May 26, 2015
Senior co-captain Mac Hudgins saw the change start last season, when the University of Notre Dame baseball team won five of its last six games in Atlantic Coast Conference play against No. 22 Clemson and Pitt at Frank Eck Stadium.
Head coach Mik Aoki saw the change happen every day, as the Fighting Irish baseball team embraced a culture and pillars for success built around the driving force of "Blue Collar, Gold Standard."
The ACC saw the change play out during the 2015 season.
Notre Dame rolled up a 17-13 ACC record, pulling off a remarkable eight-game swing from last season's 9-21 mark to go from 13th out of 14 teams in the ACC in 2014 to third this season.
Notre Dame ran onto the Durham Bulls Athletic Park grass for ACC Tournament action this past week with a 35-19 record, going 1-2 in pool play to put its record at 36-21 entering the Champaign Regional this weekend where the Irish were tabbed as a No. 2 seed. The Irish put themselves into ACC Tournament play and in the conversation for the NCAA Championship in just one season following a 22-31 record in 2014.
"Last year, while on paper it was a disaster . . . it really, really allowed this year to occur," Aoki said. "That sounds really strange, but I believe that whole-heartedly.
"I thought in 2013 we made solid and tangible progress. I thought 2014 was really a difficult year for a lot of reasons. But, like the saying, 'What doesn't kill you makes you stronger,' I think last year really made us stronger in a lot of ways, not only because we continued to work, but I think the big part of it was, I think it made us all really introspect. I think it forced us to think about what we were doing. It forced us to think about how we were doing things. It forced us to be really intentional about the culture of the program, things that we talked about, but we weren't quite as intentional about it as we were this year."
Hudgins, an outfielder, said the Irish knew they belonged in the ACC despite the 9-21 league record last season.
"It was tough and disheartening, but if you look at the fact that we did compete, we didn't get blown away, you could see we did belong in the ACC," Hudgins said. "We took some confidence from that and from our preparation in the fall and the winter and brought that into the season.
"The way we played in the Clemson series and the Pittsburgh series, finishing 5-1 in the last six conference games (in 2014) was huge for us. It was something we could look at and build on. It was evidence of success in a very tough conference. We stressed that to the younger guys, that we belonged in the ACC."
This season, the Irish drove home the point that they belong in the ACC with full force. Notre Dame's success is a collaborative result of the establishment of a culture built for success. Aoki and his staff talked about confidence every day in the classroom, on the baseball field, in training and in community service. The Irish staff stressed work ethic, accountability and seeing the big picture, understanding that team first mattered the most.
Notre Dame's players embraced the pillar of relentlessness.
"It was a total team effort from the staff to the players. We all bought in," Hudgins said. "We didn't want a repeat of last year. We took the steps necessary to make a transformation as a program. It's paid dividends.
"We have really good mental toughness as a team. You can credit last year for that. We had a lot of tough games and a lot of tough losses, which can wear on you, but it made us stronger. There is no success without adversity."
Aoki said the players honed in on staying true to their pillars of success in order to thrive in 2015.
"From the very beginning we really started down this road of trying to establish the culture we wanted in this program and being really, really intentional in talking about it all of the time," Aoki said. "I think our kids did a really good job of buying into it, and I think that's where I really started to see that we had a chance.
"Once we were on the field and working out, we really began to see it. The guys who were coming back, kids like Ryan Smoyer, Ryan Lidge, Kyle Fiala, Scott Tully and Cavan Biggio, you just saw a great deal of improvement and maturation from them. Then you add this freshman class and the arms that are in that freshmen class . . . it was easy to see how talented those arms are. I think the main thing was that these kids could lean on that culture that we established and not let the moments get too large for them."
Aoki said this season's success and the key contributions of the younger players started with the seniors.
"A great deal of that had to do with our senior class and the way our senior class became the stewards of the pillars and the culture that we talk about," Aoki said. "They really became the driving force, the way they reinforce it in the clubhouse. While this senior class is mixed in terms in terms of contributions on the field, they are not at all mixed in terms of their contributions to our culture and the leadership they've shown all year long."
Hudgins said the seniors have put in tremendous effort in the clubhouse to forge the strength the Irish boast this season.
"I'm really proud of all of the senior leaders, who have been leaders throughout the clubhouse, and it's been great to see the juniors, sophomores and freshmen step up," Hudgins said. "It's something I'm very proud of and something the other seniors are very proud of. We found our identity, our blue collar, gold standard mantra. We know how to do it and we have a blueprint for it, and hopefully this program is going to continue to have success under Coach Aoki."
Freshman pitcher Sean Guenther called this season's success an important benchmark. Notre Dame's highlights included sweeps of No. 7 Florida State and No. 20 North Carolina.
"We've been around each other in the clubhouse for nearly a year now, and we've all told each other that we're this good, that we can handle this kind of competition," Guenther said. "Finally getting that three seed in the ACC, it kind of puts our program out there so the rest of the world can see what we're capable of. It's a nice billboard, almost, of what we can accomplish.
"I think a lot of it is confidence and body language. That's big on our team. That's what the seniors are always telling us. You have to have a presence of command. You don't want to go out on the mound or go up to bat and look like you're scared. You want to look like you've been there before, that you've gotten the job done before and that you're going to do it again."
Guenther said the success of 2015 is key to the future of the program.
"This is a season that matters to recruits," Guenther said. "They see you're getting better from season to season and that you're not just treading water. That doesn't last very long. This season is a big stride in the right direction. If we keep making improvements and keep getting better and better, it's going to be really important for the program. We can build into a national power if we keep making strides like this."
-- by Curt Rallo, special correspondent