SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Even after securing regional-host status for its first NCAA Tournament appearance in six years, Notre Dame isn’t about to surrender its underdog mentality.
”Kind of like playing with house money,” right-hander Tanner Kohlhepp said before the four-team mini-tournament this weekend at Frank Eck Stadium. ”There’s not a lot of stress. We don’t have to live up to any sort of expectations.”
A 30-victory season and an Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season title already in the books, coach Link Jarrett’s surprise College World Series contender must find a way to subdue 2019 CWS runner-up Michigan, along with Connecticut and Central Michigan.
One way to do that, it seems, is for the Irish to keep their edge as a team that has been doubted all season long. Seeded 10th overall by the NCAA selection committee, Notre Dame knows it can’t get to Omaha, Nebraska, without a Super Regional side trip through Starkville, Mississippi, where Mississippi State projects to await.
”We thought we were going to be a little bit higher,” infielder Jared Miller said. ”But that’s out of our control. We had a great season. We thought our play spoke for a little bit higher seed, but we’ll just go out this weekend and prove how good of a team we are.”
A run of eight NCAA Tournament bids in a row ended in 2006, but you have to go back to 2004 to find the last time the Irish hosted a regional and to 2002 for the last time they got past the opening weekend. That year also marked the second CWS appearance in program history, the other coming in 1957.
Jarrett, a former Florida State shortstop who reached the CWS three times with the Seminoles in the early 1990s, doesn’t want his players taking the field with the burden of history. Instead, he prefers they embrace this rare opportunity, especially after laying an egg at the ACC tournament last weekend in Charlotte, North Carolina.
In the words of Kohlhepp, the staff co-ace who started his college career at Tennessee: ”They’re big games, but there’s no reason to make them bigger than they need to be.”
A 10-1-1 series record since the season began in late February bodes well for Notre Dame, as does a team identity built around sound fundamental play and a deep, versatile pitching staff.
”We have balance to our team,” Jarrett said. ”There’s balance on the mound. We have a figure-it-out type of lineup. We have enough weapons and enough variety that we can be dangerous.”
While the postseason is all about incremental survival, one out at a time, you already could hear Jarrett prepping his
unlikely Cinderella group with some projection about how they might fare in a Super Regional trip to the heart of Southeastern College country.
”We talk a lot about having to play the game with minimal verbal communication,” said Jarrett, a former Auburn assistant. ”Our guys can tell you how many times I preach that you have to be able to play the game without yelling across the field at everybody like you can when we practice. You just can’t.”
Especially not in a place like Starkville, with all those blasted cowbells.
”I’ve been there a couple of times,” Jarrett said. ”You have to be able to play the game without constant communication verbally across the field. Our system is designed for this. We’ve trained for this. I think we’re more suited for it than maybe teams that don’t have that philosophy.”
First things first, of course, but it is interesting to hear a modern coach speak openly about what might lie ahead if this weekend goes as planned. Sure, the national pundits and NCAA selection committee have tried to let some of the air out of this latest Notre Dame golden narrative.
But that doesn’t mean Jarrett and his bunch of anonymous scrappers have to play along. In some ways, he already has his eye fixed beyond this 2021 season to a future filled with annual championship contention.
”I hope we can continue to evolve,” Jarrett said. ”I don’t want this to be a one-time story. I want our national relevance to continue.”