Inside Notre Dame's early ascent into a college baseball surprise under coach Link Jarrett

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — So consistent, dependable and clutch was Link Jarrett during his playing days at Florida State, his teammates simply called the former All-America shortstop, “Money.”

Roughly three decades later, the now 49-year-old architect of college baseball’s early 2021 national surprise team — Notre Dame (4-2) — only hears that moniker from one person.

His daughter, Dawson, a freshman at the University of Alabama.

“She calls me for money every week,” the second-year Irish head baseball coach said this week with a chuckle. “So I guess that’s my nickname from her — and only her these days.”

In the 19 games combined between this season and last that the COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t spoiled, his teams have largely played to Jarrett’s “money” personality.

His 2020 Irish were 11-2 and ranked 24th nationally with a seven-game winning streak when the season was put on an indefinite hold March 12 because of COVID-19 concerns. The current iteration popped into the No. 25 spot in a couple of the national polls this week after winning road series at ACC foes Wake Forest and Clemson to open this season.

The Irish next face expected ACC title contender Virginia (6-5, 2-4 ACC) on the road this weekend before playing their first home game and series beginning March 19 against Duke (6-5, 3-3).

“I feel like our players need to see that national ranking. They just do,” said Jarrett, who came from UNC-Greensboro and inherited a program coming off four straight non-winning seasons and no finishes in those years higher than sixth in the seven-team ACC Atlantic Division.

“You have to taste some success and you have to live with some failures along the way. But they need to feel that how they performed has been noticed. It gives them a little confidence, and there’s no way around that. They have to feel good, and I want them to feel good about what’s going on.”

The secret to the Irish, picked to finish dead last in the ACC’s Atlantic Division each of the past two years, not at all looking like that in two admittedly small sample sizes is minimizing surprises. Even good ones.

Jarrett’s approach to accomplishing that is by testing his players in every practice, making the sessions in essence as mentally and physically taxing, if not more, than ND’s games.

“I tell the guys if I’m not stressing during our scrimmages and putting situational pressure on you,” Jarrett said, “then I’m not really doing the right thing for your development and for our team. So I guess I feel like I don’t expect to be surprised.

“If you just roll the balls out and take (batting practice) and take some ground balls and have a little scrimmage, I don’t know. You have to force them to show you what they’re good at and what they struggle with. That’s how you improve.”

Improvement also came through creative roster-building. In addition to bringing in 11 freshmen, Jarrett recruited two junior college transfers and five grad transfers.

John Michael Bertrand, the older brother of Irish linebacker JD Bertrand is one of five pitchers among the seven transfers. The former Furman hurler is 1-0 in two starts with the Irish with a 4.22 ERA.

Slugging first baseman Niko Kavadas, here against Wake Forest on Feb. 27, has helped power the Irish to a 4-2 start in 2021.

Former Penn High star Niko Kavadas is among a handful of players who have come back largely because the NCAA awarded them an extra season of eligibility and/or because the 2020 Major League Baseball draft was condensed from 40 rounds to five because of COVID.

The left-handed-hitting first baseman is slashing .300/448/.750 (batting, on-base, slugging) and leads the Irish in home runs (3) and RBIs (9).

“It’s hard to say where you’d land from a roster standpoint if there had been a normal season last year,” Jarrett said. “But the interesting part is this happened everywhere.

“So college baseball, when you take the draft away and you redo some of these (senior) years, this is by far the most talented college baseball rosters in competition you will ever see. EVER SEE.

“From that standpoint, it’s tough. Every game is very, very talent rich.”

And that includes a three-game series later this spring against Jarrett’s son, J.T., a standout infielder for NC State.

COVID-19 continues to be a wild card, even with Indiana’s positivity rate plummeting to near 3% and active cases on campus falling recently. That could change for the better dramatically as vaccine eligibility comes to the younger part of the population.

For now, the Irish wear masks in the dugout (Wake Forest wore them on the field in their three-game series with ND), eat grab-and-go meals alone in their hotel rooms, take two buses to spread everyone out, and dress and shower in shifts after games.

The first three games of the season, including a road game at LSU against former Notre Dame coach Paul Mainieri, were wiped out because of positive COVID tests on the Irish team.

“We’ve been dealing with this for a long time now and I think dealing pretty well with it,” Jarrett said. “Last year, we were getting ready to play Louisville and were heading to a practice there when (athletic director) Jack Swarbrick called and said we needed to turn the bus around and head back to the hotel.

“Once we got back to the hotel, we started organizing groups of guys, getting them to the airport. They wanted the athletes off campus and home as quickly as you could get them home, and that’s what we did.

“To be honest with you, I didn’t think this was going to go on for the next year. I thought at first, ‘OK, our country will figure out what’s going on and our season will resume at some point.’ I was obviously way wrong. It’s just weird.”

Weirdness, though, doesn’t cloud Jarrett’s vision for what he believes the Notre Dame baseball program can eventually be.

From the time coach Pat Murphy’s 1993 Irish knocked Florida State out of the NCAA Tournament Jarrett’s junior year — denying him four straight College World Series trips — ND has made a strong impression on a man whose professional playing career peaked in Double-A with the Colorado Rockies.

“Even Notre Dame just beat us, I liked the way those guys carried themselves,” Jarrett said of the Irish. “And there’s something about it that made me regard them very fondly.

“That continued throughout my life — like when I spent a spring training with the Rockies and (former ND player) Craig Counsell was there.

“When the Notre Dame coaching job opened up, that feeling was still there. And I saw the potential to build something great. I just want to make this the best program in the country, and I think that’s realistic.

“Now, you might think everybody’s going to say that, and I admit it’s not going to be easy. But I look at how hard our guys work, academically, on the field and what they do to travel to play games. It’s such a great challenge but such a great opportunity.”

Notre Dame coach Link Jarrett (arms folded) has the Irish baseball team off to another hot start and Top 25 ranking.