Notre Dame goes 'Maverick' as it 'staches' away wins on way to College World Series

Tom Noie
ND Insider

OMAHA — Blame it on Maverick. Or the NCAA selection committee. 

How about both? 

Whatever the reason, the Notre Dame baseball team found a way to work through some early sourness when this whole postseason started, and it's worked all the way to the College World Series for the first time since 2002. 

All of it — OK, some of it — can be traced to the mustaches. Hockey players grow annual playoff beards, but college baseball players, at least at Notre Dame, they go the playoff mustache route. 

► Noie:One word — Omaha — says it all

► The players:Who are these party crashers? Meet the 2022 Notre Dame College World Series baseball team

Prior to June, which commenced with regionals the first weekend, Irish redshirt sophomore catcher/outfielder Nick Juaire and junior right-hander Liam Simon spent a spare moment critiquing the new Top Gun: Maverick movie. Specifically, the differences between this one and the original Top Gun, released in 1986.

One conclusion? The mustaches worn by actors in the second one were different, and (probably) way cooler than the original, which featured little to no facial/lip hair played by the actors. Certainly not from star Tom Cruise. 

Notre Dame catcher/captain David LaManna was the one who had to explain to head coach Link Jarrett earlier this month why the Irish players were wearing mustaches when postseason play commenced.

Soon after some of the Irish saw the sequel, the NCAA selection committee revealed the 16 schools that would host regionals to begin tournament play. Notre Dame was one. That didn’t sit right with the players. They were frustrated. How could they channel that frustration? 

It circled back to the Top Gun player analysis. Mustaches. So grow ‘em. Fear ‘em in the regional, then in the super regional, then maybe, all the way to Omaha. 

A legend was born. Or grown. 

► More:Paul Mainieri remembers 2002 run

Irish coach Link Jarrett saw signs of them in the first workout in Statesboro, Georgia, four days after the selection show and usually the time a college kid might be thinking about a shave. One player walked by with the early signs of a ‘stache. Then another. And another. Finally, Jarrett grabbed catcher/graduate student/captain David LaManna, who also had started growing one. 

“I said, ‘Dave, what’s going on with these?’” Jarrett said. 

Postseason mustaches, LaManna told Jarrett, who also was given the option by his players to grow one. That was a hard pass. 

“I didn’t so …,” Jarrett said searching for the right words. “I just didn’t.” 

So the players did. Anyone who could grow what ESPN color commentator Kyle Peterson would refer to time and again during the super regional in Knoxville as a “lip sweater” could grow one. As Notre Dame prepared earlier in the week to Omaha, they packed up the usual baseball gear — bats, balls, cleats and, of course, the mustaches. 

“Here we are,” said LaManna, “still riding with them.”

Notre Dame (40-15) has won six of seven postseason games. Yep, it's the 'stache.

Notre Dame's Ryan Cole (1) walks off field during an inning change during the NCAA Knoxville Super Regionals between Tennessee and Notre Dame at Lindsey Nelson Stadium in Knoxville, Tennessee on Sunday, June 12, 2022.

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What Irish has the best one going? LaManna singled out graduate student lefty Matt Lazzaro who, “has a pretty good one.” The worst? Probably leadoff hitter/left fielder Ryan Cole. It’s not bad, it’s just ... dormant.

“He can’t get one going,” LaManna said. “He’s trying his best.” 

LaManna was asked about his, which is jet black but more wispy than bushy. He rated it a 6.5. Maybe a 7. 

“I don’t like it,” he said. “But I like it because we’re in the (College World Series) and we’re winning.” 

Notre Dame's Alex Rao (45) pitches during the NCAA Knoxville Super Regionals between Tennessee and Notre Dame at Lindsey Nelson Stadium in Knoxville, Tennessee on Sunday, June 12, 2022.

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As superstitious as players are, the ‘staches will stay. For as long as Notre Dame remains in Omaha. Heck, if it stays the duration, so may the mustaches. 

“This mustache might stick with me for a really long time if we win this thing,” said second baseman/captain Jared Miller. 

So, thanks, Maverick. Thanks NCAA. A little motivational/superstition never hurt. This one helped. A lot. 

Miller back in the mix 

Two weekends ago, Miller was still working his way back from a separated shoulder suffered late in the regular season. Last weekend, he hit a key home run in the opening-game win at Tennessee. He didn’t just want to be back in the lineup, back in the field, back in the mix of everything. He had to be. 

Jarrett mentioned after the regional title that his top goal, other than beating Tennessee, was getting Miller back healthy. He was healthy. He was back. 

“It really hurt to sit on the bench and watch the regional, but we went out there and did the job,” Miller said. “I was really excited to be back out there.” 

Notre Dame second baseman/captain Jared Miller returned to the everyday lineup last weekend at Tennessee after being out since the middle of May with a separated shoulder.

When Miller wasn’t out there, the second base duties were handled by freshman Jack Penney, who hit .288 in 39 games with 18 starts. With Miller back, Penney’s back to a bench role. 

“He did awesome,” Miller said. “When I got back out there, Jack was unbelievable. He was my biggest fan. I’m trying to show him things that I learned along the way.” 

Tricks of the trade that Penney will need the next few seasons. This is a veteran team, but Penney will be key the next few seasons. 

“He’s going to have a great career,” Miller said. 

An even-keel group 

Miller was all charged up in the top of the fourth of Sunday’s win when he singled to center, advanced to second when the Volunteers tried to throw behind him. Then tried to get to third when that throw went to left field. Miller was thrown out, and had a brief/emotional exchange with Volunteers third baseman Trey Lipscomb. 

Miller explained that Lipscomb may have been a bit too wound up and got overheated. He wasn’t the only Vol. Centerfielder Drew Gilbert missed the second game of the series after being ejected the previous night for voicing displeasure with a strike call. 

Emotions play a big role in postseason baseball, but the Irish usually stay steady. Never too high. Never too down. Just … steady. That comes from being an older team. That comes from playing for a guy like Jarrett, who’s as even-keel as they come. It also comes from everything the program has had to endure to get to Omaha. 

“When everybody’s doing all the rah-rah stuff and bringing noise, we just kind of say, ‘OK, they’re going to do that,’” Miller said. “We’re just going to stay within ourselves and play the game of baseball.” 

Seeing something special 

Jarrett coached only 13 games his first season in South Bend before the global pandemic shut down spring sports, but he still felt the Irish had the makeup that season to get to Omaha. Notre Dame went 34-13 last season and came within one win of beating Mississippi State for its first super regional championship since 2002, and Jarrett felt more of the same — that team was Omaha good. 

After beating top-ranked Tennessee last weekend Jarrett said it yet again — this team had what it took to get to Omaha. 

Notre Dame is back in Omaha for the first time since 2002, but head coach Link Jarrett his 2020 and 2021 teams also had the potential to get there. He could see it.

What did Jarrett see in each of his first three seasons (will there be a fourth?) for him to feel that way? 

“They’ve played together a lot,” Jarrett said of a team saturated with a combined 15 seniors or graduate students. “When you look at how many games and reps and practices the bulk of that group has had together, you should become better with what you’re doing as a team the longer that team stays together.” 

That team stayed together. That team has won together. That team is in Omaha. Together. 

Not done yet 

Whenever this season ends, so will LaManna’s college career. He's closing in on 200 career games played (Friday against Texas was No. 194) over his five seasons. There will not be a fifth. 

What’s next? A graduate of the Mendoza College of Business, LaManna doesn’t know. He doesn’t have a “real” job waiting for him and continuing to play baseball isn’t guaranteed for the first time since he started this run as a kid. 

He’s not worrying about any of it. Not now. 

“I’m just trying to enjoy it,” he said, “and ride the wave a little bit.” 

New coverage of the College World Series is treated by Nebraska television like lake-effect storm coverage back in Indiana.

Series six-pack 

► How big is the CWS around town? The local NBC affiliate devoted the first 35 minutes of their 4 p.m. newscast to live reports in and around Charles Schwab Field. Other than a quick news or weather break, it was wall-to-wall CWS coverage. Kind of like when the lake-effect snow machine kicks in back home. 

► Half of the CWS field — four teams — made it to Omaha by winning super regionals on the road. Somewhere, Notre Dame nods.

► Charles Schwab Field (capacity 24,500) won't be the biggest park the Irish play in this season. In early March, Notre Dame played three games in U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis (capacity 73,000) and played at Comerica Park (41,083) in Detroit in late April. The largest crowd to see an Irish game this season was April 1 at Florida State (4,594).

► Friday’s game between Notre Dame and Texas was the seventh time the teams have played, but the first since 1995. The series was tied at 3. It’s the first time since 1957 that the teams have met in the College World Series. 

►The cheapest “get in” price Friday morning for a ticket for the first CWS night game between Notre Dame and Texas was $75 on Most expensive? A 10th-row seat just to the right of home plate for $499. 

►Temperatures are expected to be in the 90s all weekend and then into the 100s Monday and Tuesday. 

Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI. Contact: (574) 235-6153.