March 20, 2015
There are only so many restaurant offerings of mixed vegetable medleys, so many hours on a bus, so many flat hotel pillows and so many hostile crowds that softball and baseball players can handle before the longing to step onto the home diamond grows.
Life on the road is as standard as eye black for softball and baseball players at the University of Notre Dame, where seasons start in February, when the basepaths at Melissa Cook Stadium and Eck Baseball Stadium are about three feet below snow drifts.
On Wednesday, the Fighting Irish softball and baseball teams enjoyed their long-desired home openers and both made them moments to remember. The Notre Dame softball team knocked out Cleveland State 8-4, and the Irish baseball team smacked Central Michigan 8-3.
Notre Dame's softball team played 26 games on the road (18 against top 30 opponents) in starting the 2015 season at 16-11 with Wednesday's win. The Irish began the year in Los Angeles, hit Fullerton and Cathedral City in California and then travelled to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Kissimmee, Florida, and Tallahassee, Florida, among other sites.
Notre Dame's baseball team played 18 games on the road before stepping onto the home turf at Eck Stadium. The Irish racked up a highly impressive 14-4 record in places such as San Antonio, Macon, Atlanta, Savannah and Clemson.
"It's really exciting to play in front of our fans and be back," said Micaela Arizmendi, a junior All-American first baseman who was 3-for-4 with two runs batted in against Cleveland State. "It's a different atmosphere not playing on the road, to warm up in our own cages, get ready in our locker room and play on our own field where we're used to it. It's something special, and it's something that everyone looks forward to. You can feel the fans behind you, and it's nice to play somewhere that's familiar. I love it."
Emilee Koerner, a senior co-captain and two-time All-American outfielder who had a hit and an RBI Wednesday, agreed the home opener was a special time for the Irish.
"It's always nice to be home, because you have your home fans, and you have your home turf," Koerner said. "You know the field better than anybody else. You get to warm up in your own locker room. You get to sleep in your own bed when you get done. You don't have to go to a hotel."
Notre Dame's baseball players also savored the moment to run onto the turf to the sound of the Notre Dame "Victory March."
"You want to protect your home field," said Robert Youngdahl, a senior who played right field and also pitched Wednesday. "When you finally get a chance to play here, it's a special experience. It gets you more energized."
Senior outfielder Mac Hudgins said the home opener is always memorable for players.
"I think it's really special," Hudgins said. "It's nice after five weeks on the road to get back and play at the university we love so much, especially after they re-did the field and we have such a special place to play. This is a special moment, and we're truly blessed to be able to play here."
Notre Dame baseball coach Mik Aoki said playing so many games away from Notre Dame makes the home opener a special time.
"There's nothing like home, sweet, home. It's great to be back, and it's great for our kids to be playing here for the greater part of the next few weeks and to be able to get rested up," Aoki said. "All of that travel, at the end of five weekends in a row, it tends to wear on you. I thought our kids did a tremendous job of managing it."
Notre Dame's staff and players turn the road experience into positives, but it comes with some trying moments.
"A week in a hotel gets kind of old," Youngdahl said. "It's surprising, but eating out in a restaurant gets old.
"I play in right field. I get a lot of heckling from fans. You learn to ignore it, but it's a lot of fun at the same time. We try to have a lot of fun. You're hanging out with 35 of your friends for a week."
Arizmendi said the Irish softball team ran into plenty of static on the road.
"There were some mean fans across the country," Arizmendi said with a laugh.
But there are benefits to the road challenges.
"We had a really tough schedule," Arizmendi said. "We really challenged ourselves with our pre-season schedule, playing SEC (Southeastern Conference) schools and in California. It really prepared us for our ACC (Atlantic Coast Conference) competition. We saw a lot of different things, so we're ready for anything in the ACC."
Koerner agreed the Irish gained strength and bonding from their road experiences.
"You have to stay mentally tough on the road, and we do a good job of that," Koerner said. "Everybody knows our schedule is going to be really heavy traveling at the beginning of the year. Knowing that beforehand and preparing yourself mentally helps a lot, because there's nothing you can do to change it.
"There are some good things that can come from being on the road. It really makes you appreciate home. It makes playing at home that much more special. We also have some good times at the hotels. When we get done early, we go out to dinner as a team and we hang out with each other. A lot of family members will come to the games. Sometimes, we get fun guitar sessions if my brother is in town. We do mall walks. It's a bonding experience."
Hudgins said the Irish forged a toughness on the road, racking up 14 wins in 18 games.
"It's tremendous how we've started," Hudgins said. "It's a sign of things to come. It is a lot better to come here, knowing we have some momentum behind us, rather than coming in here with a different record. It's really beneficial and a positive for us.
"We're a team that can handle adversity. We had a lot of close games, but we never backed down from a challenge. We played tough teams and tough games. We overcame obstacles. I think this is a really solid team that has a lot of grit. I'm really proud of this team."
Hudgins said playing in hostile environments and adapting to different routines and environments, lack of sleep and long bus rides toughen up the Irish for the rugged ACC schedule.
"If you're going to be one of the premier teams in the ACC, you have to play to that level, and we're excited to play such a high level of competition, the UVAs (Virginia), the Louisvilles, the UNCs (North Carolina), the Florida States," Hudgins said. "People who come out here to see us should look forward to seeing a solid Notre Dame team that's going to compete with the big boys. We're really going to stake our claim and show we belong in this conference."
Youngdahl said the Irish enhanced a great team chemistry with the time on the road.
"This team is all about family," Youngdahl said. "All 35 guys care about the team goal of winning. Nobody is pouting if they're struggling personally or if they're not playing. They're supporting everyone, and that lends to a good atmosphere in the clubhouse and good play on the field."
Aoki said with the Irish baseball team awaiting visits from Louisville and Virginia in the coming weeks, fans coming to Eck Stadium will see an exciting team.
"The fans are going to see a team with a high energy level, a high effort level and a high attitude level," Aoki said. "They'll see a team that has a high compete level. I also think that we're good. We're talented."
-- Curt Rallo, special correspondent