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A Great Day For Baseball

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If you look at the schedule, opening day was more than a month ago for Notre Dame baseball. But for a team and its fans, there's perhaps nothing better than the home opener.

An absolutely perfect day at Frank Eck Stadium, it was 83 degrees and sunny with a nice breeze at the time of first pitch. A great crowd was on hand, with freshman righthanded pitcher Pat Connaughton getting the start and making his first career appearance in an Irish baseball uniform.

At this point in his young career at Notre Dame, Connaughton is better known from his time on the hardwood, but judging from his debut this afternoon, he could have a bright future on the diamond too.

Connaughton struck out the side in his first inning of work and picked up where he left off in the top of the second. He K'ed two more batters, before leaving the game to a nice ovation from the crowd, which included his basketball teammates and coaches, athletic director Jack Swarbrick, former Notre Dame baseball coach Digger Phelps, and several Irish football players.

Head coach Mik Aoki had planned to keep the freshman's pitch count to roughly 30 pitches. He faced seven batters and threw 31 pitches on the afternoon, striking out five, walking one and allowing a single.

Frank DeSico sparked the Irish offense in the home half of the first, hitting an infield single and stealing second base. Clean-up hitter Trey Mancini plated the first run of the game, knocking in DeSico on a two-out single, before Joe Hudson followed with an RBI single of his own.

Notre Dame added two more runs in the bottom of the third, thanks to three straight doubles from DeSico, Eric Jagielo and Mancini.

One of life's simple joys, opening day is one of my favorite times of year. While I would have enjoyed all nine innings, I left in the bottom of the fourth inning to cover the women's basketball second round NCAA tournament game at Purcell Pavilion.

The Irish were leading, 4-3.

- Josh Flynt ('11)

Live Chat - Baseball vs. Eastern Michigan

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It's a baseball night in South Bend!

Irish UNDerground will have all the angles in and around the action covered throughout tonight's Irish baseball action in the home opener against Eastern Michigan. Be sure to share your questions, comments and complaints and let your voice be heard throughout the Notre Dame nation.

Want to track all the action from your mobile device? No problem.

Simply click (or to be phone friendly, "touch") HERE.

Huge Win on the Diamond

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The Notre Dame baseball team notched its biggest win in quite some time, and certainly its most impressive victory of the young season on Sunday evening with a 7-1 upset of 11th-ranked LSU.

Sophomore righty Sean Fitzgerald pitched 8 innings, allowing six hits and just one run, while striking out four batters, as the Irish snapped the Tigers' eight-game winning streak in front of 10,347 in Baton Rouge.

Freshman LF Conor Biggio (son of future Baseball Hall of Famer Craig Biggio) was 2-for-5 with two runs scored and three RBI. Junior C Joe Hudson, junior RF Charlie Markson and senior CF Alex Robinson also had multi-hit games for the Irish, who collected 11 base knocks in the victory.

It was a milestone win for second-year head coach Mik Aoki's squad. The last time Notre Dame defeated an opponent ranked higher was on Mar. 4, 2007, when the Irish bested #7 Nebraska, 16-6 in a seven-inning shortened game.

Sunday's victory was also the program's best road win against a ranked opponent since knocking off #1 Florida State, 3-1 in 2002.

That season, Paul Mainieri led the Irish to Omaha and the College World Series. Mainieri, who is currently the head coach at LSU, spent 12 seasons in South Bend before taking over the Tigers' job after the 2006 season.

Notre Dame split the day, dropping a 6-5 decision to Michigan in the first game.

The Irish face the Tigers again tonight at 7:30 pm ET, before heading west for a matchup with UT-San Antonio and later in the week, the Irish Baseball Classic, both at Wolff Stadium in San Antonio. Catch all the action right here on or locally on 103.1 FM.

- Josh Flynt ('11)

Irish Top Tigers

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Following an early March road sweep by national powerhouse Texas State, in which the Irish were outscored 17-0 in three games, prospects were not promising for facing No. 11 LSU the following weekend. Furthermore, the Irish were playing the Tigers in the second game of a doubleheader and had dropped a 6-5 late inning heart-breaker to Michigan earlier in the day.

Adding to the challenge was the atmosphere at Alex Box Stadium. LSU led college baseball in attendance in 2011 and drew 10,347 fans for Sunday night's game against the Irish.

"The atmosphere was phenomenal," Irish coach Mik Aoki said. "It's one of college baseball's best venues. It was exciting for our kids to play in that kind of facility and atmosphere."

Also, Tiger coach Paul Mainieri led the Irish program to eight straight NCAA Tournament appearances from 1999-2006, including a trip to the 2002 College World Series during his time in South Bend.

Yet, the young Irish team overcame the obstacles of defeating a ranked opponent on the road and offered a glimpse of what the program is capable of achieving.

The Irish dominated LSU in a 7-1 win, led by the pitching of sophomore starter Sean Fitzgerald and timely hitting.

"[The win over LSU] certainly gets us recognition of temporal fashion," Aoki said. "It builds confidence in our team, and our guys can understand what feats we're capable of."

Unfortunately, inclement weather prevented a rematch the following Monday night. However, the Irish had not defeated a higher-ranked opponent on the road since beating No. 1 Florida State to advance to the 2002 College World Series.

After struggling in his first few outings on the season, Sean Fitzgerald spearheaded the upset bid, limiting the Tigers to one run in eight innings. The sophomore allowed only six hits and one walk while striking out four and shut out LSU the first seven innings.

The only time he ran into trouble came in the eighth, when he allowed three straight hits with one out. However, Fitzgerald struckout the final two batters of the inning to quell any hopes of an LSU comeback.

"Everything was a little bit sharper than his first few outings, especially his fastball and change-up," Aoki said. "His command was good, and he fell into very few negative counts."

Freshman center fielder Conor Biggio led the Irish offense from the leadoff spot. In the third, his two-run double to right-center field gave the Irish a quick 2-0 lead. In the seventh, Biggio's infield single plated another run to put the Irish up 6-0.

"Conor gave us a little spark in the lead-off spot," Aoki said. "He put together quality at-bats against a quality LSU team."

Catcher Joe Hudson, and outfielders Charlie Markson and Alex Robinson added two-hit efforts to lead the Irish offense.

Following the LSU win, the Irish built a four-game winning streak with three straight wins in San Antonio at the Irish Baseball Classic before dropping the final two games of the trip to Indiana State on March 17 and 18.

- Matt Unger ('15)

Student. Athlete. Irish.

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Chase Fulfills Dream by Playing for Irish

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6012328.jpeg The Observer - Irish senior co-captain Tommy Chase never needed to be sold on Notre Dame - he spent most of his high school years trying to show off his skills for the Notre Dame coaches.

"I was always a huge Notre Dame fan, so I kind of came out and recruited myself," Chase said. "I came out to the camps and they saw me and they wanted to have me on the team, but they were a little short on scholarship money, so they said that I could come and play as a walk-on, so I didn't have a scholarship."

Chase's plans for his Notre Dame career probably didn't include the knee surgery that wiped out his sophomore season or a coaching change before his junior year, but even as a walk-on without a scholarship, he knew he made the right choice.

"It's just been an absolute dream being here for the last four years," Chase said. "It's definitely the best decision I ever made."

Now that Chase has lived his childhood fantasy as a middle infielder for the Irish, he and his teammates are helping South Bend elementary students develop their own goals through the "Dream Team" project.

"Generally, we go with our teammates, and we work with third and fourth grade classrooms and go in once a week for five weeks, and we essentially have a little curriculum each week," Chase said. "We talk about having dreams and having goals and working really hard to attain those goals.

"I think it's very important, because a lot of these kids come from families where they don't necessarily have two parents and the support isn't necessarily there, so having Notre Dame athletes and people they look up to coming in and telling them that they can do whatever they want is really special, and it's really an honor to be able to do that."

Chase and his teammates followed up the "Dream Team" project by inviting third grade classes from McKinley and Perley Elementary Schools to visit Notre Dame on consecutive Friday nights earlier this semester, giving the kids an opportunity to skate at the new Compton Family Ice Arena one week watch a hockey game from the student section the next.

"That was about bringing kids from South Bend to Notre Dame, because some of these kids will never come on the Notre Dame campus, and just to be able to see what it means to be at Notre Dame puts a picture to what their dreams can be," Chase said. "It was really successful and we really had a great time."

Chase also played a large role in organizing the baseball team's "Adopt a Family" effort, which ultimately raised nearly a thousand dollars to aid a local family, and helped recruit 24 student athletes who joined him on a fall break trip to aid in the clean-up of Tuscaloosa, Ala., which was heavily damaged by a tornado last April.

But between organizing a new service project, helping his assigned third grade student prepare for the state-wide standardized test or attending a Notre Dame Christian Athletes meeting, Chase is also busy fulfilling captaincy responsibilities with senior pitcher Will Hudgins.

"We run most of the meetings, we facilitate meetings [with] the sports psychologist on campus, we make all the little decisions, including what we wear on the road, curfews on the road, and who's responsible for carrying what bag on the road," Chase said. "We have to keep the focus on our goal at hand and constantly built relationships with our other teammates and just try to be the best model of leadership that we can be."

- Vicky Jacobsen

Baseball Season Is Around the Corner

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With 159 days between game seven of the World Series and opening day, it's a long, cruel winter without baseball. For fans of America's pastime, February and March are those months when you wait for the next day that brings us closer to the end. Today is one of those days.

Today, the pitchers and catchers of the Chicago White Sox and Texas Rangers reported to spring training in Arizona, which means every team has officially begun preparing for the season.

In celebration of the end of the winter and beginning of the spring, here's a look at the former Irish players who will look to impress during this preseason ...

Milwaukee Brewers infielder Craig Counsell ('92) will move from the field to the front office, retiring after 16 years in the major leagues. The 2001 NLCS MVP has become a special assistant to Brewers general manager Doug Melvin. Counsell ended his career with a spectacular fielding percentage of .985.

Reliever Brad Lidge ('98) will make his Washington Nationals debut this year after spending his first 10 seasons with the Houston Astros and Philadelphia Phillies. The two-time All-Star spent much of 2011 injured but posted a 1.40 ERA in his 25 appearances.

Relief pitcher Aaron Heilman ('01) signed a minor-league contract with the Seattle Mariners this offseason and will report to spring training. In his nine combined seasons with the New York Mets, Arizona Diamondbacks and Chicago Cubs, he has appeared in 477 games with a 4.40 ERA.

Milwaukee relief pitcher John Axford ('05) will return to the Brewers after a breakout 2011 campaign. The closer converted 43 consecutive save opportunities while posting a 1.95 ERA. At the conclusion of the season he was named the National League's reliever of the year and placed ninth in the Cy Young voting.

After spending some time in the minors last season, pitcher Jeff Manship ('06) will start spring training on the 40-man roster of the Minnesota Twins.

Coming off a big 2011 season, relief pitcher Jeff Samardzija ('06) will hope to build off that success into 2012. The right-hander's .297 ERA last season was second best among Cubs pitchers and his 88 innings pitched were the most for any of Chicago's relievers.

Also starting the season on a 40-man roster, pitcher David Phelps ('08) will look to make an impact for the New York Yankees. The 2010 Yankee minor league pitcher of the year has posted a 2.61 ERA in his four seasons in the minors.

After making his major league debut with the Boston Red Sox last season, pitcher Kyle Weiland ('08) will start the 2012 season with the Astros, who acquired the right-hander in an offseason trade.

Outfielder A.J. Pollock ('09) will play in spring training for the Diamondbacks. The former first-round pick hit .307 with eight home runs, 73 RBI and 36 stolen bases last year with AA Mobile.

- Craig Chval ('15)

Irish Come Out Swinging in BIG EAST/Big Ten Challenge

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Still in the process of becoming a complete team, the Irish impressed with their 2-1 record at the BIG EAST/Big Ten Challenge this past weekend in Florida. The squad left feeling good about its offensive firepower, but questions lingered with regards to the starting rotation and bullpen.

Notre Dame defeated Illinois in the season opener on Friday in a 13-12 slugfest and beat Iowa 5-2 on Saturday behind a complete game from Adam Norton. On Sunday, the Irish failed to complete the sweep and fell 15-8 to Purdue.

"We swung the bat very well, and we expected to be a much better offensive team than a year ago," Irish coach Mik Aoki said. "We still have some questions with our bullpen, but, overall, I'm pleased our guys never gave in and competed hard for 27 innings."

Perhaps the most encouraging sign was the team's performance on offense. After serving as the squad's principal weakness in the 2011 campaign, the Irish offense came out swinging, scoring 26 runs and batting .379 over the course of the weekend. The run total could have been higher had the Irish not left 42 runners on base.

Nonetheless, Notre Dame nearly bested the tournament record for team batting average. St. John's still holds the record for single tournament batting average when they hit .387 in 2009. The 44 hits for the Irish also approached the Red Storm's record of 48 hits in 2011. Notre Dame drew 17 walks - the second-most ever in a single tournament - and did set a tournament record with 11 batters hit by a pitch.

The Irish registered 10 or more hits in each of the three games - a feat not accomplished by a Notre Dame team in its first three games of a campaign since 1993.

This surge was led by a potent middle of the lineup combination of Eric Jagielo, Trey Mancini, and Joe Hudson. The trio went a combined 20-for-36 with three home runs and 17 RBI on the weekend.

Hudson, who entered his junior season with just one home run in two seasons, jacked two on Friday against the Illini, including a go-ahead solo shot in the ninth inning to give the Irish a 13-12 lead. He was the first Irish player to ever hit multiple home runs in a season opener. In addition, the junior catcher reached base 13 times in 16 plate appearances.

Hudson was understandably named BIG EAST Player of the Week on Monday. He set tournament records with 11 total bases in the victory over Illinois, 16 total bases over the entire tournament and a tournament slugging percentage of 1.600.

Hudson also tied tournament records for home runs in a single game, home runs in a tournament and doubles in a single game. He batted .700 (7-for-10) with three doubles, two home runs and seven RBI. Hudson added three runs scored, three walks and three hit by pitches.

Hudson, who had just nine multi-hit and five multi-RBI games in 2010, has registered three and two, respectively, already in 2012. If his prowess at the plate was not enough, Hudson was dynamic behind the dish as well. He gunned down two of the three attempted stolen bases over the weekend.

Meanwhile, Jagielo went 7-for-13 during the three games and drove home four runs. His most clutch hit of the weekend occurred Saturday against Iowa in the top of the eighth inning, with the Irish down 2-1. With runners on first and second base, he laced a double to deep center field, scoring two runs to give the Irish a 3-2 advantage, which they would not relinquish.

Mancini picked up where he left off last season and recorded six hits in 13 at-bats and homered against the Fighting Illini.

"Those three are all hard-working, talented baseball players," Aoki said. "While they obviously won't hit at that kind of pace, you saw the potential for as powerful a 3-4-5 trio as there is in the BIG EAST."

However, faced with the task of replacing three starting pitchers, the Irish pitching rotation and bullpen remain in a state of flux. Yet, one bright spot was the performance of Adam Norton. After Friday's starter, Sean Fitzgerald, failed to escape the third inning, Norton delivered his first career complete game on Saturday. He limited Iowa to just two runs on seven hits (three of which never left the infield) and struck out four in nine innings.

Norton blanked the Hawkeyes over the final 7.1 innings of the contest. His complete game was the first for an Irish hurler in a season's opening week of the year since Tom Price on Mar. 5, 1994.

"[Norton] was just what the doctor ordered on Saturday," Aoki said. "He was efficient with his pitches and created a lot of bad contact early in counts for easy outs."

On Sunday, when the Irish took a 4-0 lead over the Boilermakers into the fifth inning, they looked poised for a weekend sweep. However, defensive errors and a bullpen that struggled to record outs led to nine runs for Purdue in the sixth, putting the Boilermakers ahead for good on their way to a 15-8 win.

"[The errors] were mental lapses as much as physical ones," Aoki said. "Our guys weren't in the right position and also did a poor job of communicating and taking care of the baseball."

Yet, considering that the team registered just one error in its first two games, Aoki believed Sunday's performance would be the exception rather than the rule for the season.

"[Sunday] was an aberration on defense," Aoki said. "Tommy Chase unfortunately had a rough day at shortstop, and the errors just went viral on the team."

The Irish return to the diamond at 12:05 p.m. ET on Sat., Feb. 25 at the Team USA Baseball Complex in Cary, N.C., when they face Hofstra for a three-game series.

- Matt Unger ('14)

Following Flynt - Good Weekend to Be Irish

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With the winter sports wrapping up and the spring seasons getting underway, it was a good weekend for the Notre Dame athletic department, as several programs picked up big wins and two captured BIG EAST championships. Here's a quick look at some of this weekend's top performances:

Baseball opened the season in Florida, winning its first two games in the Big Ten/BIG EAST Challenge. On Friday, the Irish won a 13-12 slugfest against Illinois, led by junior catcher Joe Hudson's 3-for-4, two home run, four RBI afternoon. Saturday was a different story, as junior Adam Norton went the distance on the mound. The righty held Iowa to just two runs over nine innings to register his first complete game victory.

The ninth-ranked men's lacrosse team kicked off Saturday afternoon with a 7-3 upset of #2 Duke. After falling behind 2-0, head coach Kevin Corrigan's squad scored seven straight goals to win its tenth straight season-opener. Senior midfielder Max Pfeifer and sophomore midfielder Jim Marlatt led the Fighting Irish with two goals apiece.

In the pool, the men's swimming & diving team earned its fifth BIG EAST title. The Irish totaled 887 points, topping two-time defending champion Louisville (859.5) and host school Pittsburgh (520). Junior Bill Bass was named the meet's Most Outstanding Swimmer, and head coach Tim Welsh was named Swimming Coach of the Year. Last week, freshman Nick Nemetz was named Diver of the Year and Caiming Xie was selected as Diving Coach of the Year, so Saturday's awards gave Notre Dame a sweep of the conference postseason trophies.

At about 10 pm ET on Saturday, it looked like the men's basketball team's seven-game winning streak was destined to end in Philadelphia. Head coach Mike Brey's Fighting Irish trailed Villanova by 16 points at halftime, but the Irish rallied, thanks in part to Pat Connaughton's big night behind the arc. The freshman knocked down seven three-pointers, leading the improbable comeback and 74-70 overtime win to keep the winning streak alive.

The women's lacrosse team kicked off a new era on Sunday afternoon with a 17-14 victory over Stanford. Sophomore Lindsay Powell netted five goals, while junior Jaimie Morrison chipped in four and senior tri-captain Maggie Tamasitis tallied six assists, to lift new head coach Christine Halfpenny to a win in her first game with the Irish.

In the Big Apple, the men's track & field team hoisted its fifth BIG EAST Championship trophy, totaling 131 points at New Balance Track & Field Center at The Armory, to hold off second-place Connecticut (103 points). The Irish were led by Kevin Schipper's third consecutive BIG EAST Indoor pole vault title, and Patrick Feeney (400m) and Jeremy Rae's (Mile) victories on the track.

The fourth-ranked women's basketball team will look to finish off a strong weekend for the Notre Dame athletic program at 2 pm ET this afternoon on ESPN against #16 Louisville.

- Josh Flynt ('11)

Classic Homecoming for Connaughton

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The Salem News - Notre Dame senior guard Scott Martin surveyed the somewhat chaotic but deliriously happy postgame scene at the XL Center here yesterday and just shook his head.

Hundreds of people from the North Shore and his hometown of Arlington had come out to see former St. John's Prep great Pat Connaughton play against the University of Connecticut and now, after a stunning 50-48 upset over the No. 19 Huskies, it seemed that everyone wanted a piece of him.

Martin was thrilled for his freshman teammate and friend.

"Yeah, just look at this," Martin said. "I don't even KNOW as many people as (Connaughton) is seeing today. And they all came to see him play this game? This is something else."

Connaughton has never been one to call attention to himself in an artificial kind of way. He lets his play on the court speak on his behalf, and lately the volume has been turned up.

Anyone who said that Connaughton would never be able to play against the so-called big boys at the highest level of college basketball, particularly as a freshman, should've seen this game.

Connaughton nailed a pair of 3-pointers and finished with eight points and five rebounds in 28 minutes. He hit two critical free throws with 51.9 seconds remaining, making it a two-possession game in favor of the Fighting Irish, 47-42. Overall, his impact was much larger than anything that showed up on the stat sheet.

From the opposition's standpoint, Connaughton is an aggravating player. Why is it that, at 6-foot-5, he rebounds better than guys who are bigger and stronger? He plays intelligently, too, clearing himself for three-point opportunities or making backdoor cuts when the defense falls asleep. And hard-nosed defense has become one of his staples.

UConn coach Jim Calhoun displayed his respect for Connaughton yesterday by often putting sophomore guard Jeremy Lamb on him. Lamb is merely one of the most gifted and athletic players in the country.

"To tell you the truth, I didn't think about (Lamb)," Connaughton said. "You just go out and play the game. He (Lamb) was just the guy on the other team."

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Event Calendar

September 4
7:30 PM
vs USF
Notre Dame, Ind. (Alumni Stadium)

September 4
4:00 PM
at Western Michigan
Kalamazoo, Mich. (WMU Soccer Complex)
September 4
4:00 PM
at Crusader Invitational
Valparaiso, Ind. (Sunset Hill Farm County Park)
September 4
7:00 PM
at Seton Hall
South Orange, N.J.

Live Video
September 5
7:30 PM
vs Texas
Notre Dame, Ind.

September 5
12:00 PM
vs Temple
South Orange, N.J.
September 5
5:30 PM
vs Hofstra
South Orange, N.J.
September 6
2:00 PM
vs UAB
Notre Dame, Ind. (Alumni Stadium)

September 6
12:00 PM
at Michigan State
East Lansing, Mich. (DeMartin Soccer Complex)

St. Joseph Health System Medifast Delta Canon Visit South Bend Mishawaka