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    Tradition Never Graduates (Notre Dame Baseball 2007 Season Preview)

    FIGHTING IRISH Senior outfielder Danny Dressman - who is slated to take over in center field - is one of four returning position starters for the Irish, heading into the season opener (photo by Marcus Snowden).
    FIGHTING IRISH
    Senior outfielder Danny Dressman - who is slated to take over in center field - is one of four returning position starters for the Irish, heading into the season opener (photo by Marcus Snowden).
    FIGHTING IRISH

    Feb. 10, 2007

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    By Pete LaFleur

    When Dave Schrage settled in as the Notre Dame baseball coach in the fall of 2006, he coined a simple motto for his Irish baseball program: "Tradition Never Graduates."

    As things turn out, that motto is very timely for a 2007 Notre Dame baseball team that features 15 newcomers and three veterans who did not play in 2006 - plus a brand-new coaching staff. But there still is plenty of talent on hand to combine with the traditional expectations in making the 2007 season the latest in a long line of successful Irish baseball campaigns.

    Dave Schrage
    (photo by Matt Cashore)


    "One thing that became clear to me when we started practice last fall is that the players at Notre Dame expect to win," says Schrage. "Each one has a pride in themselves to continue the winning tradition of previous years. The players in this program have their priorities correct, with academics coming first and then baseball.

    "This group works extremely hard to make sure that tradition never graduates."

    Five position starters returned from the 2006 team that went 45-17-1 and won the program's fifth straight BIG EAST title. The returners include the junior infield duo of Brett Lilley (a two-time all-BIG EAST performer who is shifting from third base to shortstop) and second baseman Ross Brezovsky, plus senior all-BIG EAST centerfielder Danny Dressman and versatile sophomore Jeremy Barnes (who could play anywhere in the infield, after earning all-BIG EAST honors in 2006 as a DH).

    Senior catcher Sean Gaston also was set to return but was lost for the season due to shoulder surgery (he hopes to return for a final year in 2008). That leaves MBA graduate student Matt Weglarz - a former player at Missouri State - and freshman Ryan Smith as the team's primary catchers heading into the 2007 season.

    Weglarz also is an option to fill the big hole at first base, following the departure of graduated All-American Craig Cooper. Others in the first-base mix include Barnes, switch-hitting senior Mike Dury and sophomore two-sport star Evan Sharpley.

    Freshman A.J. Pollock has slid into the third-base role while sophomore Ryan Connolly and a pair of freshmen - Billy Boockford and Brayden Ashdown - are leading candidates for the open corner outfield positions.

    Junior lefthander Wade Korpi and the sophomore righthanded tandem of David Phelps and Brett Graffy entered the final days of preseason on the inside track for the spots in a weekend rotation that is wide open in 2007. Other top candidate for starting roles include sophomore lefty Sam Elam, junior righthander Joey Williamson and freshman righthander Eric Maust (who served as a backup punter on the 2006 Irish football team).

    The relief corps has considerably more experience, led by the senior setup duo of righthander Jess Stewart and lefty Mike Dury along with closer Kyle Weiland (a 2006 all-BIG EAST and Freshman All-America honoree). Senior Dan Kapala and junior Tony Langford - both righthanders - could provide huge boosts to the staff as they return from injury (Langford also could be a top DH option).

    Here's a look at the Irish, by position:

    INFIELDERS

    A recent trend in college baseball has seen many of the elite teams feature former high school all-state shortstops at each of the infield positions. That certainly could be the setup for the Irish in 2007, with Pollock, Lilley and Brezovsky each top candidates to start (respectively at third, short and second) while two leading first-base options - Barnes and Sharpley - also were all-state shorstops during their prep days.

    Brett Lilley
    (photo by Matt Cashore)


    Lilley and Brezovsky have been linked ever since their freshman season in 2005, when their midseason swap of positions helped spark the team's lateseason push. Lilley remained at his new position (third base) in 2006 - as did Brezovsky, at second base. The duo now heads into their junior season as the likely 2007 keystone combination up the middle.

    Lilley (North Canton, Ohio) - who played in the prestigious Cape Cod League during the summer of 2006 (with the Cotuit Kettleers) - collected all-BIG EAST honors in each of his first two seasons and now could be poised for national recognition, as a strong candidate for All-America and Academic All-America honors.

    The hard-nosed lefthanded hitter enters 2007 with a .327 career batting average and an even more impressive 3.78 cumulative grade-point average. His first five semesters at Notre Dame have included 23 A grades (just five of them A-minuses) among his 28 classes, with his lowest grade being a single B-minus. The accounting major posted a 4.0 in-season GPA during the 2006 spring semester (despite an overloaded 18-credit schedule) and he nearly matched that feat by registering a 3.91 in the '06 fall term - this time while managing 21 credits, reacclimating himself to the shortstop position and adjusting to the new coaching staff.

    A master at reaching base in multiple ways, Lilley owns a .473 career on-base percentage that would rank fourth in the Notre Dame record book and second-best by an Irish player since the early 1990s. He was hit-by-pitch 51 times over the course of his first two seasons - putting him on pace to break the NCAA record (92, by late-'90s University of San Francisco player Tony Hurtado) - and he owns more career walks (60) than strikeouts (57). He also displayed his stellar bat control during the 2006 season, setting an Irish record with 15 sacrifice bunts to complement his .320 batting average (his .419 batting in conference games was third-best among 2006 BIG EAST players).

    "Brett is coming off an amazing fall season, at the plate and at shortstop," says Schrage of Lilley, who has made 106 of his 120 career starts batting in the 2-hole. "It seemed like he hit .700 through the entire fall and he was a very tough out. Brett has a very advanced approach to hit hitting, with great knowledge of strike zone, ability to use the whole field, good baserunning instincts and an improvement in his speed from last season.

    Ross Brezovsky
    (photo by Pete LaFleur)


    "Defensively, Brett is very quick on the bag, with great range, soft hands, a fast release and a strong arm. He is such a tough competitor and we expect him to be a strong leader of the infield while ranking among the top players in the nation."

    Fellow lefthanded hitter Brezovsky (Naples, Fla.) received 2006 Jayhawk League all-star honors while playing for the Hays (Kan.) Larks, posting a respectable .314 batting average in the wood-bat league. A .279 career batter during his college career (62 RBI), Brezovsky could break out in his third season with the Irish and will be looking to cut down on his strikeouts, after totaling 74 during his first two seasons.

    "We will rely a lot on Ross this season, as one of our most experienced starters," says Schrage of Brezovsky, whose six career home runs include several in clutch late-game situations.

    "Ross is a steady hitter who has begun to show a boost in his power. His role involves putting the ball in play and moving runners over and he has a smooth, compact swing that can be very effective in the college game. Ross could be due for the best season of his career."

    A.J. Pollock
    (photo by Matt Cashore)


    Pollock (Hebron, Conn.) had a strong showing in the 2006 fall season, capped by MVP honors in the Blue-Gold intrasquad series (when he hit 5-for-9 with 5 RBI and the clinching home run in the series finale). His senior season at RHAM High School included a .462 batting average, 27 RBI and 15 stolen bases - leading to him receiving the most votes for the Gatorade player-of-the-year award in Connecticut history (dating back to 1974).

    "A.J. emerged as possibly our top all-around newcomer in the fall, due to his tremendous athleticism and defensive versatility," says Schrage. "He has great hands, a strong arm and classic infield instincts while also being a clutch performer who can hit for power, with a linedrive swing and a quick bat. He also is possibly the fastest baserunner on the team, so you can see why we are excited with the many things A.J. brings to the lineup".

    Barnes (Garland, Texas) - who likewise has strong athleticism and versatility - headlines the sizable list of candidates to fill Cooper's vacated spot at first base. The likely 3-hole hitter for the Irish in 2007, Barnes collected second team all-BIG EAST honors in '06 after putting up the top all-around offensive numbers by a BIG EAST freshman. His deceiving .294 batting average and low home run total (2) in 2006 were offset by 49 RBI - fourth-most among any of the BIG EAST's returning players. Barnes was the first freshman in nearly 20 years to lead the Irish in RBI and his six triples were second-most among 2006 BIG EAST players.

    Jeremy Barnes
    (photo by David Haliburton)


    "Jeremy is a very talented utility player who saw time at all four infield positions last season and certainly could again this season, in addition to possibly becoming an option in left field," says Schrage.

    "We see Jeremy as an emerging leader who carries himself with great poise and character for his age. He combines surehanded defense and high-end athleticism with a stinging linedrive swing and good baserunning. He also has quickly picked up the defensive nuances at first base - so I'm sure we will be pleased with Jeremy's play no matter what position he might be playing."

    Two-sport talent Sharpley (Marshall, Mich.) is the only pure lefthanded-hitting option at first base and could burst onto the scene in his second season with the Irish. The 6-foot-2, 210-pound corner infielder - who served as the primary backup to quarterback Brady Quinn on the 2006 Notre Dame football team - could provide a key boost to the 2007 baseball team's offensive attack.

    Evan Sharpley
    (photo by Pete LaFleur)


    "Evan is a tremendous athlete who could give us some much needed power from the left side. He is a player who could solidify the middle of our lineup and make an impact on a lot of games," says Schrage of Sharpley, whose 33 career home runs at Marshall High School rank sixth in Michigan state history.

    Sharpley's younger brother Ryan - a righthanded pitcher who also could DH with the Irish - signed with Notre Dame in the fall of 2006 and has been rated among the nation's top-100 overall prospects for the 2007 high school senior class.

    The 6-foot-5, 240-pound Dury came to Notre Dame as a highly-touted two-way player but has yet to see significant time as an offensive player - totaling just 85 at-bats (4 HR, 17 RBI) in his first three seasons. That all could change for the better in 2007, as the Indianapolis native provides legitimate power from both sides of the plate.

    "Mike has provided tremendous leadership for the team, as one of our co-captains, and we all would love to see him end his career with a strong offensive season," says Schrage. "Power hitting is an area of need for our team and Mike certainly is a guy who can fill that void. He also has continued to improve with his defensive play at first base, so you certainly can expect to see him in the mix at that position."

    Weglarz would rank among the top righthanded hitting options at first base but may end up playing mostly as a catcher (see comments below), due to the loss of Gaston.

    Freshman Ryne Intlekofer (Moorpark, Calif.) has emerged as the top backup in the middle infield, primarily at second base. A tough-minded athlete who starred in baseball and football at Moorpark High School, Intlekofer jumped at the chance to follow the lead of various family members who have attended Notre Dame.

    "Ryne is a player who brings tremendous hustle and speed to our team, to go along with a quick bat and great baseball instincts. He is one of our top defensive infielders and made strides with the bat in the fall. He could become a key player for us as he gains strength and experience in the college game," says Schrage.

    Sophomore Eddy Mendiola could be used at either corner infield spot, in addition to serving as a backup catcher. The veteran third baseman saw limited time as a freshman - hitting .296 in 22 games played, while backing up the all-star Lilley - but he showed flashes of being a key slugger in the Irish lineup. The Miami native then had a memorable 2006 summer with the Florida Collegiate League's Altamonte Springs Snappers, starting at third base for a team that nearly won the FCL title.

    "Eddy is a hard worker who could be a key factor in our team's chemistry, due to his ability to play multiple positions and his positive attitude," says Schrage. "He is a surehanded defensive player, with keen instincts and a good arm. He also has a short, powerful stroke with power to both gaps - so you could see him be a key extra-base hitter for us this season."

    Three walk-on members of the team - freshmen Herman Petzold (Saint Clair Shores, Mich.), Will Harford (Chicago) and Dylan Blake (Coon Rapids, Minn.) - round out the infield group and could develop into contributors as the season progresses.

    Sean Gaston
    (photo by Pete LaFleur)


    CATCHERS

    Gaston (Brownsburg, Ind.) was poised to direct the young Irish pitching staff but now must shift his focus to a lengthy rehabilitation process, in hopes of returning for a fifth year of eligibility in 2008. A .307 career batter with the Irish, Gaston struck out just 11 times in his junior season and would have been a leading candidate for 2007 Academic All-America honors due to his 3.38 cumulative GPA, as a double major in political science and history.

    "You always hate to see kids work hard in preparation for their senior season and then be unable to play due to injury," says Schrage in reference to Gaston, whose past two summers playing with the Cotuit Kettleers included being a 2005 all-star selection in the prestigious Cape Cod League.

    "Sean is a very strong defensive catcher and a clutch lefthanded hitter. We will miss his daily presence tremendously and certainly hope that he is able to return in 2008."

    Weglarz (Kansas City, Mo.) could be a pivotal player in the 2007 season, as the most experienced option behind the plate. After missing the 2003 season due to a foot injury - although he was able to attend the 2003 College World Series, cheering on his teammates (then known as Southwest Missouri State) - Weglarz played three healthy seasons at SMS/Missouri State while compiling a .293 career batting average (103 RBI, 11 home runs, 39 doubles). He overcome two separate hand injuries to bat .272 in the 2006 season (25 RBI, 3 HR), one year after earning second team all-Missouri Valley Conference honors in '05 (.333, team-best 48 RBI, 4 HR, 18 2B).

    Matt Weglarz
    (photo by Marcus Snowden)


    "Matt is a player who I was all too familiar with during my days at Evansville," says Schrage, who watched Weglarz bat 8-for-18 versus the Aces in the 2006 season, with Missouri State finishing second to Evansville in both the regular season and MVC Tournament.

    "During his career at Missouri State, Matt was the catcher for some elite pitchers, including Brett Sinkbeil, who was drafted last year by the Marlins in the first round. He is a quality catcher with a good arm, great power potential and plenty of big-game experience. Matt obviously has become a very important player for this season but I think he is up to the challenge and will do a great job working with our talented group of pitchers."

    Weglarz - who hit the first home run at the Bourne Braves' new ballpark, during the 2006 Cape Cod League season - was a tight end and defensive end for the Rockhurst High School football team that won the 2000 state title (current Notre Dame receiver D.J. Hord also played for that RHS team). A strong candidate for Academic All-America honors, Weglarz graduated from Missouri State with a 3.48 cumulative GPA (as a business major) and then posted a 3.42 GPA in his first semester of MBA studies at Notre Dame.

    Smith (Waldorf, Md.) will contend for the starting catcher spot, following a 2006 senior season at Westlake High School that garnered him third team All-America honors from the American Baseball Coaches Association (the top two catchers on that list both signed as first-round draft picks). He batted .446 during that '06 season, with 37 RBI and nearly twice as many home runs (7) as strikeouts (4) while rarely being tested on the basepaths (opposing basestealers were just 3-of-6).

    Ryan Smith
    (photo by Matt Cashore)


    "Ryan is a very spirited competitor at the catcher position, as an outgoing leader with strong communication skills," says Schrage of Smith, who launched a home run into the dead-center batter's eye during the 2006 Blue-Gold Series.

    "We saw Ryan make some all-around improvements during the fall while working with our elite pitching staff. He is a physical player with a strong arm and is a developing offensive threat who can consistently hit the ball hard. Ryan has a great opportunity in front of him and he will be one of the most important freshmen on our roster this season."

    Brezovsky has proven to be a quick study at the catcher position and could play a key role in helping pace the season-long rest for Weglarz and Smith. Mendiola also continues to make solid progress in his training at the new position while junior walk-on Chris Soriano (Randolph, N.J.) returns after earning a monogram in 2006, when he filled the key bullpen catcher role.

    OUTFIELDERS

    Dressman (San Jose, Calif.) is the runaway leader for being the elder statesman in the outfield, having logged 73 career starts spread between the three positions. Langford is the only other veteran member of the primary outfield group - but he did not play at all in 2006 and may be relegated to DH duty, pending the recovery of his arm. Langford made only 22 outfield starts in the 2005 season and the other top six outfielders on the 2007 roster have yet to play in a college game.

    Danny Dressman
    (photo by Matt Cashore)


    The 2006 season saw Dressman honored as a second team all-BIG EAST pick, after ranking as the team's third-leading hitter (.321) in a season that included 35 RBI, 38 runs scored, 30 walks and just 16 strikeouts. The team co-captain and lefthanded contact hitter heads into 2007 as a .295 career batter (72 runs, 18 doubles, 53 walks, 24 sac. bunts) and is the heir apparent to 2006 graduate Alex Nettey in the center-field role.

    "Danny will be counted on for his experience and leadership and we likely will use him as a leadoff or 2-hole hitter," says Schrage of Dressman, who has plenty of experience hitting at the top of the order, in addition to owning 31 career starts in center field.

    "He is a strong defensive outfielder who handles the bat well and is a good bunter. Danny gives us great baseball instincts all over the field and is a great opposite-field threat at the plate. We really look for him to finish his Notre Dame career with a strong season."

    Billy Boockford
    (photo by Matt Cashore)


    The 6-foot-2, 195-pound Boockford (Glen Elyn, Ill.) has emerged as the top candidate to start in right field, where his strong arm could make up for the loss of the graduated Cody Rizzo from that position. A three-sport standout at Glenbard West High School - where he captained the baseball, football and basketball teams - Boockford set the school record by batting .565 as a senior, with 41 RBI and six home runs.

    "Billy made steady all-around strides in the fall and I think you will really see him take off as the season unfolds. He is a tremendous athlete who can hit for average, with power and good baserunning for his size," says Schrage.

    The most competitive outfield position may be in left, between the righthanded-hitting duo of Connolly and Ashdown.

    Ryan Connolly
    (photo by Marcus Snowden)


    Connolly (Binghamton, N.Y.) - who missed all of the 2006 season, following shoulder surgery - returned to active play during the summer of 2006, with the Amsterdam Mohawks of the New York Collegiate League. A tremendous athlete who also starred in football and hockey as a prep, the converted catcher could help spark the outfield unit as the 2007 season approaches.

    "Ryan is a high-energy player who is making strides as he transitions to the new position of outfield," says Schrage. "He has improved his throwing accuracy and route running, can hit with power and is one of the fastest runners on the team. Ryan is a guy you love to have on the team because he is such a hard worker and feisty competitor who will be a quality leader for any role."

    Ashdown (Tucson, Ariz.) is an athletic newcomer who was inducted into the Catalina Foothills High School baseball hall of fame, after a stellar four-year career that included being named defensive MVP of the 2006 national-ranked Falcons team.

    Brayden Ashdown
    (photo by Matt Cashore)


    "Brayden is one of our top defensive outfielders, with quickness and good route running," says Schrage. "He has made some strides at the plate and uses his long, lean frame for a short, compact swing that can produce strong linedrives and gap-to-gap power. He should continue to improve his all-around game as he gains strength and experience on the college level."

    Freshman Michael Wright (Lockhart, Texas) hit .500 as a senior at Lockhart High School, ranking among the top batters in central Texas. Dubbed by Perfect Game as "captain of its all-time hustle team," Wright combines with Dressman to give the Irish two quality options in center field.

    "Michael is an electric competitor who plays full-speed in all areas of his game," says Schrage. "He is a classic lefthanded leadoff option who can spark the offense with his bunting and linedrive ability to all fields, plus great plate discipline and the havoc he creates when on the bases. Irish fans are going to love the way this kid plays the game."

    Fellow newcomer David Mills (Battle Creek, Mich.) is a corner outfield option who also will serve as a situational lefthander on the Irish pitching staff. Mills played a lead role in Lakeview High School's 2006 state championship season, setting team single-season records for hits (51), runs scored 951), strikeouts thrown (103) and ERA (0.49; top-15 in state's history). The all-state selection also hit .408 with 26 stolen bases and was 10-0 on the mound while limiting opposing batters to a .130 batting average.

    "David is a very intense player, with a quick lefthanded stroke to all fields. His speed on the bases also could be a bonus for us this season," says Schrage.

    Yet another freshman has joined the outfield rotation, as former prep two-sport standout Austin Pearce (Lake Oswego, Ore.) will compete for time in left field. The 6-foot-2, 210-pound switch-hitter batted .494 as a senior at Jesuit High School (5 HR) while also quarterbacking the JHS football team to the 2005 state title.

    "Austin is a physical and strong player who uses his big frame for power from both sides of the plate. He has excellent leadership qualities and could make key strides, due to his strong work ethic and a new one-sport focus for him this year," says Schrage.

    Langford also could return to left field - where he made 20 starts in 2005 - but his main offensive role likely will be as a DH (see below).

    Tony Langford
    (photo by Pete LaFleur)


    DESIGNATED HITTERS

    Plenty of options exist at the DH position, which could be a pivotal role for a 2007 Irish team in search for a power boost. Dury and Pearce both provide switch-hitting convenience (and long-ball ability from both sides) while Sharpley could be the top candidate among the pure lefthanded hitters.

    Weglarz also could DH on days when he is not catching, while Langford (Fort Worth, Texas) could provide a spirited righthanded bat to the DH role. The hard-hitting Langford was Notre Dame's fifth-leading extra-base threat (.384 slugging pct.) in 2005, also ranking fourth on the team in RBI (28) while displaying his crunch-time potential with a pair of home runs that led a Notre Dame late-game rally at Rutgers.

    "Tony swings one of the quickest bats on the team and has improved patience at the plate. He has made a name for himself as a clutch performer and really can spray the ball around the park. He loves to play the game full-speed and could give us a big lift from that DH spot," says Schrage.

    STARTING PITCHERS

    Korpi (Lake Worth, Fla.) will be looking to build off his strong 2006 season while anchoring the 2007 rotation. Named to the 2007 preseason watch lists for the Brooks Wallace Award (player of the year) and the Roger Clemens Award (pitcher of the year), the lefthander also was tabbed by Baseball America as the 2007 BIG EAST Conference preseason pitcher of the year. He is slotted second on BA's list of the BIG EAST's top prospects for the 2007 Major League draft.

    Wade Korpi
    (photo by Marcus Snowden)


    "Wade commands the zone with all three of his pitches and features a tough changeup that will attract plenty of attention from Major League clubs," says Schrage. "He is a strike thrower who is able to lead with his fastball, curve or changeup. Wade is a very coachable player and quick worker who also does a great job controlling the running game.

    "His leadership, consistency and moxy on the mound will set the tone for our staff and Wade should be on the short list of the top lefthanders in the country this season."

    Korpi (3.44 career ERA, 11-5 record, 126 Ks, 60 BB in 130.2 IP) was the standout fourth starter on a 2006 staff that produced three draft picks from the weekend rotation. He ranked 17th nationally in ERA (2.00) and 15th in strikeout rate (11.1/gm; 94 total) while holding opponents to .204 batting and allowing just one home run.

    His 2006 season highlights included posting three 11-K games and being named MVP of the BIG EAST Tournament, after winning the opener and the title game. The Academic All-America candidate (3.24 cumulative GPA; anthropology major) then turned in a strong 2006 summer season with the Staunton (Va.) Braves (1.43, 3-3, .209, 49 Ks), helping his team nearly win the Valley League postseason tournament.

    David Phelps
    (photo by Matt Cashore)


    Phelps (Hazelwood, Mo.) could be the surprise of the 2007 staff, after enduring some growing pains in his freshman season (7.09, 2-2, 12 GP/3 GS, 26.2 IP, 23 Ks, 10 BB, 5 hit batters). A 2006 summer-league player in Alaska with the Mat-su Miners, Phelps enters 2007 as a strong Academic All-America candidate due to his 3.36 cumulative GPA as a double major in political science and computer applications.

    "David's confidence steadily grew in the fall and he worked hard at finishing hitters with his low-90s fastball while also finetuning his breaking ball and changeup," says Schrage.

    "He reported in excellent physical condition for the fall and has been highly focused on the task at hand. David is one of the hardest throwers on the team, with movement on both sides of the plate, and can bring that bulldog mentality to the mound. We are excited to watch him progress this season."

    Brett Graffy
    (photo by Pete LaFleur)


    Graffy (Homer Glen, Ill.) - who pitched during the summer of 2006 with the DuPage County Dragons of Central Illinois Collegiate League (32 Ks, 10 BB) - has a projectable 6-2, 195-pound frame to go along with the rare commodity of having good command of four pitches. The winning pitcher in the decisive third game of the 2006 Blue-Gold Series (5 IP, 3 R/2 UER, 5 IP, 6 Ks, 3 BB), Graffy earlier showed glimpses of his ability during Notre Dame's 2006 season. He finished with the sixth-best ERA on the '06 staff (3.71; in 11 relief appearances and 26.2 IP) and won both of his decisions, in addition to owning the staff's fifth-best opponent batting average (.245), twice as many strikeouts (13) as walks (6), the best groundout rate on the staff (12.5/9 IP) and a low walk average (2.03/9 IP) that was second-best among the Irish pitchers.

    "Brett separated himself in the fall with his consistency and pitch quality," says Schrage. "His four pitches are headlined by a hard, boring fastball and a tight slider - complementing his quick arm, clever pitching approach and aggressive presence on the mound. He can throw his pitches for strikes in any count and really knows how to set up hitters. It will be great to see Brett emerge this season."

    Sam Elam
    (photo by Pete LaFleur)


    Yet another sophomore is in the mix among the top starters, as the hard-throwing Elam (Poteet, Texas) will combine with Korpi for a potentially dominant pair of lefthanders. Elam is projected by Baseball America as the BIG EAST's top prospect for the 2008 draft and BA also rated him as the top prospect in the 2006 summer Jayhawk League (his pitcher-of-the-year resume included leading the league with a 0.95 ERA, 5-0 record and 42 Ks, plus only 7 walks in 28 innings of league play). The 6--foot-4 fireballer pitched just 12.1 innings on the veteran 2006 Irish staff but his 2.19 ERA was third-best among the Irish pitchers and he also limited opposing hitters to .178 batting (19 Ks, 6 BB).

    "We believe Sam will have a breakout season this spring," says Schrage. "He has worked hard on synchronizing his delivery, in order to maximize his mid-90s fastball and breaking ball. Sam has tremendous physical gifts - with great arm strength, a high release point and a lively fastball - and he can use that talent to be a dominant force in the college game." Williamson (Lantana, Fla.) served mostly in a setup role in his first two seasons (6.44, 1-1, 42.1 IP, 38 Ks, 17 BB) while proving to be an effective strikeout and groundball pitcher. He now finds himself in the mix for a starting role, following repeated strong outings in the fall season.

    Joey Williamson
    (photo by Pete LaFleur)


    Williamson - who played with the Anchorage Glacier Pilots in the summer of '06 - ranked among Notre Dame's 2006 leaders in strikeout average (10.8/9 IP), groundout rate (11.3/9 IP) and K-to-walk ratio (3.3) but struggled at times with closing out innings, yielding a 6.48 in his 18 appearances and 16.2 innings.

    "Joey's confidence and consistency have increased exponentially in the past few months," says Schrage. "He has worked hard on staying tall in his windup and driving through the zone. His improved flexibility conditioning - coupled with the quality of his high-80s fastball and tight slider - should pay big dividends this spring."

    Eric Maust
    (photo by Curt Mills)


    Maust (Alpharetta, Ga.) is an impressive two-sport talent whose athleticism includes high--level play at multiple positions (pitcher and center field in baseball; quarterback and punter in football). He led Blessed Trinity High School to the 2006 state title, after setting team season records for ERA (1.35), wins (12) and strikeouts (83) while his .496 batting average was second-best in BTHS history. A product of the elite East Cobb club programs, Maust's exploits on the football team include setting school records for career passing yards (1,743) and season punting average (39.8).

    "Due to his football commitment, Eric was able to pitch only once a week in the fall but he impressed us enough that we gave him a start in the Blue-Gold Series," says Schrage. "He brings a competitive presence and strong leadership to the mound while effectively locating a mid-80s fastball and solid changeup. Eric also does a good job controlling the running game and fielding his position - we're excited to have him add to an already talented, yet young, pitching staff."

    RELIEF PITCHERS

    In addition to some of the pitchers mentioned previously, two sophomore righthanders - Steven Mazur (Round Rock, Texas) and Andrew Scheid (Highlands Ranch, Colo.) - could fill the middle-relief roles in 2007. Mazur - who had a pair of strong outings for the victorious Gold in the 2006 fall intrasquad series (1-0, 4 IP, 3 H, 5 Ks) - averaged 13.0 strikeouts per 9.0 innings during his career at Stony Point High School while setting team season records in '06 for ERA (1.17), strikeouts (85) and wins (6).

    Steven Mazur
    (photo by Matt Cashore)


    "Steven made some adjustments in his delivery to get a more consistent release point, allowing his mid-80s fastball and slider to be more repeatable. His confidence and pitch quality will be a big boost to our bullpen," says Schrage.

    Scheid checks is as the tallest member of the team (6-6, 200) and was a highly-rated prospect during his prep career at Regis Jesuit High School and with Cherry Creek Connie Mack.

    "Andrew has shown promise with his mid-80s fastball and hard, downer breaking ball from his high arm slot," says Schrage. "We made some minor adjustments with his stride and directional that should enable him to to be a viable relief option."

    Mills ratees as an option for lefthanded middle relief or situational matchups. "David has solid deception, with a low-80s fastball that is complemented by a good breaking ball. He will tandem with Mike Dury as our top lefthanded relievers," says Schrage.

    Jess Stewart
    (photo by Matt Cashore)


    The 6-foot-3, 215-pound Stewart (Manassas, Va.) is a battle-tested reliever who can enter tough late-game situations or turn in long relief stints with equal efficiency. A workhorse with a solid track record, his 2.97 career ERA is just shy of a top-10 spot in the Irish record book while his career stats also include just 2.49 walks per 9.0 innings, a 12-4 record and save in 41 appearances (11 starts, 94 IP, 45 Ks, 26 BB, .268 opp. avg.). Stewart finished third on the 2006 team with a 2.31 ERA and his high groundout rate (12.46/9 IP) was just off the team lead (also 4-2 with 21 Ks, 10 BB).

    "Jess will be a stabilizing force on our staff, as a strike-thrower and bulldog on the mound. He has advanced mechanics and a clean, fluid delivery, with a heavy, tailing two-seam fastball to go along with a quality slider and changeup," says Schrage.

    Mike Dury
    (photo by Pete LaFleur)


    Dury enters his final season with a 1.82 career ERA that is on pace to break a nearly 50-year-old record set by All-American Nick Palihnich (2.36). A steady control pitcher, he also rates among the program's all-time leaders in low career walk rate (2.34 BB/9 IP), with his career stats also including a 6-1 record, 44 Ks, 18 walks and 60 hits allowed in 69.1 innings and 62 appearances. His strong 2006 season produced the second-best ERA on the staff (2.17), with a lowly .208 opponent batting average in 27 appearances.

    "Mike gives us leadership and flexibility out of the bullpen. He can keep lefthanded and righthanded hitters off-balance with his mid-80s fastball and deft breaking ball. A pitcher like Mike can be extremely valuable to the long-term success of your entire staff," says Schrage.

    Weiland (Albuquerque, N.M.) is regarded as one of nation's top young pitchers, as one of 14 sophomores named to the watch list for the Roger Clemens Award. A first team Freshman All-American in 2006, he also was named second team all-BIG EAST and was invited to the USA National Team tryouts. The 6-foot-3, 190-pounder's 16 saves (in 17 chances) blew past the Notre Dame record and ranked third nationally, with his other impressive season stats including a 2.37 ERA and .240 opponent batting average in 30 appearances and 49.1 innings (49 Ks, 20 BB).

    Kyle Weiland
    (photo by Pete LaFleur)


    Tabbed the BIG EAST preseason pitcher of the year by both the league coaches and Collegiate Baseball magazine, Weiland is a highly projectable talent who was slotted behind only Elam on Baseball America's list of the BIG EAST's top prospects for the 2008 draft. Despite his dominating success as a closer, he also has the talent to pitch in the weekend rotation - as evidenced by two successful prolonged outings in the 2006 season. "Kyle is a gamer who delivers when it counts. His effortless arm action on a low-90s fastball and hard biting breaking ball make Kyle one of the top pitchers in the country this year," says Schrage.

    "When you watch Kyle pitch, you can't help but notice his outstanding poise and competitive moxy. He comes right at opposing hitters and uses his lanky frame for an effective arm whip. He's the young leader of our staff and I'm just glad he's on our team."

    The 6-5, 215-pound Kapala (Royal Oak, Mich.) - who has the option to apply for a fifth year of eligibility in 2008 - could be the "X factor" of the staff, with the versatility and veteran presence to be a top starter or even a closer. His impressive 2005 season included shifting from a setup to starter role and he finished the year as one of the BIG EAST's top pitchers (3.20, 7-3, 41 Ks, 81.2 IP).

    Dan Kapala
    (photo by Pete LaFleur)


    "Dan has made a tremendous recovery from his surgery by developing great mobility in his arm. He has worked hard to streamline his delivery to use more of his lower half, producing more consistency and less torque on his backside," says Schrage. "This creates more leverage on his fastball and increases his stamina. Dan is a very exciting pitcher who throws downhill with a nasty arm action. We hope all his hard work pays off for him this season."

    Langford emerged as a key late-game reliever in 2005 (3.63, 2-0, save, 13 Ks, 6 BB, 17.1 IP) and could fill a similar role this season. "Tony has shown good mechanics and great arm motion, with the ability to keep the ball low on his fastball and changeup. He appears ready to throw with good velocity and has the competitiveness you want in those late-game guys," says Schrage.

    Local product John Seabaugh (Granger, Ind.) - who boasts an improving changeup - rounds out the pitching staff as a senior walk-on, in his second year on the team.

     

     

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