Notre Dame Fighting Irish Baseball Returns Loaded Roster Heading Into 2021 Season
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Notre Dame Baseball Returns Loaded Roster Heading Into 2021 Season

Note: Notre Dame will no longer travel to Baton Rouge, La., for a three-game tournament against Air Force, Louisiana Tech and LSU this weekend.

Per a statement: “The decision was made out of an abundance of caution following positive tests, subsequent quarantining and contact tracing within the team. The program is adhering to the outlined protocols within the ACC Medical Advisory Group report.”

A stout 6-1 and 235 pounds, Niko Kavadas resembles a modern middle linebacker.

Yet, the left-handed slugger and senior on the Notre Dame baseball team may possess the most power to all fields in college baseball.

After serving as the Fighting Irish third baseman early in his career, Kavadas flipped to the other corner of the diamond as a junior in 2020 and thrived at first base.

He jumped out to an electric start last spring, hitting .255 and posting seven home runs in the team’s first 13 games. His rate of 0.54 bombs per contest was good for fifth overall in last year’s COVID-19 shortened college baseball season.

Even Kavadas’ own Notre Dame teammates assumed he might leave South Bend a year early and test the Minor League waters. But the typically 40-round MLB Draft was trimmed to five rounds.

Instead of going pro, the slugger returned to school but without many options of where to play or work on his game.

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Kavadas participated in the historic Cape Cod League in 2019, where he was named an All-Star and finished second in the wood bat league’s home run derby. But Cape Cod canceled its 2020 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, as did several other collegiate baseball summer leagues.

Worse yet, Kavadas couldn't even use the Notre Dame baseball facilities until the team returned to campus in August 2020 and COVID-19 testing and safety protocols were put in place.

“The team facility prior to everyone coming back in getting our COVID test stuff was shut down,” said Kavadas, who hails from nearby Granger, Ind. “So I wasn't able to use that facility, despite being just 10 or 15 minutes away. I've needed to go out and find other facilities and find just independent people I know who have machines and stuff like that to get that work in.”

On the bright side, Kavadas now headlines one of the most talented and experienced Notre Dame baseball rosters in quite some time, and was named a preseason All-American by Perfect Game (second team) and Baseball America (third team).

“Anytime you have somebody that can change innings and games with one swing, it’s a threat,” head coach Link Jarrett said. “If you're going to score runs in bunches, you have to hit for some power, and he does that.”

Veteran Position Players

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After an 11-2 start in 2020, Notre Dame returns almost every major position player from last season’s roster that produced a collective .302 batting average (25th overall in the shortened 2020 season). The lone loss is utility player and designated hitter Eric Gilgenbach, who hit .370 with two home runs.

Kavadas’ return may be the biggest story, but senior center fielder and leadoff hitter Spencer Myers led the nation in stolen bases with 15 and hit a team-best .431.

Myers should be in better shape this season as well. He entered the 2020 spring without much offseason training due to a shoulder injury, but that didn't hold him back from being one of the most dynamic base runners in all of College Baseball.

"If you're going to lead the country in stolen bases, you have to get on base," Jarrett said. "You can't steal first. He was finding ways on base. As a switch hitter. He's proficient in bunting, he puts the ball in play and he gets down the line and it puts pressure on people. When he's on base, he has a true desire to run."

Other returning starters include catcher David LaManna; shortstop Carter Putz, second baseman Zack Prajzner, third baseman Jack Brannigan and outfielders Jack Zyska and Brooks Coetzee.

Revamped Rotation

Notre Dame will Miss two significant contributors out of the bullpen this season in Joe Boyle and Tommy Vail.

As a 6-foot-7 flamethrower who topped out at well over 100 miles per hour, Boyle was drafted after his junior season by the Cincinnati Reds in the fifth round with the No. 143 overall pick. Vail, on the other hand, had Tommy John surgery in the offseason rendering him unavailable this spring.

Despite Boyle's next-level velocity, Vail feels as if he's the bigger loss. He was a left-handed arm who produced a team-low 2.08 ERA and threw twice the innings compared to Boyle.

But there’s plenty of talented pitchers left on the roster, as well as several promising newcomers.

Tommy Sheehan remains the team's Friday starter after posting a 2.70 ERA in 2020, with three wins and 22 strikeouts. Fellow weekend starters Will Mercer and Alex Rao are also back.

The roster will also include several graduate transfer pitchers in Joe Sheridan, Christian Scafidi, James Hulbert and John Michael Bertrand. Tanner Kohlhepp is a coveted junior out of Iowa Western Community College.

Additionally, third baseman Jack Brannigan will continue to be used as a relief pitcher.

“As I see it pitching depth as a strength,” Jarrett said. “We have eight left-handed pitchers anybody would love to have it. We have it. Piggybacking onto that, there's not tremendous starting elite-caliber stuff. Tommy Sheehan is probably the most elite on the front end of that rotation with pure stuff. But we have plenty of options, so how we manage our bullpen matchups is going to be very critical this year.”

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