Notre Dame baseball's Shawn Stiffler is done being the 'new guy.' Now it's time to win
SOUTH BEND — Being the "new guy" is exciting. It's also a lot of work.
Between moving his family from Virginia to South Bend and frequent trips to the Yellow Cat Cafe for breakfast and Nick's Patio for dinner — both popular South Bend dining staples — first-year Notre Dame baseball coach Shawn Stiffler has worked to get to know his new university, community and team.
Throughout the fall semester, Stiffler met with many of his players about what aspects of the program makes them comfortable. Things like communication, practice schedules, team meals and road trip curfews in an effort to ease the transition for all involved into the next chapter of Irish baseball.
"I love talking to players," Stiffler by phone last week. "Because it is their program, not mine."
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Still, it is Stiffler who is now in charge of a Notre Dame team coming off last year's epic three-game upset of No. 1 Tennessee in the Super Regionals to reach its first College World Series since 2002.
The Irish went on to win its first CWS game against Texas, 7-3, before losing to Oklahoma, 6-2, and being eliminated by Texas A&M, 5-1.
That's in the past now, as is the 43-year-old Stiffler's 11-year stint as coach of Virginia Commonwealth where he compiled a 352-207 record, won three Atlantic 10 Conference titles, qualified for three NCAA Tournaments and advanced to a Super Regional in 2015.
It's about the future now.
"Everyone in this room is who is on this team and what we need," Stiffler said. "Now let's build a plan to build our own culture and identity to get back to Omaha."
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Notre Dame's road back to the College World Series began in Nashville Friday Feb. 17 with a three-game series at Lipscomb.
Click here tosee full Notre Dame baseball schedule.
"Excitement is a really good word," said graduate senior outfielder Jack Zyska. "We have been practicing for a while, so it is going to be nice seeing guys in another uniform."
For many of the older Irish players, Stiffler is their third head coach in South Bend, that includes Mik Aoki in 2019 and the past three years under Link Jarrett who left shortly after the CWS to become head coach at his alma mater Florida State.
Jarrett, who led the Irish to an 86-32 record and to Super Regionals both years in the NCAA Tournament (the 2020 season was cancelled due to COVID), returns to South Bend with his Seminoles April 28-30.
"(Stiffler) has done a great job trying to continue what we have done the past couple years, as well as bring in his own unique style," said infielder Carter Putz, another grad senior. "This fall we got right to work and the team wants to do whatever it takes to be successful.
"This is a new year. This team hasn't accomplished anything yet. (Stiffler) has tried to continue to push us, motivate us and have us ready to go."
Sizing up the 2023 Irish
The Irish return three of their top-six hitters, including Putz who smacked a team-leading 79 hits, including eight homers while adding 46 RBI. Joining him are Brooks Coetzee (.270, 58 hits, 42 RBI) and Zack Prajzner (.286, 57 hits, 35 RBI). Throw in Zyska (.293, 43 hits and 37 RBI) and Notre Dame has the potential to finish in the top half of the Atlantic Coast Conference as it did a year ago.
Where his team is unproven, Stiffler said, is pitching. The Irish return only 30% of its innings and fewer than 10 starts from last season. That group, led by Aiden Tyrell (3.75 ERA, 48 innings pitched) and Jack Findlay (2.11 ERA, 42 2/3 innings pitched) will have to carve out innings throughout the year to keep the Irish competitive.
Notre Dame (41-17 last year) is picked sixth (second to last) in the ACC Atlantic Division preseason coaches poll. A new coaching staff hasn't changed the Irish's ultimate goal of getting back to Omaha and winning the program's first national title.
When he looks at his roster, Stiffler said he sees a lot of strengths with its defense and versatility.
"We go 12-deep with guys who can really defend," Stiffler said. "We also have maturity in our lineup."
Stiffler said he isn't going to be hung up on wins and loses this first year, but rather reinforcing the groundwork to sustain a national-caliber program for years to come.
"As good as Notre Dame has been over last two years, I am the third head coach the senior class has had," Stiffler said. "There is still a need for consistency in culture and continuing to build. That's going to be how I judge (year No. 1), the ability to implement a sustainable culture that competes for ACC titles, regional bids and Omaha year in and year out."