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A Step Up

Ten months ago when Notre Dame athletics director Jack Swarbrick first informed his cadre of head coaches that they would soon be headed to the Atlantic Coast Conference, he was greeted by an impromptu round of applause. The new conference provides stiffer competition and a chance to grow more prominent in almost every sport the Irish offer.

Athletics director Jack Swarbrick and basketball coach Muffet McGraw will face new challenges after joining the ACC Monday.

Notre Dame’s ACC membership officially begins Monday, less than a year after Swarbrick and conference commissioner John Swofford announced the new arrangement. In exchange for playing five football games each year against ACC competition, the Irish got a new home for the rest of their athletic department. All of Notre Dame’s varsity teams except for football, hockey and fencing will begin their next season in the new conference. Here’s a brief look at what they can expect in the immediate future.

Warmer weather always means stiffer competition in baseball. Eight ACC teams made the NCAA Tournament last season, compared to just two from the Big East. Three of those ACC teams were among the top eight seeds, including No. 1 overall North Carolina. Boston College made the same jump in 2006 under Mik Aoki, who is now coaching at Notre Dame. The Eagles have finished in the top eight in conference play only twice since then.

2013 ACC Champ: North Carolina
Head Coach Mik Aoki: “It is simply a who’s who of college baseball. The game operation, fan base and facilities, I just think it’s really a big move for our baseball program to compete in that conference.”

Notre Dame joins the sports’s blue bloods from North Carolina as well as some familiar foes from the old Big East. On the men’s side, Mike Brey’s team will have to adjust to a faster-paced, less physical game. He should be familiar with the league after starting his career as an assistant at Duke. The Irish, along with Pitt and Syracuse, should add a level of depth and consistency to the ACC that will allow them to once again lay claim to the title of best in the business.

Notre Dame’s women have proven they can play with anyone in the past few seasons. The annual showdown with Duke will be an exciting one, but the Irish are 4-0 against ACC teams in the past three years and should have no problem staying on top when they move.

2013 ACC Champ: Miami (Men), Duke (Women)
Women’s Head Coach Muffet McGraw: “There are so many talented players, coaches and programs in the ACC and we will be challenged each and every night. I also think our fans, who are the best in college basketball, will be excited to see so many new faces coming in to Purcell Pavilion in the next few years.”

Cross Country
Florida State is one of the country’s premier programs and North Carolina State has recently set a high bar on the men’s side. Finishing times for the ACC are consistently a few seconds faster than the corresponding place in Big East races. Notre Dame should be able to push a few runners to the brink of the top 10 on a regular basis, which is similar to where they stand in the Big East.

2011 ACC Champ: Virginia Tech (Men), Florida State (Women)
Head Coach Joe Piane: “We have tons of great memories with the Big East. We have won 24 titles between cross country and indoor and outdoor track and field. I have thoroughly enjoyed my time with the conference and I will enjoy the remaining time with them.”

Freshman Talia Campbell will help the women's golf team make a smooth transition to its new conference.

Notre Dame brings a top-level course to the ACC, which surprisingly has only two campus courses rated in the country’s top 20 according to Links magazine. The competition is a step up, though. The Irish women finished last at the Tar Heel Invitational two seasons ago behind five ACC teams. A talented freshman class will help Notre Dame make a smoother transition.

Duke unseated Georgia Tech at the conference tournament on the men’s side, ending their streak of four straight conference titles. Both of those teams will set the pace for the Irish, who were routinely at or near the top of the Big East in recent years.

2013 ACC Champ: Duke (Men), Duke (Women)
Men’s Head Coach Jim Kubinski: “It’s the dawning of a new era here, and we’re excited for the challenge.”

A move to the ACC might be the final push Notre Dame needs to bring in a national title in men’s lacrosse. The Irish have been knocking on the door in past years and increased recruiting and competition could put them over the edge. Duke has knocked Notre Dame out of the NCAA Tournament in three of the last four seasons. Adding the Irish and Syracuse makes the ACC a powerhouse conference in the lacrosse world.

The women’s side of the conference has depth similar to the Big East with five teams finishing in the top 20 in 2012. Notre Dame should fit right in the mix and help a strong group get stronger.

2013 ACC Champ: North Carolina (Men), Maryland (Women)
Men’s Head Coach Kevin Corrigan: “Is it going to be a great challenge year in and year out to play the schedule of the ACC? Of course it is. But it’s the challenge we relish and are looking forward to.”

The Virginia Cavaliers, 2012 national champions and a top-five finisher this spring, are the team to beat on the water in the ACC. Notre Dame is a regular Big East champion, but we will need to trim at least 10 seconds from its top times to compete with Virginia and Clemson on a regular basis.

2013 ACC Champ: Virginia
Head Coach Martin Stone: “There will be eight schools now, and it will be pretty strong throughout. There will be different levels of speed, and it’s going to be interesting. It’s going to be fun.”

Emilee Koerner helped carry Notre Dame to within one run of a Big East championship this spring.

The ACC is home to women’s soccer royalty. North Carolina has won 21 of the 29 contested NCAA championships, including the 2012 title. Notre Dame, which has three of the others, struggled last fall but should be able to compete for conference titles in the future. The Irish are 12-9-2 against ACC foes in the past six years.

The men’s team has only played their future conference members five times during that stretch, but it 3-1-1 against them. The Irish had the No. 1 seed in the nation in last year’s NCAA Tournament under coach Bobby Clark, who says leaving the Big East is bittersweet. The move should only help recruiting in the top-notch conference.

2012 ACC Champ: Maryland (Men), Virginia (Women)
Women’s Head Coach Randy Waldrum: “[Swarbrick] got some applause from all of us as soon as he mentioned it. I think everybody was really ready for a move.”

The ACC might be stronger top to bottom than the Big East, but those teams don’t outclass what Notre Dame has done in recent years. The Irish have lost in the final inning of the Big East championship game each of the last two years. They’ll have a longer schedule to play through, but might enjoy sun instead of snow in the early part of the schedule.

2013 ACC Champ: North Carolina State
Head Coach Deanna Gumpf: “We actually try to book ACC teams early in the year before we hit conference because we realize it helps us in the long run with our RPI. Now, we get to join the party.”

Swimming & Diving
Notre Dame should feel right at home against the competition in ACC pools. Based on last year’s results the Irish men would have placed at least one swimmer in the top five in the majority of the conference meet events. The ACC had a healthy showing of alumni in the London Olympics, which is the next step men’s coach Tim Welsh is hoping to take with his program.

An impressive group of Irish women swimmers will lead the Irish into the ACC as they prepare to take over as upperclassmen. They should help the team make a good first impression. Virginia has swept the conference meets in each of the last two seasons.

2013 ACC Champ: Virginia (Men), Virginia (Women)
Women’s Head Coach Brian Barnes: “It’s a strong conference for us particularly at the top, which is where we need to be looking. Many of the programs in the ACC are coached extremely well.”

The Cavaliers, fresh off of a national championship, are currently as good as it gets in men’s tennis. Duke and North Carolina historically aren’t far behind. Notre Dame will have trouble hanging with the top dogs at first, but has the chops to stick with the rest. The Irish have won two of their last four meetings with ACC teams in match play.

The research triangle schools will be tough to beat on the women’s side as well. Notre Dame has found its way into the top 25 in most recent years and should add another regular contender to the conference lineup.

2012-13 ACC Champ: Virginia (Men), Miami (Women)
Outgoing Men’s Head Coach Bobby Bayliss: “For us it will be more of the same during the regular season, but going to the conference tournament will be very exciting. It will be great for the program.”

Track & Field
Joe Piane built Notre Dame into the top team in the Big East during its 17 years in the conference. They’ll take a fairly significant step up when they head to the ACC in the near future. The traditional powers down south will challenge the Irish with more speed than they’re used to seeing. In the long run that level of competition could attract better runners on the track and maybe help on the football field.

2012-13 ACC Champ: Florida State (Men), Clemson (Women)
Head Coach Joe Piane: “I would say it’s one of the best conferences in the country. Florida State and Clemson are perennial powerhouses in track and field.”

The true powers in volleyball lie mostly out West. Notre Dame’s skip in the opposite direction won’t do much to change its current status. The Irish are usually in a battle for one of the top three or four spots in the Big East and will likely fit a similar role in the ACC. The Seminoles, winners of last years’ conference title, will be the toughest battle on a regular basis.

2012 ACC Champ: Florida State
Head Coach Debbie Brown: “There are five or six schools that we used to compete against in the Big East that are now in the ACC, so it will be nice to pick up those rivalries again.”

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