Notre Dame opens weekend with doubleheader at noon on Saturday
One of the vital components to the continuing success
of Notre Dame baseball is Brian O'Connor, who was promoted to the title of associate head coach in the summer of 2001 after serving seven seasons as the program's top assistant.
O'Connor's primary focus in 2003 will be on developing the talented Irish pitching staff, with first-year assistant Dave Grewe assuming the recruiting coordinator responsibilities that O'Connor had overseen since 1995 (although he still will remain heavily involved in the recruiting process).
Baseball America included O'Connor on its 2001 list of the nation's top 10 Division I assistant baseball coaches and he later was named the 2001 national assistant coach of the year, as selected by the American Baseball Coaches Association and Baseball America.
"Every success we've had the past eight years has as much to do with Brian's efforts as anyone else," said Notre Dame head coach Paul Mainieri, who hired O'Connor shortly after becoming head coach in the fall of 1994.
"I saw something special in Brian as a 23-year-old and he currently is unparalleled in the country because of his ability as a recruiter and evaluator of talent, combined with his ability to consistently develop pitchers at the college level.
"He also is a very clever game technician and gets the most out of his pitching staff game-in and game-out. He has the special ability to observe a pitcher, see what he does well, and make minor adjustments to increase effectiveness."
Four of O'Connor's last five pitching staffs have finished the season ranked among the nation's top-16 in team ERA. With its 13th-place ERA in 2002, Notre Dame joined the elite company of Texas and Rice as the only teams to post top-20 ERAs in 2000 (ND was 16th), 2001 (6th) and 2002 (the Irish also were 12th in `98).
O'Connor - who pitched on Creighton's 1991 College World Series team - has tutored 14 eventual professional baseball pitchers, including 11 Major League draft selections. The Council Bluffs, Iowa, native has a proven track record of developing pitchers into top-level prospects, including a pair of first-round selections - Brad Lidge in 1998 and fellow righthander Aaron Heilman in 2001 - who weren't even drafted in the first 40 rounds coming out of high school (Lidge was a 42nd-round pick, Heilman a 55th-rounder). Lidge pitched for the Houston Astros during the 2002 season while Heilman is considered one of the top pitching prospects in the New York Mets organization.
Two other pitchers under O'Connor have developed into high draft picks despite going undrafted as preps: lefthander Tim Kalita (7th round, '99) and righthander Danny Tamayo (10th round, '01), with Kalita joining Heilman on the triple-A level in 2002 (with the Detroit Tigers organization).
During O'Connor's tenure, eight of 10 Irish players who were drafted out of high school have gone on to be drafted in a higher round at Notre Dame while 14 who were undrafted as preps went on to be drafted as members of the Irish program.
O'Connor's most noteworthy pupil has been Heilman, whose four-year All-America career saw him rank as one of the nation's premier players. Heilman - who burst onto the scene as the nation's ERA leader in 1998 (1.61) - is the most decorated player in Notre Dame baseball history and became the 14th pitcher in Division I history to reach 40 career wins and 400 strikeouts.
Notre Dame was one of just four schools that produced two pitchers who were drafted in the first round from 1998-2000, with only Notre Dame and Baylor having the same pitching coach during that span.
As the Irish recruiting coordinator, O'Connor led the effort that landed Notre Dame's current nine-member sophomore class - which was ranked by Baseball America as the nation's top incoming class in 2002. That highly-touted group includes shortstop Matt Macri and righthander Chris Niesel, with both players considered by some to be the nation's best freshmen at their respective positions heading into the 2002 season.
Three of Notre Dame's current sophomores - Macri (Iowa), Grant Johnson (Illinois) and fellow righthander Martin Vergara (New Jersey) - were named the Gatorade high school player of the year for their respective states while Niesel was one of five pitchers named a 2001 first team prep All-American by Baseball America (Macri was not eligible because Iowa high school baseball is played in the summer).
Most recently, the 31-year-old O'Connor helped the 2001 and 2002 Notre Dame teams compile two of the most successful seasons in the program's 110-year history.
The 2001 Irish squad held the nation's No. 1 ranking in midseason while setting the team record for wins (49-13-1, only to be bested by the 50-18 mark posted by the 2002 squad that advanced to the College World Series). Led by one of the nation's top pitching tandems in all-BIG EAST first teamers Heilman and Tamayo, the 2001 Irish finished sixth in the nation with a 3.22 season ERA while an unprecedented six Irish players were selected in the 2001 Major League draft.
O'Connor's masterful leadership of the 2002 pitching staff included shifting current senior J.P. Gagne into the closer role while nurturing the development of Gagne's classmates Peter Ogilvie and Ryan Kalita, who turned in some of the staff's top performances in 2002 after playing lesser roles earlier in their careers.
Most impressively, O'Connor guided a group of 2002 freshman pitchers that performed like battle-tested veterans by the end of the season. Niesel, Johnson and their hard-throwing classmate John Axford each logged strong starts at the BIG EAST Tournament and the three went on to post combined postseason stats that included a 5-1 record, 2.71 ERA and .229 opponent batting average in 12 appearances (nine starts), with 50 strikeouts, 27 walks and 53 hits allowed in 63 innings.
O'Connor's 2000 and 2001 pitching staffs led the nation in ERA at some point during those seasons (the 2000 team finished 16th at 3.93, with the 2002 staff later finishing 13th 15 3.57). His 2001 staff set Irish records for K-to-walk ratio (2.92; besting the 2.50 from 2000) and fewest walks per nine innings (2.48). The 1997-99 staffs each set the Irish strikeout record (399 in '97, 456 in '98 and 478 in '99, plus 454 in 2000, 420 in '01 and yet another record 483 in 2002) while the '98 staff ranked 12th in the nation for ERA (4.02).
Several of O'Connor's former pitchers, in addition to those mentioned above, already have made their marks in pro baseball. Christian Parker ('95-'96) was named to the New York Yankees 2001 opening-day roster, with O'Connor, Mainieri and others from Notre Dame able to view Parker's his first start with the Yankees, vs. the Toronto Blue Jays at Yankee Stadium).
During O'Connor's eight years at Notre Dame, the Irish have posted a .713 winning percentage (354-142-1) and have totaled five conference titles, five trips to the NCAA Tournament, 31players who have been drafted or signed free-agent contracts, and 12 players selected in the first 10 rounds of the Major League draft - while extending the program's string of consecutive seasons with 40-plus wins to 14, the nation's fourth-longest active streak.
The past eight Notre Dame teams also have combined for a 100-percent graduation rate (46 of 46), among players who completed their eligibility (eight others who signed professionally after their junior year have returned to complete or near completion of their degree requirements).
O'Connor was one of the behind-the-scenes heroes on May 12, 1999, when the Irish beat eventual national champ Miami (1-0). The Hurricanes were shut out for the first time since 1995 and nearly suffered their first no-hit game in 41 years - thanks to O'Connor's masterful plan. Alex Shilliday's tricky changeup kept Miami off-balance before senior lefty Chris McKeown changed things up in the third and fourth. Heilman took the mound for the final five innings and yielded Miami's lone hit with two outs and two strikes in the top of the ninth, ending the game with the staff's 15th strikeout of the night.
Other noteworthy additions in the Mainieri/ O'Connor era include catcher Jeff Wagner (a four-time, first team all-BIG EAST selection), All-America infielder Brant Ust, who preceded Heilman as a member of the U.S. national team (Ust was a 6th-round draft pick of Detroit, in '99), and shortstop Alec Porzel, the first player in Notre Dame history ever to reach 30 home runs and 30 stolen bases in his career (he was picked by Boston in the 13th round of the 2001 draft).
O'Connor also led the recruiting effort that landed the 2002 senior class, an accomplished eight-member group that won more games (188) than any class in the program's history. Three four-year starters on that class - centerfielder Steve Stanley, third baseman Andrew Bushey and catcher Paul O'Toole - became the first Notre Dame classmates ever to start 200-plus games and each was selected in the first 21 rounds of the 2002 draft. Stanley completed his stellar career as a 2002 consensus first-team All-American and became the second-highest drafted position player in Notre Dame history (2nd round, also highest by an Irish position player in 37 years).
O'Connor posted a 20-13 career record, seven saves and a 3.78 ERA in four years at Creighton. He logged 73 innings and a 5-3 record as a sophomore, helping the Blue Jays advance to the '91 College World Series in the school's hometown of Omaha. His losses came versus nationally-ranked Cal State-Northridge, Oklahoma and Wichita State.
As a freshman, O'Connor went 6-2 with a 1.91 ERA that still stands as the team record. He was a fixture in Creighton's '92 and '93 starting rotation, with 14 starts in both seasons while moving into the top six on Creighton's career charts for victories, appearances, innings and starts.
After graduating with a marketing degree in '93, O'Connor was selected in the 29th round by the Philadelphia Phillies. He posted a 4-2 record and 4.03 ERA in '93 for Martinsville (Va.) of the Appalachian Class A League before accepting a position as pitching coach at his alma mater, under first-year head coach Jack Dahm.
Born April 21, 1971, in Omaha, Neb., O'Connor married the former Cindy Petratis in October of 1995. The couple resides in South Bend with their daughters Ellie, born June 1, 2000, and Maggie, born Aug. 26, 2002.