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February 17, 2007

Lilley, Brezovsky form NDís new double-play combo

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Junior Brett Lilley has started 120 straight games for Notre Dame. Junior Ross Brezovsky has started 109 games for the Irish the last two seasons.

But when the Fighting Irish open the 2007 season against Prairie View A&M in San Antonio, they’ll be aligned side-by-side—shortstop and second base—after two seasons with shortstop Greg Lopez in between them.

When the two were rookies in 2005, both had to adapt to a new position. Both were high school shortstops, but Lilley opened at second base and Brezovsky at third.

About midway through their rookie seasons, head coach Paul Mainieri asked them to trade positions. The move sparked the Irish and allowed both freshmen to settle in.

Now, two seasons later, Lilley is back to his high school position.

“I feel very comfortable at shortstop,” said Lilley, a career .338, from North Canton, Ohio. “It’s not a big transformation back. I like playing there. It’s a lot of fun. You just go out there and play.”

If there’s one thing Lilley can do, it’s play the game of baseball (although he’s also a 3.78 student). He enters his junior season first on the all-time Irish list in on-base percentage with a .473 mark. In addition to his hitting prowess, Lilley knows how to work a count and take one for the team.

He has 60 walks and 51 hit by pitches halfway through his collegiate career.

The transition to college for Brezovsky wasn’t quite as easy, particularly at third base. He also hit just .261 as a freshman.

But Brezovsky settled in nicely at second base in ’06 and raised his batting average to .295 as a sophomore. He also provided a little pop (four home runs, 42 RBI), which is why he’ll be working out of the No. 6 spot in the lineup.

Brezovsky doesn’t believe it will take him and Lilley long to form a dynamic double play combination.

“We’ve taken a ton of ground balls, and we’ve been working real well together,” said Brezovsky, a Naples, Fla., product. “I expect good things out of us this year.”

Old man in the outfield
Senior centerfielder Danny Dressman has played 134 games in a Notre Dame uniform with 107 career hits to his credit.

The rest of the Irish outfielders—sophomore Ryan Connolly, and freshmen Brayden Ashdown, Michael Wright, Billy Boockford, David Mills and Austin Pearce—have zero college playing experience combined.

“A lot,” laughed Dressman when asked how many freshmen are roaming the outfield with him. “It’s really cool. I remember being a freshman and having that big learning curve. I’m just trying to help them out. A lot of it is trial by fire. But if they have any questions, I’ll answer them the best I can.”

It wasn’t always a smooth ride for Dressman, so he can relate to what it’s like trying to find a niche. He played in 46 games as a freshman, starting 28. But he hit just .264 as a rookie, and then started just eight games as a sophomore in 2005 when he hit .273 in a mere 55 at-bats.

“Anytime you play a sport, especially baseball, it’s going to be up and down,” said Dressman, from San Jose, Calif. “The thing Coach Schrage says and I try to reiterate is you’re going to fail, and you can’t be afraid to fail.

“These kids are here for a reason. They have a lot of talent. Just go out there and do what you do. I think they’ll play well.”

Dressman emerged last season as a junior, hitting .321 with 35 RBI. His performance helped earned him co-captain honors with fellow senior Mike Dury.

“It’s a great honor when you look at the guys who have been elected captain here, guys who I’ve personally known the last three years,” Dressman said. “To be able to say I belong in the same club as them is a great honor.”

Shortstop at heart, utility by trade
Sophomore Jeremy Barnes started 22 games at second, six games at shortstop, six games at third and three games at first during his freshman season with the Irish. He also was the designated hitter 18 times.

Wherever former Irish head coach Paul Mainieri put him, Barnes hit, finishing with a .294 batting average and a team-leading 49 RBI, usually in the third or fourth spot in the lineup.

Barnes will open the season at first base Saturday against Prairie View A&M. But that probably won’t be his last stop of the season.

“My role right now is utility,” said Barnes, a Garland, Texas product who was a shortstop in high school. “I’m at first base, shortstop, second, maybe even a little outfield, depending upon where Coach Schrage needs me. I just want to help out the team.”

Experience behind the dish
Word of Sean Gaston’s season-ending shoulder injury wasn’t the best news that first-year head coach Dave Schrage could have gotten shortly before the start of the 2007 season.

But it could have been a whole lot worse had Matt Weglarz not come along.

Weglarz, a graduate student in Notre Dame’s MBA program, arrived last fall just looking for an opportunity. After a three-year career at Southwest Missouri State (he missed his rookie year in 2003 with a foot injury), Weglarz earned his undergraduate degree and was ready to move on with his life.

“I was accepted to Notre Dame in July, and I had kind of accepted the fact that I was ready to move beyond baseball,” said Weglarz, who was named to the second-team all-Missouri Valley Conference squad in ’05 after hitting .333 with a team high 18 doubles, four home runs and 48 RBI.

“It just kind of worked out. (Schrage) coached against me in the conference.”

Not only did Schrage coach against Weglarz, he suffered the consequences. Weglarz went 8-for-18 against Schrage’s Evansville squad.

So what did Schrage think the first time he saw Weglarz on the Notre Dame campus last fall?

“He walked into my office in August, and I obviously remembered the name from playing against him for three years,” Schrage said. “I just said to him, ‘I don’t have any GA (graduate assistant) positions to be filled.’ He looked at me and said, ‘Well, I’ve still got a year of eligibility left.’ I was like, ‘Oh!’”

Weglarz didn’t want any promises; just a uniform and a chance. That chance comes Saturday when his name will be penciled into the starting lineup in the No. 5 spot in the lineup.

“He’s got some power,” Schrage said. “He can hit the long ball for us and he puts the bat on the ball pretty consistently, so he will open in the five spot, which is where Gaston would have hit.”

 “Hopefully I can drive in some runs in the middle of the lineup,” said Weglarz, who hails from Kansas City, Mo. “We’re young behind the plate, so I’ll try to help out the young guys and apply what I learned the last four years and in summer ball.”

Weglarz will be backed up by freshman Ryan Smith.

Weiland on the mend
Irish sophomore closer Kyle Weiland, who saved 16 games in 2006, will start the 2007 season on the disabled list. He broke his collarbone in December.

“I was running back to my dorm, it was about 10 degrees out, the wind was blowing, and I had my hands in my pocket,” said Weiland, the 6-foot-3, 190-pounder from Albuquerque, N.M.

“I slipped and fell awkwardly. Stuff happens. You’ve got to deal with it.”

Weiland says his timetable for a return is “soon.” He hopes to pitch in game competition the first weekend of March when the Irish travel to DeLand, Fla., for the Stetson Invitational.

Weiland, who struck out 53 hitters in 35 innings as a senior in high school, converted to the closer role with the Irish as a rookie. He’ll become a starting pitcher again if the coaching staff asks him. But that likely won’t be happening any time soon.

“I really enjoy closing,” Weiland said. “It’s a fun role to have, and obviously a very important role. I like to have that on my shoulders.

“I came in as a freshman not knowing too much about the mental part of the game. (Being a closer) has a lot to do with dealing with failure. You’re not always going to be successful. Dealing with that is the main thing you have to learn in order to be a good closer.”

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