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February 15, 2013

ND points to Big East title

After slipping in under the wire to qualify for the Big East tournament each of the past two seasons, the Notre Dame baseball team has not set its sights incrementally in the third year of the Mik Aoki regime.

Aoki believes the Irish are ready to skip a few rungs on the ladder in 2013.

“I think we can legitimately vie for a Big East championship and an NCAA tournament bid,” said Aoki, who led the Irish to a seventh-place finish in the Big East last year after an eighth-place finish in 2011.

“We should be good. I think we’re pretty good.”

Big East frontrunners Louisville and St. John’s will have something to say about things in the Big East, as will Connecticut. But after paying some dues and playing young in several spots during his first two seasons with the Irish, Aoki can put out a solid lineup of veterans, mixed with some talented young players who figure to fill in some of the gaps that have led to a 54-56-1 overall mark and a 27-26 record in Big East play since his arrival from Boston College.

“It’s a challenge, but I really feel like we’re pretty well armed for that challenge,” Aoki said. “I think we’ve got a good blend of older kids and newer kids. Some of these older guys, having been to some of the venues they’ve been to, and having played against some of the teams that they’ve played against, aren’t going to have a fear factor going to UCLA, Oklahoma, or wherever. A lot of these kids have developed and had success along the way, especially when you look at our senior class.”

That senior class is led by veteran second baseman Frank DeSico, centerfielder Charlie Markson, and righthander Adam Norton, and supplemented by hard-hitting juniors Trey Mancini and Eric Jagielo as well as big right-hander Dan Slania, who was a dominant force last season as Notre Dame’s closer.

DeSico, Notre Dame’s second baseman, hit .302 in 2012 and has started 156 games for the Irish. He hit .333 as a freshman in 2010. Markson, who struggled to find consistency at the plate his first two seasons in the program, hit .303 with a team-leading 19 stolen bases last year.

“Frank has had a pretty good body of work, and Charlie really came into his own last year,” Aoki said.

DeSico and Markson will bat one-two in the lineup ahead of Jagielo (third base) and Mancini (first base), who have been standouts since their rookie seasons. Jagielo, who hit .310 with 13 home runs and 43 RBI last year, has 18 home runs and 71 RBI in his collegiate career. Mancini, who hit .317 with 12 homers and 45 RBI in ’12, is a career .319 hitter with 21 homers and 79 RBI.

Norton came to Notre Dame as an infielder, but now helps anchor the pitching staff after compiling a 5-5 record with a 4.32 earned run average in ‘12. Junior righthander Sean Fitzgerald has been most effective as a set-up man, but likely will be called into duty as a starter, at least until sophomore Pat Connaughton finishes his tour of duty with Mike Brey’s basketball team. Fitzgerald was 7-3 with a 3.82 ERA in ’12.

Two freshmen competing for a spot in the starting rotation are righthanders David Hearne and Nick McCarty.

Slania, a 6-foot-5, 275-pounder, recorded 13 saves and had a 3-0 record with a 2.03 ERA in 31 appearances last season. Now a junior, Slania has been attracting a ton of attention from major league scouts.

“We have some really high-end kids in Eric Jagielo, Dan Slania and Trey Mancini,” Aoki said.

Aoki will be counting on some youngsters to fill several spots, including left and right field, designated hitter, and shortstop.

Ryan Bull, a switch-hitting sophomore who hit .254 as a rookie, could occupy a corner outfield position or the designated hitter role. Three freshmen - James Nevant, Ricky Sanchez and Zak Kutsulis - will compete for the other spots. Sophomores Mac Hudgins and Conor Biggio could factor in as well.

Lane Richards, a freshman, is expected to claim the shortstop job over sophomores Kevin DeFilippis, Jason McMurray and Phil Mosey, who all had a shot at the spot last year.

The Irish lost a great defensive catcher in Joe Hudson to the Cincinnati Reds in the sixth round of the MLB draft. Hudson hit .332 with six home runs and 39 RBI. He’ll be replaced by junior Forrest Johnson, whose brother, Cole, was a standout right-handed pitcher for the Irish.

Other pitchers who should make a contribution this season include junior righthander Donnie Hissa, and sophomore righthanders Cristian Torres and Matt Ternowchek. Aoki also likes sophomore righthander Scott Kerrigan -- a potential mid-week starter -- senior righthander Breck Ashdown, freshman righthanders Connor Hale and Joey Cresta, and freshman lefthander Michael Herne.

“Once Pat comes off the basketball court, to be honest with you, I think we’re as good as anybody,” said Aoki, who lost Will Hudgins (5-3, 2.06 ERA) at the top of his rotation. “That doesn’t mean we can throw our gloves out and beat people. But mentally, we’re in a really good place.

“These kids have gotten a ton of confidence -- and rightfully so -- for the intensity and commitment of the work they’ve put in. They’ve been awesome. They’ve been a really good group to work with. They want to win. They’re willing to put their personal agendas aside for winning.”

The Irish open play Saturday, Feb. 16, in Sarasota, Fla., in the Snowbird Tournament against Florida Gulf Coast and Ohio State, followed by Mercer on Sunday. The following weekend, they head to New Orleans for a three-game series against New Orleans.

The Irish kick off March in Cary, N.C., against Massachusetts, Tennessee, Virginia Tech and Rhode Island in the Irish Baseball Classic. Notre Dame’s spring-break trip takes them to southern California to play UCLA, USC, Oklahoma, UC Santa Barbara, and Cal Poly.

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