Jagielo, Slania Lead Hungry Irish
In the six years that have passed since Notre Dame last played in the NCAA Tournament, much has changed in South Bend, Ind. Most notably, coach Paul Mainieri, the man who led the Fighting Irish to eight consecutive appearances in regionals and the 2002 College World Series, left in 2006 to become the coach at Louisiana State.
Without Mainieri at the helm, Notre Dame stumbled. It is no longer the premier Northern program and other Big East schools—Louisville, Connecticut, St. John's—have passed it in the conference pecking order.
But the Irish are ready to step back into the limelight this season thanks to a talented junior class headlined by third baseman Eric Jagielo and righthander Dan Slania. Both are expected to be drafted in the first two rounds and will provide the star power Notre Dame needs to contend for the Big East title.
The Fighting Irish were picked to finish third in the conference's preseason coaches' poll, but Jagielo said they have their sights set higher.
"It's been our goal since freshman year to make the tournament," Jagielo said. "It's needed to be done just for the university and the baseball community. We haven't been back since 2006, and for a school like Notre Dame with the amount of national attention it gets, it's uncommon.
"It's almost a necessity."
Cape Success Fuels High Hopes
Coach Mik Aoki, in his third season at Notre Dame, will rely heavily on his junior class this season. Jagielo and Slania, as well as first baseman Trey Mancini and righthander Sean Fitzgerald, provide the nucleus of his reinvigorated program.
Aoki arrived after the Fighting Irish went 22-32 in 2010 under coach Dave Schrage. It was their first losing season since 1987, but Aoki said the program he inherited needed a culture change before it could return to being a perennial power. After going 31-27 last year and having a strong fall, Aoki thinks the team now has the right mindset.
"Throughout the program we have a great deal of confidence that we are capable of becoming the Notre Dame of the first half of the 2000s and the late '90s," Aoki said. "I feel really good about this team."
If the Fighting Irish are to return to their place atop Northern college baseball, Jagielo and Slania will play large roles. Both were named preseason all-Big East and have caught the eye of pro scouts. Both were all-stars in the Cape Cod League last summer and are eager to return the program to its former glory.
They, like the rest of the junior class, arrived in South Bend at the same time as Aoki. He said he was familiar with most of them, but not Jagielo. Once Aoki had a chance to watch the Illinois native play, he was sold.
"He showed he could be a really good hitter from the beginning," Aoki said. "I just felt that when you saw Eric take batting practice and the swing, the talent was plain as can be."
Jagielo hasn't looked back. Though he moved all over the diamond before finding a home at third base last spring, Jagielo has started all 111 games the Fighting Irish have played in the last two years. As a sophomore, he hit .310/.399/.546 and led the team with 13 home runs.
Jagielo said he thinks he is settling in at the hot corner.
"I think I've come a long way," Jagielo said. "It's been a good move. I'm glad to be back there."
Questions remains about Jagielo's position at the next level, but Aoki said wherever Jagielo ends up he will hit enough to contribute.
"He's a guy that you let play his way out of there," Aoki said. "That's the beauty of minor league baseball. You get 140 games year in and year out to figure out if you can play the position or not. I think he'll be fine; if not I think first base."
While Aoki can confidently write Jagielo's name into his lineup card for Notre Dame's opener Feb. 16 against Florida Gulf Coast, Slania's role this season was still being determined as practice opened. After Slania served as Notre Dame's closer for two years—he went 3-0, 2.03 with 13 saves and 37 strikeouts in 31 innings last year—Aoki wants to try him in the weekend rotation.
Slania has made 53 appearances for Notre Dame, but hasn't started a game. He is, however, confident he can perform in either role.
"I would do whatever it takes," Slania said. "What (pitching coach Chuck) Ristano said is he likes having me in the bullpen as someone they can count on."
Aoki considered the move last year before deciding Slania struggled too much going through the order a second time. He can dominate in short stints with a fastball that reached 97 in the Cape League and a short low-80s slider, but Slania worked to improve his changeup last summer. Aoki is confident Fitzgerald can handle closing, and he is ready to experiment with Slania starting again.
"I think he's gotten so much better and become so much more of a complete pitcher," Aoki said. "His changeup not only is workable, but is a really good pitch. We're going to try it again, and if I had to guess I'd say this one will take."
As he is with Slania, Aoki said he is confident his whole team can be successful this year, if he can just avoid messing it up.
"These kids are awesome," Aoki said. "I need to do a good job of keeping them confident and staying the hell out of their way."