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Notre Dame's Breakthrough Season Ends, But Its Legacy Will Endure

OMAHA – For several minutes after the final out of Tuesday’s College World Series elimination game was recorded, ending Notre Dame’s season and sending Texas A&M to the bracket final against Oklahoma, the Fighting Irish remained standing on the dugout rail. They stood together, as though they were willing the next inning to begin, instead of the harsh reality that the end of a college baseball season brings.

Eventually, the Irish collected their bats and gloves and headed up the tunnel. They had lost 5-1 to Texas A&M, their offense stifled by righthander Nathan Dettmer and their best hope for a rally snuffed out in the eighth inning. Consecutive losses to Oklahoma and Texas A&M, their first back-to-back losses since late April, brought an end to their season.

Tuesday was an especially tough loss. Notre Dame, one of the best defensive teams in the nation, made two errors. Its pitchers walked six batters. Its offense was held to five hits and had just two through five innings. It wasn’t the kind of baseball Notre Dame had played all season on the way to winning 41 games, the program’s most since 2006.

“Well, if there's a place you want to end it, it's obviously here,” coach Link Jarrett said. “How we ended it was tough. That hurts. That wasn't indicative of how our team plays.”

Endings in Omaha are always cruel. Teams that have excelled for weeks and months on end suddenly see their championship hopes come to a halt. For this Irish team, the ending is even tougher. While they were able to last year almost completely run back the roster from a team that lost in super regionals to eventual national champion Mississippi State, the ending this year is more final.

Eight members of this year’s roster were graduate students. Another seven were seniors, though they do have an extra year of eligibility due to the 2020 season being canceled. Third-year players Jack Brannigan and Liam Simon are likely to be drafted next month.

Tuesday really was the last time this group will take the field together.

“I wish we could run that same group of guys back on the field again and give it another shot,” said outfielder Jared Miller, who is one of the graduate students. “But we've come a long way and it's been a fun ride. I'm sure I'll reflect back on it once I process this. But I wouldn't rather be on the field with anyone else.”

The upperclassmen at Notre Dame have been through a lot and taken the program to new heights. When they arrived in South Bend, Mik Aoki was at the program’s helm. After Aoki was fired following the 2019 season, Jarrett was hired away from UNC Greensboro. Under his direction, the Irish raced out to an 11-3 start in 2020, only to see the season canceled by the pandemic.

Notre Dame built off that fast start the next season, however, and went on to win the ACC title, its first conference championship since winning the Big East in 2006. It hosted a regional for the first time since 2004 and advanced to super regionals for the first time since 2002.

While All-American slugger Niko Kavadas and relief ace Tanner Kohlhepp were lost to the draft, just about everyone else from the 2021 team returned to South Bend this season. On the strength of their returning production, the Irish came into the season ranked No. 4 in the Preseason Top 25. They got off to a 10-1 start to the season and climbed to No. 1 in the Top 25 for the first time since 2001. While there were ups and downs from that lofty perch, Notre Dame never fell out of the top 15. It was snubbed by the selection committee as a host site for regionals but swept through the weekend anyway, beating host Georgia Southern and Texas Tech to win the Statesboro Regional.

Notre Dame’s reward was a trip to Knoxville to take on No. 1 Tennessee. Facing a team that had lost just seven times all season in a hostile road environment, the Fighting Irish didn’t blink. They came back for a 7-3 win in the rubber game of the series to advance to the CWS for the first time in 20 years.

In Omaha, Notre Dame opened the CWS with a win against perennial powerhouse Texas, but consecutive losses to Oklahoma and Texas A&M marked the end of the run—in more ways than one.

“We're one of the best teams in the history, our group,” senior outfielder Brooks Coetzee III said. “And it didn't reflect that today. Not the outcome we were looking for. But the stuff we were able to do, the group of guys we had, everything was special.”

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Notre Dame is one of the biggest brands in college sports. It was once a power in the old Big East under Pat Murphy and Paul Mainieri, who led the Irish to Omaha in 2002. But after Mainieri left Notre Dame for Louisiana State following the 2006 season, the Fighting Irish fell into a fallow period. From 2007-2019, they made the NCAA Tournament just once (2015) and had just five winning seasons.

Things had grown so bleak that when Brannigan committed to Notre Dame he remembers people telling him that he needed to win a championship in high school, because once he got to Notre Dame, he wouldn’t win any more.

“That’s just the kind of program it was,” Brannigan said. “I’m just so proud to be a part of the team that rebuilt it.”

The challenge now will be for Notre Dame to remain among the sport’s elite. Its immediate challenge comes with Jarrett, who has drawn heavy interest from college baseball’s bluebloods in the last two years. This year the noise has risen to a new level over the last two weeks, especially following Florida State’s firing of Mike Martin Jr. Jarrett played at Florida State and spent a season on staff at his alma mater.

Jarrett said he has worked hard to avoid the distractions of the job searches and keep his focus on his current players.

“When your program's doing the right thing, you're going to have those distractions whether it's baseball, basketball, football,” he said. “And I tried with all I had not to go there in my mind. And it was difficult. But I wanted to know, when this thing either ended with a trophy or not, that they were the focus of what I was doing. And they're just phenomenal. Like, they're phenomenal human beings.”

Now, however, Jarrett will have to reckon with interest from his alma mater. Regardless of what he decides, his success in three years (two full seasons) in South Bend has reminded everyone what the program is capable of. Notre Dame went 86-30 over the last three years, hosted a regional, won the ACC and played in Omaha.

There’s room for growth—Jarrett outlined ways in which Notre Dame could improve its facilities and this week in Omaha instructed his assistant coaches to write down everything they saw and learned that they thought would push them over the hump—but there can be no doubt that the Irish have the capability to compete at the top level of the ACC and the sport, despite the challenges of weather and academic demands the program faces.

That is the legacy of this team and this era of the program, regardless of a disappointing end Tuesday at the College World Series. Notre Dame has awoken the echoes.

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