July 17, 2013
EDITOR'S NOTE: During the month of July, UND.com and Fighting Irish Digital Media are featuring a multimedia series entitled "Irish in the ACC," giving Notre Dame fans a sneak peek at some of what they can expect in the coming days, weeks and years as a member of the ACC through the eyes of each of the various Fighting Irish sports that will compete in the conference. Today, we take a look at the Notre Dame baseball and softball teams, who have successfully made the transition to a new conference before and will look to follow the same path when they open their first ACC season in a few short months.
by Michael Bertsch (Assistant Athletic Media Relations Director) and Tony Jones (Media Relations Assistant)
"Go West, young man, go West and grow up with the country" is a quote by American author Horace Greeley concerning America's expansion westward, related to the then-popular concept of Manifest Destiny.
Greeley favored westward expansion. He saw the fertile farmland of the west as an ideal place for people willing to work hard for the opportunity to succeed. The phrase came to symbolize the idea that agriculture could solve many of the nation's problems of poverty and unemployment. It is one of the most commonly quoted sayings from the 19th century and may have had some influence on the course of American history.
Well, the Notre Dame baseball and softball teams will adopt a modified version of Greeley's quote: "Go South, young man, go South and grow up with the rest of college athletics."
The two Irish programs hope the move will lift their respective programs to unprecedented heights.
Over the course of Notre Dame's history in baseball, conference movement has paid immediate benefits for the program.
The Irish did not compete in a conference over their first 90 years as a baseball program and Notre Dame experienced intermittent success during the span. Jake Kline's 1949 squad closed the first half of the century with one of the program's best seasons, qualifying for the program's first NCAA appearance. The Irish returned to the NCAAs in '56 and again in '57 - when three wins in the district playoffs at Western Michigan sent the Irish on to Omaha for the College World Series.
Notre Dame was a common face in the NCAA Tournament over the next 13 seasons, advancing to the postseason tournament five times in that stretch, but the program entered a new level of excellence in the late 1980s. Notre Dame's full membership within the Midwestern Collegiate Conference coincided with the program's hiring of an ambitious young coach named Pat Murphy in 1988. He was hired to direct a program that had not tasted NCAA tournament action in nearly 20 years - and the program responded with a string of 40-win seasons that spanned 16 years.
Murphy's first squad (39-22) posted 24 more wins than the previous team, with that breakthrough `88 campaign representing the program's best win percentage since 1982.
The Irish fashioned a memorable 1989 season. The highlight of `89 came in the rain-soaked MCC Tournament, when Notre Dame rallied for four wins in one hectic, soggy day to claim the tourney title and earn the league's automatic NCAA bid - the first for the Irish since 1970.
The success of the Murphy and MCC era continued through the 1994 season, with the Irish coming excruciatingly close to advancing to the College World Series in both 1992 (at Miami) and '93 (at Florida State).
In all, Notre Dame posted a 174-50 (.777) overall mark in MCC action, including a 28-9 (.757) record in tournament play. The Irish captured six regular season crowns and five more tournament titles in their eight-year MCC history.
Paul Mainieri replaced Murphy prior to the 1995 season, guided Notre Dame through its move to the BIG EAST Conference and ultimately took the program to unprecedented heights. The Irish program posted the seventh-best winning percentage in Division I baseball during the 1990s.
All but the first season of the Mainieri era saw Notre Dame participate in the BIG EAST. The Irish failed to reach the BIG EAST Tournament only once in their 18 seasons of league membership. Notre Dame became the first conference team to win three straight postseason championships (from '02-'04) - ultimately five consecutive (plus '05-'06) - while also claiming regular-season titles in 1997, 1999, 2001, '02, '04 and '06.
The Irish fittingly closed the decade in style, as Notre Dame played host to NCAA tournament action for the first time in 40 years. The then returned to the NCAAs with an inspiring showing at Mississippi State in 2000, followed by a record-setting 2001 season that saw the Irish claim the first No. 1 ranking in the program's history and set the team record for wins (49-13-1).
Amazingly, the program kept climbing in 2002, as the Irish overcame a slew of injuries and rode the combination of a senior-dominated lineup and a youthful pitching staff all the way to the College World Series and a 50-18 final record - followed by a fifth straight NCAA trip in 2003, another record-setting season in 2004 (school-record 51 wins, only 12 losses), and more NCAA trips in 2005 and '06 to give the Irish seven straight seasons in the NCAA tournament.
During their tenure in the BIG EAST (1996-2013), the Irish ranked first in the league with a .650 (700-376-5) overall winning percentage, second with a .634 (281-162-2) winning percentage in BIG EAST regular-season games and second with a .627 (315-187-2) winning percentage in combined BIG EAST regular season and tournament games. The Irish also ranked second in BIG EAST Tournament winning percentage (.587, 37-26) along the way. Louisville had a slight edge in those final three categories, but its BIG EAST career spanned only eight years as opposed to Notre Dame's 18.
The Irish captured six regular-season titles, five tournament championships and finished as the league runner-up three other times.
Those accomplishments likely seemed impossible to those around the program prior to its move to the MCC and BIG EAST, and similar success will be even more challenging when you consider the move to the ACC is probably the largest leap in program history, but head coach Mik Aoki is familiar with an uphill climb on Tobacco Road.
Aoki coached in the ACC when he was with Boston College.
"From top to bottom, you're looking at an elevated level of play, an elevated level of athlete, an elevated level of pitching," Aoki said. "That's not in any way to denigrate the BIG EAST. There have been great teams and great players throughout the history of the BIG EAST. I just think that if you look at it as a whole, from top to bottom, the rosters of every team, overall, you just have a higher quality of baseball athlete than you do in comparison to the Big East.
"I don't know if there's a bigger upgrade in (the Notre Dame athletic department)," he added. "The ACC is a who's who of college baseball, from everything from Major League alumni to the traditions. It's as good as it gets."
The ACC has featured at least four programs among the final Baseball America top-25 poll since 2003 (the last year before Miami, Fla. entered the conference). The league not only routinely advances multiple teams to the NCAA tournament, but the College World Series as well. The league saw eight different teams reach the postseason in 2013, four advanced to the Super Regionals and two (North Carolina and North Carolina State) reached Omaha.
And that's about the norm.
The ACC has advanced multiple teams to the CWS in six of the last eight years (combined for a total 17 appearances), highlighted by the four that reached the 2006 CWS. Remarkably, seven different schools from the conference have reached the ultimate stage of college baseball over the same span.
Over that same period of time, the BIG EAST had one school reach the CWS and the league combined for a total of two appearances. The one school, and both appearances, to the CWS? Louisville, and they follow the Irish to the ACC on July 1, 2014.
If that doesn't explain the challenge that awaits Notre Dame, try this chart on for size:
School CWS Appearances (Last) NCAA Tournament Appearances (Last) Miami 23 (2008) 42 (2013) Florida State 21 (2012) 51 (2013) Clemson 12 (2010) 38 (2013) North Carolina 10 (2013) 28 (2013) Boston College 4 (1967) 10 (2009) Georgia Tech 3 (2006) 29 (2013) Duke 3 (1961) 5 (1961) Wake Forest 2 (1955) 11 (2007) Virginia 2 (2011) 13 (2013) North Carolina State 2 (2013) 26 (2013) Virginia Tech 0 10 (2013) Maryland 0 3 (1971) Pittsburgh 0 3 (1995) ACC 82 269 BIG EAST 20 (Louisville, 2) 84* (Louisville, 7) (* - Providence, 9, no longer fields baseball)
While the task is immense, Notre Dame has experienced success against members of the ACC over the years, including the remarkable '02 Super Regional victory at top-ranked Florida State en route to Omaha. The Seminoles entered the three-game series with a 25-game win streak.
The Irish own an 88-73 (.547) all-time record against the ACC. Notre Dame has faced all 12 other league members in program history: Boston College: 23-9, Clemson: 1-0, Duke: 4-5, Florida State: 4-5, Georgia Tech: 4-6, Miami (Fla.): 5-14, North Carolina: 1-2, North Carolina State: 0-1, Pittsburgh: 34-18, Virginia: 2-3, Virginia Tech: 8-6 and Wake Forest: 2-4.
Notre Dame and Pittsburgh boost the ACC total for baseball to 14 teams. Louisville replaces Maryland, which leaves for the Big Ten, starting in 2014-15. The ACC will conduct a 10-team modified double elimination conference tournament in Greensboro, N.C., for 2014. The conference tournament will expand to 12 teams in 2015.
Notre Dame will compete in the Atlantic Division with Florida State, North Carolina State, Clemson, Maryland (with Louisville replacing Maryland in 2015), Wake Forest and Boston College. The Coastal Division will include North Carolina, Virginia, Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech, Miami, Duke and Pittsburgh.
Notre Dame and Pittsburgh will be permanent partners and meet each season. The Irish will play three other opponents from the Coastal Division each season on a rotating basis. That gives Notre Dame five home series (of three games), and five road series (of three games), for a total of 30 conference games each season.
What does that mean?
Simple conference history almost guarantees the Irish two or three home series a year against a top-25 caliber foe. Toss in another two or three series on the road as well. In the BIG EAST, Notre Dame was lucky to have two or three total over the course of five years.
And, fans could see first-round Major League Baseball talent on any given weekend.
"When I was at Boston College, there were three catchers (from ACC schools) taken in the first round, in consecutive years," said Aoki. "That's unbelievable. If you're a fan of baseball, you're seeing the future when you come out to Frank Eck Stadium. You're seeing future big leaguers playing for every team."
A total of 40 ACC players were taken in the 2013 MLB Draft, including one first-round selection, which extended the league's streak to 22 consecutive years with at least one first round draft pick. The ACC has seen at least three chosen in the opening round of eight of the last nine drafts.
In the 2012 MLB playoffs, 23 ACC players were on postseason rosters.
Need more evidence of the upgrade in talent?
How about this starting nine: RHP - Matt Harvey, New York Mets (North Carolina); C - Buster Posey, San Francisco Giants (Florida State); 1B - Mark Teixeira, New York Yankees (Georgia Tech); 2B - Kyle Seager, Seattle Mariners (North Carolina); 3B - Ryan Zimmerman, Washington Nationals (Virginia); OF - Ryan Braun, Milwaukee Brewers (Miami, Fla.); OF - Jon Jay, St. Louis Cardinals (Miami, Fla.); OF - Tyler Colvin, Colorado Rockies (Clemson); DH - Mark Reynolds, Cleveland Indians (Virginia).
Maybe it's not a matter of heading South as opposed to heading up - as in the upper echelon of college baseball.
Notre Dame's entrance into the ACC truly signals the dawning of a new era in the history of Irish softball. Regular-season conference champions in 19 of its first 25 seasons, with an additional 11 conference tournament titles to boot, Notre Dame set the standard in its now former homes, the Midwestern Collegiate and BIG EAST conferences.
The Irish bring that tradition of excellence to their new home in the ACC, a league that boasted four NCAA Championship qualifiers in 2013, the third-most nationally among all conferences. The ACC has been represented a total of 67 times (by eight different schools) in the 32-year history of the NCAA Softball Championship, including eight berths by affiliate teams into the Women's College World Series.
A league-record 11 ACC softball teams will compete during the 2014 season. Of the 15 full-time ACC members, only Clemson, Duke, Miami (Fla.) and Wake Forest do not sanction varsity softball.
Notre Dame reached its 15th consecutive, and 18th overall, NCAA Championship last season after logging a 43-15 record, including a 19-3 mark in BIG EAST play. The Irish, whose 18-year conference record of 297-53 was the best among all BIG EAST members, won two of three games against then No. 9 Louisville May 4-5 at Melissa Cook Stadium to clinch the 13th BIG EAST regular-season championship in program history. Head coach Deanna Gumpf won her 100th home conference game (100-22, .820 winning percentage) and 200th overall league contest (201-43, .824) during the final BIG EAST regular season series with the Cardinals.
The Irish finished 2013 with a 3-1 mark against the ACC, defeating Boston College (14-3 in five innings), Georgia Tech (6-2) and Maryland (5-3) during the Diamond 9 Citrus Classic March 2-3 at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Kissimmee, Fla. Virginia Tech utilized a three-run, fifth-inning rally to down Notre Dame 4-3 May 17 in the first game of the Lexington (Ky.) Regional of the NCAA Championship.
Gumpf, who also earned her 500th career victory (508-207-1, .710) at Notre Dame during her 12th season at the helm of the Irish in 2013, joins an elite collection of ACC coaches that include National Fastpitch Coaches Association (NFCA) Hall of Famer Donna Papa from North Carolina (1,032-554-2 record, 28 seasons), Virginia Tech's Scot Thomas (653-430 record, 18 seasons) and Florida State's Lonni Alameda (211-97 record, five seasons).
Historically, Notre Dame has enjoyed success against the 10 current ACC softball programs, sporting a cumulative won-loss mark of 104-22 (.825). The Irish are undefeated against Virginia (6-0), Maryland (5-0) and Georgia Tech (4-0), and have double-digit victory totals all-time against former BIG EAST counterparts Pittsburgh (29-2), Syracuse (20-5), Boston College (18-6) and Virginia Tech (11-4). Notre Dame is an impressive 72-13 against the current incarnation of the ACC during the Gumpf era. Of the league's 11-team softball membership, only North Carolina State has never met the Irish on the softball diamond.
In its 25-year history, a number of significant Notre Dame milestone victories have been earned against the program's new, yet in many ways familiar, conference opposition. The Irish won two of three meetings with Virginia Tech at the 2002 BIG EAST Championship in Salem, Va., downing the Hokies 3-1 in the tournament final to cap Gumpf's inaugural season as skipper with a conference championship. Gumpf earned her 200th career win in a 14-4 rout of Pittsburgh April 9, 2006. The Irish later outlasted the Panthers 5-0 in the semifinal of the BIG EAST Championship May 14 of that year at Notre Dame's former home, Ivy Field, propelling the eventual conference champion Irish into the tournament final against Louisville. Notre Dame has also claimed four wins over ranked ACC opponents in its history, highlighted by a 1-0 road shutout of No. 9 Florida State March 14, 1996.
The current Notre Dame roster is a combined 18-4 against current ACC members over the past three seasons, including a spotless 10-0 record in road contests. Junior Emilee Koerner, a 2013 NFCA All-America second team selection, leads active Irish players with a .426 batting average (20-for-47), three doubles and 12 RBI in 15 career games against ACC opponents. Seniors Lauren Stuhr and Laura Winter, along with junior Cassidy Whidden, have each smashed three career home runs against ACC affiliates, while junior Jenna Simon has scored a team-best nine runs during the stretch. Winter, the 2013 BIG EAST Conference Player of the Year who, along with Koerner, was named to last season's NFCA Great Lakes all-region first team, has been masterful in the pitching circle versus ACC foes, compiling an 11-3 career record and a 1.54 ERA, issuing only 10 walks and striking out 108 batters in exactly 100 innings pitched.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Our Irish in the ACC series continues Friday with a look at the Notre Dame lacrosse programs.