Noie: After a serious spring, Notre Dame 1B Niko Kavadas waits and wonders
When it all gets too confusing, and thoughts about what the next few days might bring get too cluttered, Notre Dame first baseman Niko Kavadas knows where and how to find clarity in everything.
That would be on the golf course, where chasing a ball down the fairways and across the greens of Knollwood Country Club near his Granger home allows Kavadas to stop thinking about his future of hitting one with a bat.
Eighteen holes with younger brother C.J. and everything in the Kavadas world is all right. He usually only plays on days that end in ‘y.’
“Sounds kind of nice, doesn’t it?” Kavadas said by phone last week. “It’s a lot going on right now, but golf keeps your mind off it. There’s just a lot of uncertainty, man. I don’t know where I’ll be in two weeks.”
How about two days? On Sunday, the annual Major League Baseball amateur draft commences in Denver. The draft runs three days. Somewhere along the course of it — Monday's the target day — the 6-foot-1, 235-pound former Penn High School standout will hear his cell phone ring. He might not recognize the number, but will know that a representative from a major league team will be on the other end with news that said team has selected Kavadas somewhere — likely somewhere early — in the 20-round process.
That’s when it will get interesting for Kavadas.
This should be the best time in the 22-year-old’s life. In May, Kavadas graduated with a business degree from his dream school, located barely seven miles from the family home. In June, the two-time team captain was the talk of the college baseball world, hitting home runs nearly every time he stepped to the plate in leading a Notre Dame team that many figured would finish last in the Atlantic Coast Conference to within one win of its first College World Series appearance since 2002.
There arguably was no better story in college baseball this spring than Notre Dame. Nobody knew about the Irish. Nobody cared about the Irish. Under second-year coach Link Jarrett, the Irish were ranked as high as No. 2 and ran away with the ACC regular-season championship. They won 34 games, won 16 road games — the program’s most in 28 years — and were scary good as host of an NCAA tournament regional. Notre Dame nearly beat eventual national champion Mississippi State in the super regional.
Along the way, the Irish coined themselves “Team Nyquil.” It was a season-long running joke in the clubhouse.
“Everyone was sleeping on us,” Kavadas said. “It was something that we rallied behind and something that motivated us.”
Motivated them nearly all the way to Omaha, Nebraska. Along the way, Kavadas set a school record for home runs (22) in a season. He drove in 64 runs and hit .302. He became the first Irish to earn two separate first team postseason All-American honors since Steve Stanley in 2002.
Pro baseball seemingly is the logical next step for Kavadas, who first dreamed of being in the show when he was a high school freshman. He looked around the Penn baseball field and told himself, ‘I can do this.’ He’d go to Notre Dame baseball games, look around Eck Stadium and tell himself, ‘I can’t wait to do that.’ He’d watch MLB games on TV and think, ‘One day, I’ll do that.’
That one day is now. Or is it?
A remarkable run
Would Kavadas ponder putting pro ball on hold for one more year and return to Notre Dame for his super senior season (an option thanks to the global pandemic) to make one more run with the Irish?
“Absolutely,” Kavadas said. “It’s always been a dream of mine to play professional baseball, but it’s also been a dream of mine to play in Omaha and win a national championship. To do that at a school that’s right in my backyard and a place that I’ve loved my entire life, it would be kind of crazy not to think about going back.”
Want more crazy? Kavadas can’t fathom — at least today — telling his Irish teammates and the coaching staff that he’s a former Irish. That his days of terrorizing ACC pitching at Eck Stadium are over. Maybe they are. But maybe...
“To say that these guys that I’ve loved playing with four years and these coaches I’ve developed incredible relationships with are going to be former coaches and former teammates, that would be really difficult,” Kavadas said.
For now, Kavadas is thinking only pro ball. When the pandemic turned everything upside down last year, MLB sliced the summer draft to five rounds. There was an outside shot that Kavadas, whose junior year was limited to seven home runs, 17 RBIs, and a .255 batting average in 13 games, would sneak into the final round. A few teams called to inquire, but offered little financial incentive. When he wasn't selected, that wasn’t necessarily bad news for him, or for the Irish.
“It was tremendous motivation,” Kavadas said. “I was disappointed and frustrated.”
Teammate Jared Miller counseled Kavadas to channel that disappointment and frustration in the right ways. Miller told Kavadas to look at being bypassed not as an opportunity missed to play pro ball, but an opportunity gained to play at least another year of college. So make the most of it.
Even as early as last summer — and even late last spring — the Irish believed they had a chance to be special. Along the way, Kavadas had a chance to show scouts that they made a mistake by dismissing him.
“The minute I started looking at it that way, that’s when the chip on the shoulder grew a little bit,” Kavadas said. “It led to a really, really productive and a really, really fun season.”
A season that for all the ups, ended with the worst of downs – that Game Three super regional loss at Mississippi State on June 14. In his second-to-last at-bat, Kavadas hammered a home run to right field that only recently stopped rolling. In his last at-bat, he grounded into a game- and season-ending double play.
Then, nothing but silence.
“I don’t think anyone said a word from the time the last out was made to the time Coach Jarrett gave his post-game meeting back in the hotel,” Kavadas said. “No one could believe that the run we were on came to an end.
“We really thought we were the best team in the country. There was no doubt in our minds that we were going to Omaha.”
Instead, the Irish went their separate ways. Kavadas took about a week and a half to let his body and his mind heal. It had been a whirlwind run and that wore him out. He and the Irish both went from unknowns to knowns. Everyone knew Kavadas’ name at season’s end, but he’d trade all that to have extended the season another few weeks.
“All the accolades and attention were cool, but the thing I’m most proud of is the fact that Jared Miller and I are designing ACC championship rings right now,” Kavadas said. “Not a whole lot of people thought that was possible. That’s probably the coolest thing we accomplished this year.”
A lot to offer, and options
Asked for his take on what his MLB draft profile might say, Kavadas points to his offensive production. In 161 career games, he hit 46 home runs with 144 RBIs and a .286 career average. He can hit for power to all parts of the park. He can dissect right-handers and left-handers with equal effectiveness. He’s got as lively a swing from the left side as anyone.
“I’ll give you a competitive at-bat and find a way to leave the yard a couple times a week and help the team win,” he said.
Kavadas believes his discipline and self-awareness already are MLB ready. He shook a late-season slump when he "didn't know what end of the bat to hold" to catch summer afternoon hot for the NCAA tournament run. In six NCAA games, Kavadas smacked six home runs with 15 RBIs. On the game's biggest stage, he delivered big at-bats.
Like in the first NCAA game against Central Michigan. Dropped to sixth in the batting order after his previous struggles. Kavadas refused to pout. He instead relaxed, then responded with four RBIs and two home runs.
"Those balls were annihilated," Jarrett said after a 10-0 win. "He had been pressing a little bit and when you're pressing, it's not fun."
Weakness? That’s easy. Kavadas is kind of, sort of pigeon-holed as a limited defensive player as a first baseman. In this baseball age of versatility — guys who play in the bigs better play multiple positions — Kavadas is either a first baseman or a designated hitter. That’s it.
“Not necessarily my claim to fame,” he admits.
Still, there’s a place for him somewhere in the game. Ranked by mlb.com as the No. 136 prospect would slot Kavadas as a late fourth-round or somewhere in the fifth round selection. That means Monday might be a life-changing day. The second round starts at 1 p.m. Maybe by dinner at his parents’ home, Kavadas will get the call.
Then comes the decision — start pro ball or finish next spring what Kavadas and the Irish started this one?
“If a great opportunity presents itself here in the next few days, that’s an avenue that I’ll pursue,” he said. “But if a great opportunity doesn’t present itself, I’m lucky enough to have the option to go back to college and compete for a national championship at Notre Dame.”
Asked to define great opportunity, Kavadas paused, like he was trying to read a putt up at Knollwood, or waiting at the plate on a fastball.
“I’ll know it,” he said, “when I see it.”
Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI