Noie: Notre Dame junior Niko Kavadas waits to play baseball again — but where?

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Mornings still matter but it’s the afternoons and early evenings that are an issue.

For the better part of two and a half years, former Penn High School standout Niko Kavadas found a nice balance between student and athlete at Notre Dame. Days would start with classes on campus, where he’s a business major. Days would end with Kavadas playing a key role for the Irish baseball team, first as a designated hitter, then what should’ve been his first spring as the starting first baseman.

Now with the sports world shuttered by the coronavirus pandemic and campus closed for the rest of the spring semester, Kavadas no longer is the athlete and even more the student. After an additional week off from school to adjust to the changing world caused by the virus, Notre Dame students returned to classes Monday in an on-line capacity.

Kavadas felt like a rookie student again on his first day back. It all was new and exciting and frustrating and intimidating rolled into one big ball of unknown. One class required students to FaceTime into a lecture. Kavadas had trouble hearing what the professor was saying, mainly because some other student somewhere else spent almost the whole time eating and drinking and chewing whatever they were having for breakfast.

“It’s tough,” Kavadas said Tuesday afternoon. “It’s like, ‘Please mute your mic.’”

Monday was a relatively easy day for Kavadas. He had two classes, but one of them was a challenging managerial economics class.

“That’s really kicking my butt,” he said. “There’s quite a bit of work required of it.”

On Tuesday, Kavadas had three lectures — a values based leadership course, international management and marriage in the family sociology class. The first started at 9:30 a.m. The last ended at 1:45 p.m. What’s the verdict on the on-line courses, which will be taught the rest of the spring semester?

“The jury’s definitely still out,” Kavadas said. “It’s better than losing the semester, but I would prefer to be in regular classes.”

That would keep Kavadas on a regular schedule — classes in the morning, a lunch break and then all baseball in the afternoon and into the evening. All day, every day. On weekdays. On weekends. In Atlantic Coast Conference play and non-league action, Kavadas planned to be busy for the rest of March and all of April, and preferably deep into May playing on a team that had won 11 of its first 13 games and was ranked No. 24 in one national poll.

Notre Dame was rolling under first-year coach Link Jarrett. So was the 6-foot-1, 235-pound Kavadas. A preseason All-American coming off College Baseball national player of the week honors, he had an ACC-best seven home runs with 17 RBIs when everything just ended. It’s been two weeks since the coronavirus shut down sports. It’s taken Kavadas about that much time to come to grips with where the world is today, a world that includes no baseball.

“It’s been difficult,” he said. “The team was playing well. We’d beaten some good teams. To see it go away like that was tough.”

A good group

Tough because Kavadas felt something different about this team. Not necessarily anything better after Jarrett replaced Mik Aoki, who recruited Kavadas out of the Northern Indiana Conference and coached the Granger native in his first two seasons at Notre Dame. It was just different. A feel. A confidence. A belief that no matter the opponent or the obstacles, the Irish were going to find ways to win games with all three levels — hitting, defense, pitching.

They did and swept what had been a nationally-ranked North Carolina team earlier this month. That first game of the three-game series in Chapel Hill, N.C., Kavadas looked around the dugout, looked around the field while at first and thought, man, this is fun. This team. This season. This group of guys. This everything.

It was going to be a sweet spring, maybe even one like none other for him. For them.

“I think we knew we had something really special that Friday night in Carolina,” he said. “For me, that was a season-defining moment right there.”

Defining because anything the Tar Heels threw at the Irish, the visitors had an answer. Need a big hit? They got the big hit. Need a big out? The defense or the pitching staff delivered a big out. Watching it all come together the way it did was Jarrett. Kavadas and his teammates still were getting to know their first-year coach, but what they did know, they liked.

“He is so positive, so high energy,” Kavadas said. “It was so much fun to get to play for Coach.”

There were times this season when Jarrett would put on a play or give a sign and Kavadas and his teammates would look at each other like, really? Then the Irish would have runners on first and third with nobody out. Oh, their looks would say, that’s why Coach called what he did. He knew something and saw something that nobody in the park saw.

“We’re like, ‘Dang, this guy really knows and understands offensive baseball,’” Kavadas said. “He’s a baseball savant.”

The college game didn’t come so easily for Kavadas. Everything about it was different. More demanding. More pressurized. Focus every day. It took him a good year to settle in before he believed he could really play. Recruited as a corner outfielder/catcher who also pitched and played infield at Penn, Kavadas split the designated hitter role with Alex Kerschner, a senior.

It was late in that year, before an ACC series against Pittsburgh, when Kavadas cleared out all the clutter. A conversation with former assistant coach Jesse Woods was the catalyst.

“He was like, ‘Listen, man, you’ve got it. You’ve got to put it out there. The swing is there. You’ve just got to be patient,’” Kavadas said. “All of a sudden, I started to string together some hits and feel it a little bit. Ever since then, I’ve felt very comfortable.”

Kavadas hit .299, third best on the team, as a freshman DH. He led the Irish in home runs (12), RBIs (43), on-base percentage (.390) and slugging percentage (.517) as a sophomore. The few games this season, Kavadas was locked in from the left side of the plate. Boom! A deep one over the right field wall. Whack! A rocket into the gap. He even went the other way.

“He’s got a good concept of what he’s doing at the plate,” Jarrett said. “His timing and his strength and his pitch selection, it’s a remarkable combination. There aren’t a lot of guys at any level of baseball that can hit balls out to all fields and do so without really flushing the ball up.”

What’s next?

Just when Kavadas got going, it all ended. The team bused back from Louisville two weeks ago before players scattered to their hometowns. The only local kid on the roster, Kavadas has split time between his Dublin Village apartment near campus and his parents’ Granger home. He’s tried to do something baseball-related every day, but it’s hard, especially when he woke Monday morning to three inches of snow.

He can go outside and take a few swings, or go to the basement of his parents’ house and get a workout in on the squad rack. He’ll throw with his brother, C.J., a senior infielder on Penn’s top-ranked baseball team, but that’s about it.

“There’s not a whole lot to do,” Kavadas said.

That leads to a lot of thinking. About how far he’s come in his two-plus college seasons. About last summer’s experience leading the Cape Cod League with 10 home runs. About how far he still felt he needed to go. About his baseball future.

Baseball’s amateur draft is tentatively set for June 10-12. Given how that unfolds, there’s a chance that Kavadas has played his final game for Notre Dame.

“That’s a scary feeling,” he said. “It’s been a really special three years, but all the uncertainty is exciting. We’ll see what comes up this June. There’s still a lot up in the air.”

For now, the 21-year-old Kavadas continues with his on-line class work — with his speaker phone on mute — and will try to get in some sort of baseball activity every day. He’ll have no problem staying connected with his teammates. Kavadas is involved in about 15 group baseball chats. A handful of guys will FaceTime one another every day. Sometimes, every hour.

“We’ve got everything,” he said. “We’re constantly staying in touch. That’s been great.”

Kavadas’ actual options to stay active? Not so much. The First Source Bank Performance Center at Four Winds Field has closed because of the pandemic, so no more swings in the cage. When class is finished and it’s time to go outside and play, he can’t. When he wants to chill in front of the TV and watch a game, he can’t. He’s worn out his MLB The Show ‘20 video game to keep connected to the game. The other day, he and his father watched about 40 of Kavadas’ at-bats from different games over the years. They analyzed each one over and over because, well, what else was there to do?

“It’s just nice,” Kavadas said, “to see some baseball again.”

Notre Dame junior first baseman Niko Kavadas started this season slowly but had just found his hitting groove when everything ended.
Playing third base for the Hurwich Mariners last summer, former Penn High School standout Niko Kavadas led the Cape Cod Summer League with 10 home runs.