Notre Dame baseball: Big arms, crazy crowds await Irish in ACC

CURT RALLO
CRallo@SBTinfo.com

Detroit Tigers’ prospect Devon Travis knows the challenges Notre Dame outfielders will face when they make their first road trip to Clemson for an Atlantic Coast Conference baseball showdown.

“On a ball to the right-center field gap, you can’t scream to let your (fellow) outfielder know where you’re at,” Travis said. “It’s muscle memory, because the crowd is that loud. You can’t hear a guy 50 feet away.”

Travis played at Florida State for three seasons before being drafted by the Tigers. He played at West Michigan this season, where he led the Midwest League in hitting (.354) until he was promoted this week to Advanced-A Lakeland.

When Notre Dame plays its inaugural baseball season in the ACC, the Irish will be jumping from a cold climate to a blast furnace.

“Florida State for a weekend series against an ACC opponent, the crowds will be anywhere from 5,000 to 6,500,” Travis said. “North Carolina is about the same. North Carolina State will get 4,000, maybe 4,500. Clemson will bring in 6,000 crazy, screaming fans. Georgia Tech gets around 5,000. Virginia packs out every night at 5,000, 6,000.

“Clemson … those fans are something else. It’s definitely a tough place to play. Clemson and FSU, being at the top of the ACC for a while, now, the fans get wound up when FSU comes to town. It’s a war. The fans feel like they can have an impact on the result of the game. They do their best to try and affect us any way they can. The minute they see our colors, it’s on, non-stop. It’s wild. I’m sure it will be like that for Notre Dame.”

The format

Notre Dame, Pittsburgh and Syracuse joined the ACC on Monday. Syracuse does not play baseball, so the Irish and Panthers will boost the ACC total for baseball to 14 teams. Louisville replaces Maryland, which leaves for the Big Ten, starting in 2014-15. The ACC will conduct a 10-team modified double elimination conference tournament in Greensboro, N.C., for 2014. The conference tournament will expand to 12 teams in 2015.

Notre Dame will compete in the Atlantic Division with Florida State, North Carolina State, Clemson, Maryland (with Louisville replacing Maryland in 2015), Wake Forest and Boston College. The Coastal Division will include North Carolina, Virginia, Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech, Miami, Duke and Pittsburgh. Notre Dame and Pittsburgh will be permanent partners and meet each season. The Irish will play three other opponents from the Coastal Division each season on a rotating basis. That gives Notre Dame five home series (of three games), and five road series (of three games), for a total of 30 conference games each season.

The talent level

Travis said that hitters in the ACC rarely get a break.

“The level of pitching in the ACC is crazy,” Travis said. “You face the ace on Friday, and he’s throwing in the 90s and looks like a first-round pick. Then, you wake up on Saturday, and, dang, No. 2 pitcher is just as good as the No. 1 pitcher.

“Then, you face the No. 3 pitcher on Sunday, and you’re saying to yourself, ‘Dang, the No. 3 guy is throwing harder than the first two guys.’ Then, they’ll roll out a guy from the bullpen in the seventh inning who throws 91 or 92, and in the ninth, here comes the closer, and he’s throwing 95. I faced nine or 10 first-rounders in the ACC.”

Notre Dame coach Mik Aoki coached in the ACC when he was with Boston College. He said the Irish will face a major transition from Big East baseball to ACC baseball.

“I don’t know if there’s a bigger upgrade in (the Notre Dame athletic department),” Aoki said. “The ACC is a who’s who of college baseball, from everything from Major League alumni to the traditions. It’s as good as it gets.

“When I was at Boston College, there were three catchers (from ACC schools) taken in the first round, in consecutive years. That’s unbelievable. If you’re a fan of baseball, you’re seeing the future when you come out to Frank Eck Stadium. You’re seeing future big leaguers playing for every team.”

This past June, 40 ACC players were selected in the MLB draft. For 22 years in a row, the ACC has had at least one first-rounder. In the 2012 MLB playoffs, 23 ACC players were on post-season rosters.

“From top to bottom, you’re looking at an elevated level of play, an elevated level of athlete, an elevated level of pitching,” Aoki said. “That’s not in any way to denigrate the Big East. There have been great teams and great players throughout the history of the Big East. I just think that if you look at it as a whole, from top to bottom, the rosters of every team, overall, you just have a higher quality of baseball athlete than you do in comparison to the Big East.’’

The competition

What’s in store for Notre Dame?

There have been nine ACC teams in the College World Series in the past five seasons (compared to one Big East team in the CWS in the past five seasons). ACC teams have earned 37 berths in the NCAA Tournament in baseball in the past five seasons, compared to 11 Big East teams.

Andrew Ramspacher, who covers the Virginia Cavaliers for the Daily Progress of Charlottesville, Va., said the ACC schedule can be a murderer’s row.

“Notre Dame is going to face teams like North Carolina, a team that was basically No. 1 the entire season,” Ramspacher said. “They had a lineup that was stacked, and a pitching staff that was stacked. Florida State is another traditional power. They’re kind of the same way. North Carolina State had a great season. They have Carlos Rodon, a kid who is projected to be potentially No. 1 in next year’s draft. He’s an absolute stud. He throws in the high 90s.

“You have your traditional powers. Florida State, Mike Martin is a legendary coach … they will always be around. North Carolina, with Mike Fox, is always going to be around. N.C. State is a really good program.

“Virginia, what Brian O’Connor has done in the last 10 years since he left Notre Dame — they’ve made 10 straight NCAA appearances since he arrived. You do have your have-nots. Boston College, it’s tough to win when you’re playing in the northeast. It’s not the strongest of programs. Duke has struggled. There are series where you’re able to think that you’re going to get a couple of wins. Wake Forest isn’t as strong. Virginia Tech came on this past year. They hosted a regional for the first time. But they’re not as consistent. Clemson is not going to go away any time soon. The ACC had the No. 1 RPI in the nation this past season, and had four teams host Super Regionals, and had two teams in Omaha. There are elite, powerful programs in this conference.”

Aoki knows what to expect.

“Every team is going to have a couple of guys who can knock it out of the park,” Aoki said. “To play in this league, you have to be whole as a team. You can’t have a glaring weakness. You have to hit, and you have to hit sufficiently enough to hit good, quality pitching. The pitching is among the best of any conference in the country. And you have to be able to pitch and defend. You can’t give these teams extra outs.’’

Despite gaudy numbers for CWS appearances, NCAA berths, first-round draft picks and alumni in the Majors, Ramspacher noted one glaring number about the ACC.

“The thing about the ACC, and I find this potentially the most amazing stat in college sports, they have not won a national championship since 1955,” Ramspacher said. “You think about the talent and the years that teams have gotten to Omaha, North Carolina, Miami, Florida State, and just keep coming up short. It is pretty incredible when you think of the depth in the league and the talent through all these years, and the ACC hasn’t won a national title in baseball since Wake Forest did it in 1955.”

The advantage

Aoki was 48-69 in ACC competition, leading the Eagles to two ACC Tournament bids and their first NCAA appearance in 42 years.

“Having gone through this once, one of the things that this move helps us to do in baseball is take the one recruiting argument against Notre Dame out of play, in terms of, if you go to Notre Dame, you get a good education, but you might not necessarily be playing at the very, very highest level of college baseball,” Aoki said. “Now, that’s just not true.

“You’re going to get an education that’s unparalleled in the country, I don’t think surpassed by any school in the country, and you’re going to get an opportunity to play baseball at the very, very highest level.”

Although perennial ACC powers Florida State, Miami, Georgia Tech, Clemson North Carolina and North Carolina State mine the talent-rich South, Ramspacher said that former Notre Dame assistant Brian O’Connor has been able to forge a national power at Virginia with players from colder climates.

“I think Virginia does a really good job of getting New Jersey kids, of getting Pennsylvania kids,” Ramspacher said. “Their success hasn’t all been based on getting Southern kids. The kids who have made up the bulk of their run the last 10 years have been kids from the mid-Atlantic states. They’ll branch out a little bit, but for the most part, most of their kids are from the East coast. You don’t have to take all kids from the talent-rich South to be successful, but a lot of teams in this league do.”

When Aoki hits the recruiting trail, he’ll be selling prospects on the fact that Notre Dame will be a Midwest school that plays in a primarily Southern baseball conference with a national reputation.

“Kids who are making this decision, if they don’t want to play in cold weather, we’re not going to get that kid anyway,” Aoki said. “Now, we’re going to have a really, really strong niche in the upper Midwest. For a kid to combine academics and a baseball experience similar to what we will be able to provide with the ACC, they have to travel out of region to do it. There is nobody within 300 miles of us that is able to provide that sort of experience.

“That, hopefully, will play really, really strongly in what I consider to be our backyard, the Chicago area, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan. There are places that can certainly be considered our academic peers, a Northwestern, a Michigan … but from a baseball standpoint, the ACC is just a higher-rated baseball conference than the Big Ten is. You just can’t find that combination. There’s nobody who can provide the academic/athletic experience in this region that we can.”

Notre Dame’s move to the ACC will mean a significant transition for the baseball teams.

Atlantic Division

Boston College 12-40, 4-25; Clemson 40-22, 18-12; Florida State 47-17, 20-10; Maryland 30-25, 11-19; North Carolina State 50-16, 19-10; Wake Forest 28-27, 9-20

Coastal Division

Duke Blue 26-29, 9-21; Georgia Tech 37-27, 15-15; Miami 37-25, 14-16; North Carolina 59-12, 21-7; Virginia 50-12, 22-8; Virginia Tech 40-22, 15-14

Finished in Top 25

1. North Carolina, 3. Virginia, 7. North Carolina State, 8. Florida State, 11. Virginia Tech, 14. Clemson, 19. Miami, 23. Georgia Tech.