical resume, he played in 32 games for the Irish last season.

The last player mentioned by Jackson was sophomore Jake Boltmann, who was one of only six Irish players to play in 40 games last season.  

The talented roster has ensured that there will be a deep bench for the Irish, and according to Jackson, it might lead to some competition.

“There’s going to be a fight for playing time back there because we actually have nine defensemen, and I think pretty much all of them can play.”

Production Replacement

Diving into the numbers from last season, the Irish have much to replace from last year’s teams. The players who graduated from ND last year accounted for 35.2% (45) of the goals scored by the team. The same was true for assists; the Irish have lost 34.2% (79) assists from last season’s roster. That adds to a loss of 3.34 points per game, a dramatic production loss.

The Irish also lost a lot of clutch play after graduation. Of the 28 game-winning goals the Irish had last season, the seniors scored nine.

The Irish losses will also impact the special team’s play. Last year’s class accounted for 28% of the Irish power-play goals. That is not great for a team that ranked 31st in the power play last season with a 19.1% conversion rate. Short-handed goals took the biggest hit of all; the Irish are returning a total of 0 short-handed goals from last season.

Where will the replacement production come from? Maybe grad transfers Ben Brinkman, Jackson Pierson and Chayse Priemau. Add in Drew Bavaro for good measure.

Pierson, Primeau and Bavaro contributed power-play goals on their teams last year, and could easily see some minutes on the power-play unity. And Pierson and Bavaro both had short-handed goals last season, showing they can spend some time on the kill.

Combining the stats of the four transfer students, they had 31 combined goals and 51 assists for a total of 82 points. That totals out to 2.45 points per game, which is not the 3.34 points per game lost, but it certainly gets the Irish closer.

Beyond the general increases in productivity that one would expect from classes progressing, junior forward Landon Slaggert, preseason first-team all BigTen, and Nick Leivermann should be two major forces for the Irish.

Where the Irish fall

In a Big Ten pre-season Coaches poll, the favorite to win the conference were the Minnesota Golden Gophers, with Notre Dame finishing in second. Minnesota is an incredibly talented hockey team with national championship potential. The Golden Gophers were just one of five teams to earn votes in the USCHO pre-season rankings and finished second overall, just behind the Denver Pioneers. While not a certainty, it feels incredibly likely that Minnesota should win the conference regular season title.

Behind them should be Michigan. Michigan was CHN’s number one overall team last season, and while they did not win the title, the Wolverines are bringing back a solid team that can compete with Minnesota, but should finish in second place.

Notre Dame has the potential to break into the top two, but it seems more likely that the Irish will finish in third.

Ohio State, who finished just five points behind Notre Dame in the standings last year, should continue to be a tough competitor. The Buckeyes should be step for step with the Irish competing for third behind the goaltending of Jakub Dobes.

Penn State, Wisconsin and Michigan State are the conference’s dark horses, all with potential but not immediate threats to the Irish.

Contact Tom Zwiller at tzwiller@nd.edu.

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Irish look to continue win streak in Bloomington

With selection day for the NCAA Men’s Soccer Championship only six weeks away, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish have their work cut out for them to prove to the committee they deserve to be one of the 48 teams selected. An October schedule loaded with competitive ACC match-ups should give the Irish the opportunity to do just that. Notre Dame will begin their gauntlet of a month tomorrow night in Bloomington against the Indiana University Hoosiers. 

The Irish enter this game with a 5-3-1 overall record, carrying a two game winning streak. Notre Dame’s last victory came Friday night against Boston College at Alumni Stadium. Junior goalkeeper Bryan Dowd, as well as the efforts of several freshmen, helped snag the Irish a hard fought victory. 

While the Irish did find some bright spots in the match, they had nearly even possession and shots on target to a sub-.500 team. They will need to be more disciplined and decisive against the Hoosiers Wednesday. 

The Hoosiers, despite being a historically dominant men’s soccer program, enter this match with a mere 4-2-3 record. They carry some questionable results, including a 3-3 tie at home to Portland and a draw at home to Michigan State, a team the Irish defeated 3-2 on the road. They also stumbled to a 2-2 draw in Ann Arbor against the Wolverines.

However, the Hoosiers do have some results that showcase their team’s talent and depth—including a 2-1 win over Butler, a 2-0 defeat of No. 20 Akron and a 4-1 rout of Northwestern. They also gave a then No. 1 (now No. 23) Clemson all they could handle on the road, barely falling at a score of 3-2. They suffered another close loss in Columbus against a strong Ohio State team, ranked 17th in the nation, only losing 2-1.

Besides their intense battle with ACC behemoth No. 7 Syracuse in New York, a game that ended with a gut-wrenching 1-0 loss for the Irish, this match may be their biggest test yet. With crucial ACC matches throughout the month and the tournament just on the horizon, now is the time for the Irish to find their best form. 

They will need to soon in order to compete with sides such as No. 11 Louisville, No. 2 Duke and No. 25 Pittsburgh before the Nov. 14 Selection Show. Wednesday’s match against IU will serve as a litmus test for this team’s progression. 

Head coach Chad Riley is aware of the challenges ahead, and what his team must do to continue to stack victories in a schedule where “every game is a fight”.

Riley said he urges his team to “trust the preparation that has led them up to this point” as well as “to focus on managing their time and minutes in training as much as they can.”

Riley was adamant that the team’s number one priority should always be to be “ready for games” as the “loaded schedule” begins to take a mental and physical toll on his side. 

IU may not be an ACC opponent, but at this stage of the season, they are one of the most crucial games the Irish have left. They will need to give it all they have and continue their stretches of excellence from the past two games in order to defeat this historic program. 

Notre Dame will take the field at Bill Armstrong Stadium at 7 p.m. EDT and will be streamed on the Big Ten Network.

Contact Adam Akan at aakan@nd.edu.

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Week 5 college football takeaways

The cost of firing a head coach in today’s college football landscape is higher than ever. Massive buyout payments that come with the early termination of a contract means that schools pay millions of dollars just to get their coaches to leave. After his exit in 2021, former LSU coach Ed Orgeron received a buyout of $17.1 million. In a recent interview, Orgeron acknowledged the massive paycheck he received, joking that his response to losing his job was to ask, “What time do you want me to leave and what door do you want me out of, brother?”

With this huge amount of dead money being par for the course with coaching changes, schools do whatever they can to make it work with their staff. In addition, they only fire their coach if they believe new leadership to be absolutely necessary. A pair of programs that recently parted ways with their head coaches received validation that their decision was correct by earning upset victories with interim coaches at the helm.

In 2018, longtime Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson announced his retirement. For his replacement, the school tabbed former Temple head coach Geoff Collins, with the intention of replacing Johnson’s preferred triple option attack with a more conventional offensive scheme. Less than four full seasons later, the Yellow Jackets are back in the coaching market. Collins’ firing was announced last week after three consecutive three-win seasons and a 1-3 start to this year that did nothing to inspire confidence of a turnaround in the near future. In their first game without Collins, the Yellow Jackets went on the road and stunned No. 24 Pitt. The Panthers outgained Georgia Tech by almost 100 yards. But, an opportunistic defense that forced three turnovers and 157 rushing yards from running back Hassan Hall were enough to scrape out a 26-21 upset victory.

Nebraska had been trying to recapture its 90s magic for nearly two decades when it hired Scott Frost as its new head coach in 2017. Frost, a former national championship-winning Husker quarterback and a former national championship-winning UCF head coach, seemed like a perfect fit in every sense of the word. The pairing ended up being anything but perfect; Nebraska, once a powerhouse, posted losing records in each of Frost’s four seasons and did not qualify for a single bowl. After years of speculation of his seat getting hot, a home loss to Georgia Southern was the last straw and Frost was fired after a 1-2 start to the season. 

In their first game without Frost, Nebraska’s struggles continued in a blowout loss against Oklahoma, but the Huskers turned things around this week, ending their nine-game losing streak against FBS opponents with a 35-21 win over a solid Indiana team. It remains to be seen how the rest of the season will play out for Georgia Tech and Nebraska, but the trajectories for both teams’ seasons have improved significantly since their midseason coaching changes. This week, another high-profile coach was let go when Wisconsin fired Paul Chryst. The Badgers will look to continue the trend of teams improving their play without a permanent coach and they will have their first chance to do so against Northwestern this weekend.

Georgia needs late comeback to escape Missouri

Defending national champion Georgia’s season-opening 49-3 domination of Oregon (which now somehow looks even more impressive given how well the Ducks have played since) gave way to a litany of premature questions about the Bulldogs’ greatness. Is Georgia’s defense somehow even better than last year’s unit, which was one of the greatest of all time? Will quarterback Stetson Bennett, who many expected to be benched last year, win the Heisman? Can anyone beat Georgia (or even score a touchdown against them)?

After a sloppy 39-22 win over Kent State and a nail-biting 26-22 victory against Missouri, during which Georgia trailed by ten early in the fourth quarter, those questions can begin to be answered. No, Georgia’s defense is not better than last year’s, which allowed over twenty points just once (in the SEC Championship against Alabama). No, Bennett is probably not a Heisman contender after throwing for zero touchdowns in the last two games combined. We still do not know if anyone can beat Georgia, but it certainly looks much more plausible now than it did after the Oregon game.

The Bulldogs’ recent performances could simply be a case of them overlooking a pair of weaker opponents, but they revealed a blueprint for how Georgia could be beaten. Georgia out-gained Kent State and Missouri by about 200 yards each, but their turnover margin was a combined -4. This allowed less talented teams to hang around with them, and in Missouri’s case, nearly defeat them. In Georgia’s first three games, all wins by over 30 points, the Bulldogs did not have a single turnover and recorded six takeaways. Their overwhelming talent has thus far given them a large enough margin for error to remain undefeated, even when they fail to take care of the ball. But they could be in trouble later in the season if they lose the turnover battle against an elite opponent.

Texas A&M and Oklahoma stumble again

Every year, we see teams with sky-high preseason expectations fail to live up to the hype. Last season, Iowa State and North Carolina were ranked No. 7 and No. 10, respectively in the preseason AP Poll before finishing with records of 7-6 and 6-7. In 2020 preseason polls, No. 6 LSU and No. 7 Penn State both failed to post winning records.

These teams pop up every year to serve as a stark reminder that no one can really predict how a season will turn out and 2022 has been no exception. Notre Dame began the season ranked No. 5, but a shocking 0-2 start dropped them out of the rankings entirely. After Week 5, it looks like the Irish might have company, as preseason top-ten teams Texas A&M and Oklahoma each suffered their second loss of the season in blowout fashion.

Texas A&M’s playoff chances took a dent in week two when they were upset by Appalachian State. The back-to-back wins against ranked opponents Miami and Arkansas that followed, though, gave the Aggies hope that they could get back in the hunt. Those hopes have now been erased, as they were defeated decisively on the road against Mississippi State, 42-24. Texas A&M’s defense, their calling card earlier in the season, had no answer for the Bulldogs’ dynamic passing attack. Quarterback Will Rogers continued his excellent start to the season by posting 329 yards and three touchdowns. The Aggies could still theoretically win the SEC West, but it is difficult to imagine them beating Alabama this week.

Despite losing their head coach, quarterback and several other key players and recruits, Oklahoma breezed to a 3-0 record in non-conference play and looked impressive while doing so. Everything came crashing down when Big 12 play began, and the Sooners’ conference slate started with consecutive losses against Kansas State and TCU. The TCU loss on Saturday was particularly backbreaking for a team coached by Brent Venables, a renowned defensive specialist; the Horned Frogs scored 41 points in the first half alone en route to a 31-point win, 55-24.

Texas A&M and Oklahoma still have time to right the ship and avoid the ignominious finishes that the teams mentioned earlier experienced, but it is not a good sign that their preseason goals are already out of reach less than halfway through the season.

Contact Matthew Crow at mcrow@nd.edu.

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Sports

College football top games week 6

5. Texas @ Oklahoma, 12 p.m., ABC, (Texas -7)

Sandwiched in between the two weeks of the Texas State fair in Dallas is the Red River Showdown between Texas and Oklahoma. The game is almost guaranteed to be a good one as regardless of the quality of the teams, only one game since 2014 has been decided by over ten points. Oklahoma has had a rough past two weeks, losing to both Kansas State and TCU after rising as high as sixth in the rankings. Head coach Brent Venables, who is seen as a defensive whisperer, needs to work some magic to get this Sooners defense back to the level Oklahoma fans expected. Texas also could welcome back quarterback Quinn Ewers, who hasn’t played since getting injured versus Alabama in the second week of the season. The Longhorns fell victim to an upset bid from Texas Tech two weeks later, but rebounded with an 18 point win over West Virginia to get to 3-2. Both fan bases are some of the most devoted in college football, and whichever head coach loses this game will get a lot of heat. Can Oklahoma stop their slide? Or, will Texas reassert themselves as a contender in the Big 12? 

4. No. 8 Tennessee @ No. 25 LSU, 12 p.m., ESPN (Tennessee -2.5)

After losing to Florida State in heartbreaking fashion in week 1, head coach Brian Kelly and the LSU Tigers have won four straight games to sneak into the bottom of the Top 25. In their SEC victories, the Tigers have come back from 13 points against Mississippi State and a 17 point deficit against Auburn. Quarterback Jayden Daniels has carried LSU at times, leading them on pivotal drives to help regain leads. The defense has also made plays, forcing key turnovers. The next game is clearly the toughest on LSU’s schedule so far. Tennessee has earned a pair of big wins against Pitt and Florida, allowing them to skyrocket into the top 10. Quarterback Hendon Hooker has been a playmaker for the Volunteers, averaging nearly 300 yards passing per game. The Volunteers also have the benefit of coming off of a bye, allowing them to prepare for the mobility and improvisational skills of Daniels. Wide receiver Cedric Tillman, one of the best pieces for Tennessee, is questionable to play. Getting him on the field would be a huge boost for Tennessee as they go on the road to one of the toughest places to play in college football. 

3. No. 16 BYU @ Notre Dame, 7:30 p.m., NBC, (Notre Dame -4)

BYU has shown flashes of brilliance this season while also dealing with some inconsistent play. After winning their first game easily, they took Baylor down to the wire, winning in double overtime. They then got blown out by Oregon, but have responded with two wins over inferior competition in Wyoming and Utah State. Although the Cougars won, in each game they have failed to put together four quarters worth of quality football. If they want to beat Notre Dame and keep the goals they have for this season alive, they can’t sleepwalk at the start of this game. They do have the benefit of quarterback Jaren Hall, one of the most exciting players to watch in college football. Notre Dame’s back seven will have to step up to the challenge against another prolific passing offense. The Irish have largely looked good against the pass, allowing just 21 points to Ohio State and playing well enough versus North Carolina to put the game out of reach. There are still offensive questions, although some have been put to bed for the time being after a 45 point performance against North Carolina. Furthermore, the Irish are coming off of a bye week, allowing for more practice opportunities and a chance to get healthy. 

2. No. 11 UCLA @ No. 18 Utah, 3:30 p.m., FOX, (Utah -4)

UCLA, led by quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson, just knocked off a previously unbeaten Washington team last week. It was the Bruins’ first win over a top-15 team since 2014, and a statement win for head coach Chip Kelly. Thompson-Robinson’s skills as a mobile quarterback in addition to running back Zach Charbonnet has helped make the UCLA backfield dynamic and fun to watch. The offensive line has more than held its own through the first five games. Although UCLA only won by eight, Washington never threatened; their fourth quarter rally was only good enough to make the box score look better. After Utah’s three point loss at Florida to begin the year, the Utes have responded with four blowout wins, the most impressive being a 42-16 win over Oregon State last week. Quarterback Cameron Rising is also a skillful runner and passer with a lot of weapons surrounding him. Sophomore Clark Phillips III caught three Beaver passes for interceptions. Their defense has looked much improved and they will need all of it to stop UCLA. This is a game that could be a deciding factor in the quest for a conference championship berth. 

1. No. 17 TCU @ No. 19 Kansas, 12 p.m., FS1, (TCU -6)

If someone told me that I would be ranking TCU-Kansas as the number 1 game this week at the beginning of the season, I would have said that I have a better chance of being struck by lightning. Nevertheless, this game is an undefeated Top 25 showdown with College Gameday in town. Kansas has been the feel-good story of college football. The Jayhawks are 5-0 for the first time since 2009. Head coach Lance Leipold has been the architect of a masterful turnaround. Quarterback Jalon Daniels looked like a dominant player in the first four games of the season, although he was bottled up against Iowa State. Kansas still found a way to beat Iowa State thanks to one of their best defensive performances in years. TCU has been led by its overwhelming offensive attack on the way to averaging over 40 points in its first four games, all of them wins. They are ranked in the Top 25 for the first time since 2019. Quarterback Max Duggan threw for over 400 yards and five touchdowns in a romp over Oklahoma, leading to him being named the Walter Camp National Player of the Week. This is the first time Kansas has hosted College Gameday, but TCU is 6-1 during these high-level games.

Contact Joseph Tunney at jtunney@nd.edu.

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Sports

Notre Dame baseball ‘establishes a process’ amid staffing changes

On Saturday, the Notre Dame baseball team played in their second of two intercollegiate scrimmages, hosting the Cincinnati Bearcats in a doubleheader of seven inning contests.

Notre Dame baseball is coming off of arguably the best season in program history, having made the College World Series in a season highlighted by knocking off top-ranked Tennessee in the Knoxville Super Regional.

However, head coach Link Jarrett opted to leave for his alma mater, Florida State, in the offseason. Notre Dame found their new head coach in July, hiring Shawn Stiffler. Stiffler coached Virginia Commonwealth (VCU) for 10 seasons, leading them to NCAA tournament appearances in 2015, 2021 and 2022. Every head coaching change brings a period of transition, and it’s no different for the Irish.

Stiffler also hired a new crew of assistant coaches, with Logan Robbins, Seth Cutler-Voltz and Ryan Munger helping to get their first season as Irish coaches off the ground.

“They coach the guys very, very hard every day,” Stiffler said of his assistants. “Knowing that those guys are there and we can trust them to coach the players and build relationships with the players is huge for me.”

The new staff inherits a roster with talented players still in the fold, with 11 graduate students on the 40-man squad. Graduate student first baseman Carter Putz went 4-5 over both games, hitting two singles, a double and a triple.

In the first game, CJ Dean hit a home run in the top of the first inning to have the Bearcats ahead 1-0. That score held until the top of the fifth inning. Kameron Guidry walked, and second baseman Lauden Brooks successfully laid down a sacrifice bunt. Later in the frame, Dean drove in his second run of the game with a single to put the Bearcats up 2-0.

In the bottom of the sixth, graduate student Brooks Coetzee reached on a Bearcat throwing error and advanced to second courtesy of a wild pitch. After sophomore Jack Penney walked, graduate student Zack Prajzner executed a successful bunt to put two runners in scoring position, who Putz knocked through with a two-RBI single to tie the game.

In the top of the seventh, the Bearcats were able to load the bases courtesy of two walks and a single. A lightly hit ground ball to third base turned into the play of the game, as a throwing error from the Irish led to the bases being cleared. The Bearcats were able to hold on to take the first game 5-2. After a 5-minute intermission, game two began as a duel between the pitching staffs.

The Bearcats scored their only run in the top of the fourth inning, as a ground ball got just behind a diving Penney for a two-out single good for a 1-0 lead. In the bottom of the fifth, Putz hit a triple and was driven in on a groundout by Prajzner. An inning later, junior Connor Hincks stepped in and hit a clutch pinch-hit double with two outs to plate what would come to be the winning run to split the fall-ball series.

For the Irish, this series was successful in several way. The games gave good reps for all players involved, allowing coach Stiffler and his staff to evaluate a good amount of players and see them in a game environment. Even in a veteran-laden team, a few freshmen were able to see some action in a glance toward the future. David Lally pitched two scoreless innings, striking out four of the six batters he faced.

“Lally showed that he’s going to be ready to take on some high-leverage innings early,” Stiffler said of the freshman. Estevan Moreno took the field as third baseman in the first game in an effort for him to “try and get as many reps as he can.”

Although unable to collect a hit, Moreno showed signs of becoming a player of interest in the beginning of his Irish career.

“I think he has a very promising future,” said Stiffler after the game.

After a long break of summer ball, fall ball and an intersquad scrimmage, Stiffler said the chance to play another school is a teaching opportunity.

“To throw a team in with a different uniform on just adds another element of trying to evaluate your guys, because some guys rise to the occasion when they see a different color across the field, other guys maybe reserve themselves a little bit or pull back,” Stiffler said of the scrimmages.

Similar to spring football or other out-of-season contests, the scrimmages mainly serve to provide crucial data points for the coaches to put players in the best possible positions come springtime.

Stiffler and the Notre Dame staff seem to be employing an approach that aims to get the most out of each rep, practice and scrimmage. The results will come, but the process has to be established first.

“Right now we’re just trying to learn how to practice, how to go about our business every day, how to go about our work,” Stiffler said. “We’re getting better at that, so I’m more focused on that than anything else, like trying to win baseball games in February or October.”

Stiffler and the Irish staff want to make sure their players are ready for the games that really matter, and this starts with tomorrow’s practice. Winning each day is their key to success.

Contact Joseph Tunney at jtunney@nd.edu