No. 22 Notre Dame isn’t getting a vacation this year for Spring Break. The Irish baseball team enters its most difficult stretch of the regular season this weekend with a long trip to California.
Irish head coach Mik Aoki says he'll learn a lot about his young pitching staff in the next week.
Two ranked teams await Notre Dame(8-2) at Los Angeles’ Jackie Robinson Stadium this weekend. The Irish open their road trip with a game against No. 12 UCLA(9-2) Friday night and take on No. 17 Oklahoma(11-2) on Sunday afternoon. In between, they’ll ride across town to USC’s campus for a Saturday match-up against the rival Trojans(6-6).
“I think it’s going to be a great test for our club,” head coach Mik Aoki said. “It’s going to be a good experience for our team to be able to get out there and see that part of the country.”
This weekend will also be a chance for Notre Dame to measure its progress in year three under Aoki. Last year, the Irish tested themselves against LSU, a top ten team, and came away with a win. This season they are off to their best start in more than a half century and have already taken down some worthy opponents from power baseball conferences. They knocked off the SEC’s Tennessee last Friday and followed that Saturday with a 3-0 shutout over No. 25 Virginia Tech from the ACC.
Senior Adam Norton allowed only four hits while throwing all nine innings in the win over the Hokies. He was named the National College Sports Madness pitcher of the week for that effort. Norton is 3-0 with a 1.71 ERA heading into this weekend's games.
The pitching staff, more than any other part of the team, is bound to learn a little more about itself on this California trip. That group currently has a team ERA of 2.39 and is averaging about four strike outs for every walk they surrender. Their youth and their depth will be challenged by playing seven games in the next eight days. After finishing in Los Angeles, the team continues up the coast for one game at UC Santa Barbara and then a three-game series against Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo.
“We need to identify those guys that can help us in the non-conference midweek game when that starts after we get back from the California trip. That’s going to force us to do that,” Aoki said about the busy schedule.
Big East play begins for the Irish when they return to South Bend on March 22. They’ll play three games against Seton Hall for the home opening series.
The National Stage
A handful of Notre Dame athletes are competing in NCAA events this weekend. Notre Dame men’s and women’s divers will head to West Lafayette for the NCAA Zone meet, which is used to whittle down the field for the national championships in late March. Senior Jenny Chiang, a four-time champ in the Big East conference, has the best shot to make some noise on the national stage this season.
“I think the competition is a lot tougher than it was for the Big East, but I think it could be anybody’s win. It just kind of depends on what kind of day you’re having,” she said.
Chiang qualified for the national meet as a junior and finished 17th overall, one slot shy of being named an All-American.
A few Irish track stars will have their own shot at the All-America title this weekend at the Indoor Track & Field championships in Fayetteville, Ark. Sprinters Patrick Feeney and Chris Giesting, both of whom will run the 400-meter dash, headline the group of 10 participants for Notre Dame. Giesting won a national championship a year ago as a member of the Irish distance medley relay team.
Back in South Bend, Notre Dame plays hosts to the NCAA Midwest Regional fencing meet this weekend. A trio of Irish Olympians, Gerek Meinhardt, Lee Kiefer and Courtney Hurley, are all expected to duel on campus this weekend after spending large parts of the last month traveling for international tournaments.