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Notre Dame Baseball

Notre Dame SS Jack Penney: 'I feel like this team is really ready'

February 16, 2024

The Notre Dame infield will look new in 2024 and it starts at shortstop. 

Zack Prajzner played 215 games up the middle for the Irish and Jack Penney will be the new face at the heart of the Irish defense. 

It’s a natural fit for Penney as he found great success at third base last year by recording a fielding percentage of .962 with just five errors in 143 total chances. 

The 6-foot-1, 190-pounder made the switch during the summer while playing in the historic Cape Cod League and hasn’t looked back. 

“The biggest adjustment playing short again was the footwork part,” Penne said. “Third base is the hot corner for a reason. The ball will get on you quickly and sometimes you don’t have to move your feet as much or have as much momentum towards first base. I had a few errors because I was being lazy and I was in that third base mindset when I first got back to shortstop.” 

Penney knows he’ll need to stay sharp with self-reminders this weekend as he looks to create new habits and routines at shortstop.

“I need to remind myself, especially on the dirt field we’ll play on, to keep moving my feet and keep my momentum towards first base,” explained Penney. “It’s a range position compared to third base. I just want to move as much as possible and not get stagnant and find myself waiting for the ball. I want to be more aggressive towards the ground balls coming at me.” 

A year ago, Penney finished tied for the team lead in home runs with 10 in just 46 games. The Massachusetts native takes great pride in his mental approach, which has allowed him to have success at the plate, but also in the field. 

“It’s very easy to get in your own head,” stated Penney. “I practice the mental game often. I have a coach I talk to back home every Wednesday morning. We talk about mental skills, mental training and mental toughness. I have routines I do at the plate to release pitches if I miss a pitch or if there is a bad call. I step out, take a breath, hit my cleats with my bat. If I make an error in the field, I start taking deep breaths and reset.

“The biggest thing is being where my feet are. When I’m coming in from the defense into the dugout to hit, I leave it on the field. Once I step into the dugout, I know it’s time to hit. It doesn’t matter what happened last inning on the defensive side, I need to help my team now and get the best at-bat that I can.” 

Penney has seen it all during his time at Notre Dame. He has experienced the highs of the run to Omaha, while the struggles of last year. 

Head coach Shawn Stiffler believes his shortstop has become a player Notre Dame can not only lean on, but Penney makes his teammates and coaches better every day. 

”It starts with how intense he is about getting better, his work every day and how serious he takes his craft,” Stiffler explained. “I think you also see that from him in the classroom as well. So just a guy who shows up, you have to be really, really ready yourself when Jack Penney walks into the room because you know that he's ready. I love players like that because you're getting from them the same juice that you hope you're giving them. From day one, just his approach to wanting to get better.” 

And it doesn’t end there.

“Probably the best hands and feet I've ever coached,” said Stiffler. “The game is played at a slower pace for Jack than it is for the rest of the world. Just watching his feet and his hands work, sometimes I'm just in amazement at how he can read hops and go get the baseball.

“I just am so proud of him in those roles. He can go hit .350 this year and I'll be more proud of him for what I've seen so far this year - just such a blue-collar mentality that he brings every day. I think Zack Prajzner is an unbelievable shortstop. I think as good of one in college baseball, I think people are going to see right here that we probably haven't missed a beat with Jack and I'm excited for him to really come on the scene.”

The footwork and ability to play the field are daily areas of focus for Penney as he’s seen firsthand how the smallest details can be the difference. 

“It’s something I work on almost every day,” stated Penney. “It’s something I’m aware of and it definitely helps to start with that awareness to know I need to work on things. My instincts are why I’m so good with my hands and feet. To know how to field a ground ball the right way. I see a lot of guys who are also talented with their hands, but they don’t necessarily take the right angle or strategy to field a ground ball to be in the best position to throw the runner out. 

“I’m more aware when I’m practicing of how to field that ground ball instead of trying to get it in my glove as quickly as possible. I’m trying to keep as much momentum as I can to first base and be the most productive to get one out for my team.” 

At the plate, Penney will look to find a little more consistency this spring after batting .241 a year ago. 

There is a great amount of confidence his average will take a big jump as he’s bought into the coaching from assistant Logan Robbins. 

Now, it’s not to say Penney wasn’t coachable a year ago, but Robbins’ approach to hitting was very different from what he experienced under Link Jarrett. 

“To be honest, what he’s been teaching and coaching us last year, a lot of it I had not heard before,” Penney said. “It took me a while to wrap my head around what he wanted me to do and how he wanted to get my swing stronger and balanced.” 

Penney fully embraced the changes from Robbins during the summer and quickly became sold. 

“I took what he told into my summer and it helped tremendously,” explained Penney. “There were a few things I focused on that he taught me. It was basically hitting with my butt behind me, getting started at hand break and having good extension at contact.

“I continued that this fall and it’s made a world difference in my swing. It’s been more consistent and I feel stronger without trying to swing as hard. His hitting philosophy is to never underestimate the value of one run. However, we can get one run in any inning, which is the biggest offensive goal we have.” 

A year ago, Notre Dame’s coaches and players were feeling each other out as everything was new. Penney staying in South Bend seemed like a massive win for Stiffler’s staff, but it was also never a question. 

“My initial commitment was based on where I wanted to go to school,” explained Penney. “It was boosted by the coaching staff Link had, but when they left and Stiffler came in, I knew I was staying because I chose to come to Notre Dame and play baseball as a bonus. I never want to leave this place. I love it here. It never crossed my mind to leave Notre Dame when the coaching change happened.” 

Notre Dame will get its season rolling Friday night at Rice as the Fighting Irish look to get back to the NCAA Tournament. And judging by the excitement at Frank Eck this week, Notre Dame will enter the weekend series motivated to start the season with a bang. 

“I’m super excited,” said Penney. “I’m happy we’re leaving on Thursday morning because I just want to get down there. I wish this season started last week because I think we were ready. We’ve been lucky enough to have good weather and we’ve been outside as much as possible. I feel like this team is really ready.” 

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