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College Weekend Preview: May 7-9

By John Manuel
May 7, 2004

The gauntlet was thrown down right there, in black and white.

Then Notre Dame's recruiting coordinator, Brian O'Connor called the freshmen who came to campus in the fall of 2001 the program's best: "This class . . . should far surpass any we've had."

He was right, and fast. The Irish freshmen--led by righthanders John Axford, Grant Johnson and Chris Niesel--helped pitch Notre Dame to the College World Series the next summer for the first time since 1957.

Matt Macri watched those games from the stands at Rosenblatt Stadium. The crown jewel in the class, Macri had his right arm in a cast after Tommy John surgery, which ended his season after just 68 at-bats. He hit .206, and the team's presumed closer never threw a pitch off the mound.

Head coach Paul Mainieri still recalls Macri's emphatic introduction to Irish baseball that fall. "He came to Notre Dame as our most highly touted recruit ever, and that fall he played like it," he said. "He was going to play shortstop, hit third and be our closer. He was that good. He looked like an all-American that fall."

Mainieri was so impressed that he made a prediction about Macri's draft future. "He's not only going to be a first-round talent in a couple of years," the coach said in 2001, "he's going to be a first-five overall pick."

Macri has not lived up to those expectations. The Tommy John surgery in April 2002 didn't help; he was rusty last year in his comeback, playing (and starting) 60 of the Irish's 63 games while hitting .294-4-35. Draft-eligible as a 21-year-old sophomore, he wasn't selected.

The 6-foot-2, 190-pounder has had a productive junior season, however, helping lead an injury-riddled Irish club to a No. 10 ranking and 35-9 record. At 12-5 in the Big East, Notre Dame is tied for second in the league with Pittsburgh, a half-game back of Rutgers, heading into this weekend's series at Connecticut.

Macri is the team's leader in games (42) and batting at .346-7-40. He ranks second in RBIs, slugging and on-base percentage. He also has settled in at third base in his first full season after moving from shortstop.

Of course, just as Macri has hit his stride, the rest of his classmates have endured their own hardships. Every significant member of Macri's class--with the exception of Niesel--has had a major injury in his Notre Dame career.

Now Macri is the healthy one. The irony is not lost on the bright Iowa native, who was a 17th-round pick out of high school back in '01 by the Twins.

"It was crushing for me getting hurt (as a freshman), and my sophomore year I still didn't feel right," he said. "I was just happy to be taking my cuts and taking groundballs. It took a year and all summer (in the Cape Cod League) to get my confidence back and my swing back at the plate."

Macri hit just .172 for Brewster in the Cape, but he led the league with 30 walks and ranked second with seven home runs. He also spent the entire summer at third, his likely position in pro ball . . . if he remains a hitter.

Scouts coveted Macri's 94 mph fastball out of high school, and some scouts still question his swing. Macri said he has no doubt that he is ready to sign this time, and he'd prefer to hit.

"I don't really miss pitching; I like being out there every day," he said. "Some teams I'm sure still think of me that way, but I'll tell them that I want to give it my best shot as a hitter. If it doesn't work out, then I can always go back to pitching.

"As for signability, if scouts question that, it's really not understandable. I only have two semesters left of school. I guess I understand they're a little paranoid because I went to school instead of signing, but it's different this time."

With injuries behind him, Macri is finally playing his best. His teammates can't quite say the same thing. Notre Dame has missed senior leader Steve Sollmann, Macri's former double-play partner at second base, for the last 21 games after he broke his jaw during an in-game collision April 3. Notre Dame was 20-3 when Sollmann got hurt, and is 15-6 since his injury, with 37 errors in 21 games after making just 25 in the 23 games with him. Sollmann had not made an error in 110 chances prior to the injury and was hitting .294.

Sollmann is back this weekend, and Johnson is back where he belongs, as the team's No. 1 starter. He's just getting healthy after December 2002 shoulder surgery, but he gets the top spot in part by default. Niesel entered the season with a 13-1, 2.95 career mark and has managed to stay healthy. But he's a pedestrian 5-2, 4.35 this season. Axford, the team's ace at times last year during a 9-3, 4.31 season, has missed the season with Tommy John surgery he had in the fall. At least he had Macri to lean on for advice and help with his rehab.

Johnson, though, is on the way back. The 6-foot-5, 215-pounder was the ace in 2002 (9-5, 3.46, team-high 101 innings) and pitched for Team USA before his shoulder surgery. After redshirting last season, he's back in the Irish rotation and was 2-0, 2.36 in 27 innings.

Johnson said he's feeling stronger and more confident every week, especially since trainers have cleared him to throw his slider. (He wasn't allowed to throw a breaking ball for his first four starts.) Mainieri says Johnson's velocity is back in the 92-94 mph range, but his command (14 walks) has wavered. Johnson called the road back to health frustrating but said he hopes he is near the end of it.

"At first, I wasn't interested in results when I pitched; it was just the process of pitching," he said. "I mean, when I first came out of surgery, the doctor said the good news was I would throw again. I didn't even think that would be in question."

Johnson got back on the mound with a strenuous weightlifting and running program, and has pitched without pain. His redshirt season takes some pressure off regarding the draft, he said. "It would take the right round and the right dollars."

Mainieri expects to get several members of the stellar freshman class of 2001 back for their senior seasons, especially Axford and Johnson. Even with all its members have been through, the class has lived up to the hype in many ways. And depending on how the draft goes, they may not be done yet.

"It would have been unthinkable that we'd get to have them as seniors," Mainieri said.

And after a short pause, perhaps allowing himself to consider it, he added, "I still don't think it will happen."

Around The Nation By John Manuel and Will Kimmey

The Southwestern Athletic Conference Tournament takes place this weekend with Southern facing Jackson State and Mississippi Valley State going against Texas Southern. The winner gets an NCAA tourney bid.

The SWAC also gets the year's sportsmanship award, thanks to a report in to us from Rick Rollins. One of college baseball's greatest friends, Rollins maintains the nation's best standings website. He's followed college baseball since the 1970s and is an invaluable resource, and passes along this note about Southern getting into the SWAC tournament

Prairie View played the Jaguars last week with a league tourney spot on the line. The teams split a Friday doubleheader before a Saturday rainout put Southern's spot in jeopardy. Southern needed to play a doubleheader to have played enough league games to qualify for the tournament (the SWAC, it must be said, does not follow convention in baseball scheduling matters).

The rainout would have put Prairie View in the SWAC tourney for the first time ever, because the Panthers would have gotten Southern's spot. The games were scheduled for Sunday afternoon, but the fields weren't ready for the 1 p.m. start. However, instead of banging the games and getting their first-ever tourney spot, Prairie View came back at 5 p.m. in the afternoon, swept the doubleheader--and still finished third in the West Division, .005 percentage points behind Texas Southern. The Jaguars got enough games to make the league tournament (and have a shot at another regional bid); the Panthers get a public thanks for their sportsmanship. Kudos to coach Michael Robertson and his club for their class.

Long Beach State heads into the weekend two games behind Cal State Fullerton after getting swept by UC Santa Barbara last week. Dirtbags coach Dave Weathers isn't worried about his team suffering a late-season slide. "We lost three games, but we're going to be fine," he said. "There was no panicking, bickering or fighting. If there was, then it might be something more."

Just to clarify something from Monday, when we talked about how the Beach's Jered Weaver and his chances to go 17-0 to tie Texas' Jim Gideon (1975) and Rice's Jeff Niemann (2002). Kennie Steenstra also went 17-0 for Wichita State in 1991.

No. 9 Long Beach State welcomes Pacific to Blair Field over the weekend while the Titans play host to UC Riverside just 30 minutes down the road. Riverside will likely be without junior righthander A.J. Shappi, who pulled a muscle in last week's start. Also in Big West play No. 22 UC Irvine visits Cal Poly. Where a few weeks ago it appeared both had a shot at regional bids, both teams have stumbled to 5-7 records in league play, and the loser of this series would have a tough time convincing the selection committee that the fifth- or sixth-place team in the Big West should get a regional bid.

The reference to one of Wichita State's all-time great pitchers reminds us that the No. 17 Shockers have lost a current one. Sophomore lefthander Steve Uhlmansiek will miss four to six weeks after tearing the ulnar collateral ligament in his left arm last Saturday. He was 7-0, 2.85. Wichita State, 19-1 in the Missouri Valley Conference, faces 12-7 Creighton this week, with the series opener at Rosenblatt Stadium. Just a reminder . . . the College World Series begins June 18. Can you smell the Drover yet?

Speaking of Omaha, 2003 participant Southwest Missouri State is still hanging in the MVC race at 15-8 and plays Illinois State.

Stanford jumped back atop the rankings this week and heads to Washington for a tough series against the Pacific-10's second-place club. Sophomore second baseman Jed Lowrie hit another homer Tuesday for Stanford and leads the Pac-10 with 15 longballs and 56 RBIs. He's on a 10-game hit streak as well.

Lowrie and a ridiculously potent Cardinal lineup should provide a stiff test for a young Washington pitching staff that counts four freshmen and two sophomores among its key members. Freshman righthander Tim Lincecum ranks second in the nation with 112 strikeouts, while fellow frosh Kyle Parker and sophomore Matt Kasser have been solid starting ahead of him in the rotation.

"We'll be tested this weekend," Washington coach Ken Knutson said, "but we're going to test them, too."

The other key Pac-10 matchup features 7-8 Arizona at 8-7 UCLA. The winner of this series gets a little boost in the race for the fifth NCAA tournament bid from the league. It won't, however affect the league standings, as this is a nonconference series that the two teams put together because most of the rest of the league is off this weekend for exams. UCLA won two of three at Arizona in the first meeting.

UNC Wilmington ended No. 6 East Carolina's school-record 19-game winning streak Wednesday with a 15-5 decision. A season-high 3,057 fans watched the final game this year at Harrington Field for the Pirates, who will play their four remaining home games at Kinston's Grainger Stadium. ECU heads to St. Louis over the weekend with a three-game lead over No. 13 Tulane in Conference USA.

The Green Wave faces South Florida, which is 9-11 in the league and probably needs to finish at .500 for a regional bid. No. 18 Southern Mississippi (home against Louisville this weekend) and Texas Christian (home vs. UAB) are tied for third and four games back of ECU.

No. 7 South Carolina meets Auburn in conference play this weekend for the first time since 2001. Freshman lefthander Arik Hempy has emerged as a strong Southeastern Conference starter since junior righthander Billy Buckner came down with mononucleosis. Hempy tossed a four-hit shutout last Sunday after throwing three scoreless innings in relief Friday. He pitches in the low 90s and has hit 94 and 95 a few times lately. South Carolina will start Hempy on Saturday if he's not needed in relief on Friday, but push him back to Sunday if his services are required in the opener. Junior lefthander Matt Campbell will start the game Hempy doesn't.

In other SEC action, No. 8 Arkansas visits No. 12 Mississippi. The Rebels are taking a wait-and-see approach with the pitching staff as sophomore Mark Holliman is the only probable starter not named TBA. It figures sophomore lefty Stephen Head could get a Sunday start if he's not heavily taxed in relief duty during the first two games. Brae Wright, Eric Fowler and Matt Maloney are other possible starting candidates.

Tennessee and Vanderbilt meet in a contest that could prove crucial to the postseason. The Volunteers are 11-10 in the league while the Commodores are 10-11, which would grant them the lasy spot in the SEC tournament if it started today. If it fails to make the league tournament, Vanderbilt could repeat the history Florida made last year and still make the NCAA tournament because its record and RPI are strong enough.

Speaking of Florida, the No. 11 Gators sit atop the SEC East as they head into a series against a game Alabama club. Florida ranks just behind LSU in the conference in batting and runs. The Crimson Tide are the only league member without a conference series win, but Alabama has not been swept yet. That's because strong pitching efforts from a pair of lefthanders--freshman Wade LeBlanc and junior Taylor Tankersley--always keep Alabama, with a league-best 2.91 ERA, close enough to steal one game per week.

Red-hot Georgia has won eight straight to pull within two games of Florida in the East. The Bulldogs face more Bulldogs, those from Mississippi State, this weekend in a series featuring three of the best-hitting freshmen in the league. Georgia outfielder Joey Side and freshmen Josh Morris have 57 and 53 hits, but Mississippi State second baseman Stephen Rea leads all first-year players with 61 hits.

The best Big 12 matchup of the weekend sends Nebraska to No. 23 Oklahoma State. The Cowboys lead the conference with a 12-5 record (their .706 winning percentage sits just ahead of 14-6 Texas' .700 and 14-7 Oklahoma's .667) while the Huskers are a disappointing 9-9. Nebraska, which sits in seventh place in the 10-team league, could use a series victory to get back into the conference race and to have better hopes of hosting a regional.

Other conference series include Kansas State at No. 19 Oklahoma, Kansas at No. 2 Texas and Missouri at Texas Tech.

Florida State started its late season push toward a respectable finish in the Atlantic Coast Conference by winning two of three at Clemson last weekend. The Seminoles travel to No. 15 Virginia this week, looking to improve on their 8-7 league record against the conference's first-place club. Hunter Jones might not be able to pitch for Florida State this weekend. A sore elbow forced him from his start Saturday against Clemson in the first inning. Rhett James replaced him and threw 8 2/3 solid innings, and gets the ball on Friday this week.

The Cavaliers have no worries about their staff. It ranks second in the league with a 3.39 ERA while Andrew Dobies (2.13), Joe Koshansky (2.45) and Matt Avery (2.85) all stand among the top six in individual ERA.

The Cavaliers have won the ACC regular-season title once, back in 1972, when it won both the regular season and the tournament. In '96, UVa won the tournament and made its last regional appearance. Now, the Cavaliers have a two-game lead on Clemson with six to play. Plus, Virginia has Wake Forest (4-14 in ACC play) left during the season's final week. In other words, a series win against the Seminoles would nearly clinch Virginia's second-ever conference championship--quite an accomplishment for first-year head coach Brian O'Connor.

That aforementioned Clemson club takes a week off from league play to welcome No. 24 Central Florida to Doug Kingsmore Stadium. Golden Knights righthanders Matt Fox (1.43 ERA) and Kyle Bono (1.23) both rank among the top seven nationally in ERA, and also rank as one of the best duos the Tigers have seen all year.

No. 25 North Carolina faces Maryland this weekend, and its Saturday and Sunday starters are looking to maintain their recent success as they come off an exam break. Junior righthander Garry Bakker and freshman lefty Andrew Miller have each allowed just one earned run over their last two starts, with both players working 13 1/3 innings.

Rounding out the top 10, No. 3 Rice pays a visit to Hawaii, No. 4 Miami welcomes Jacksonville to town, and No. 5 Louisiana State faces Kentucky.

Army won its first Patriot League title since 1997 and will host the conference tournament this weekend. Third-place Lehigh plays second-place Lafayette on Saturday, with the winner facing Army in a best-of-three series beginning later that afternoon. The final two games are scheduled for Sunday.

Winthrop has won 11 of its last 13 heading into this weekend's Big South series against conference-leading Birmingham-Southern, which has dropped three of its last five. The Eagles, who swept Florida Atlantic last weekend, are in second place at 12-3 while the Panthers are 16-2.

UNLV (28-17 overall) plays host to San Diego State (25-25) in Mountain West Conference action. The Rebels lead the league at 15-5 with the Tony Gwynn's Aztecs close behind at 12-7. New Mexico has also pushed into the race at 14-7.

Minnesota, Penn State and Ohio State all share the Big 10 lead at 13-7. The Nittany Lions and Buckeyes square off this weekend. The Gophers face Iowa, which in a nice bit a symmetry is in a three-way tie for last at 7-13.

The College of Charleston has won 29 of its last 33 games and might be able to put away the Southern Conference regular-season title this weekend. The Cougars are 19-2 in the league and face Georgia Southern, which is tied with The Citadel for second place at 15-6.

Another bid goes out to the winner of the Ivy League's best-of-three championship series. Princeton won the Gehrig division for the ninth straight time--every year since the Ivy went to a two-division format in 1996. The Tigers and their two premium draft talents--center fielder Jason Szymanski and righthander Ross Ohlendorff--travel to Dartmouth, the Rolfe winners.

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