LOUISVILLE — Recruits are on campus; the players’ relatives are clamoring for tickets; the state high school baseball tournament is going on in Lexington, and Coach Dan McDonnell is busy preparing his Louisville Cardinals for Super Regional play this weekend against the upstart Kennesaw State Owls.
The No. 8-ranked Cardinals (48-15) and unranked Owls (40-22) start the best of three series tonight at 6:30 at Jim Patterson Stadium, with the winner moving on to Omaha for the College World Series, starting next week.
Game 2 of the Super Regional is set for 7 Saturday night. Game 3, if necessary, would be Sunday night at 6.
This is one of eight such tournaments around the country this weekend.
McDonnell smiled broadly Thursday when asked about the many potential distractions as his team is on the cusp of what would be an astonishing third appearance in the CWS.
Louisville played in the tournament in 2007 and 2013, losing out early in both cases.
“This is fun,” said McDonnell, who’s taken Louisville to the NCAA Tournament in seven of his eight seasons here. “We’ve talked to our kids about it: ‘Do we want to be one of the 16 teams having to deal with this, or would we rather not?’”
McDonnell then mentioned the obvious alternative.
“Exit meetings at the end of the year are never fun,” McDonnell said. “That’s a tough week, and you try to put that off. We’d much rather be in this world right now that we’re in, with the blender of everything going on. I try to get the message across to our coaches: enjoy this. You want everybody to enjoy this. This is a fun time of the year.”
The Cardinals appear to be doing just that, coming off a three-game breeze through a home regional, with wins over Kent State, Kansas and Kentucky.
Louisville’s pitching, defense and hitting came together last week as well as it has all season.
“We expected to be here,” said U of L senior outfielder/pitcher Cole Sturgeon. “We have built a good culture here under Coach Mac, and we set very high expectations for ourselves. I think that shows on the field.”
Kennesaw State, meanwhile, is quite a different story, playing Division I baseball only since 2006.
Coach Mike Sansing took over as baseball coach at the Atlanta-area university 23 years ago and made Kennesaw State a power — first in NAIA and then in NCAA Division II, leading the Owls to national titles at each level.
This is Kennesaw’s first trip to the NCAA Tournament.
Kennesaw stunned the field at a regional in Tallahassee, Fla., last weekend, beating Alabama twice — including 4-2 in the final on Monday — and Georgia Southern, after going into regional play as the No. 3 seed in a four-team field.
“This has put us on the map a little bit,” said sophomore pitcher Travis Bergen, the Owls’ ace on the mound with a 9-4 record and 2.39 earned run average. “We talked about it before we played Alabama that we were seeing on twitter that nobody even knew who we were or what state we are from. Maybe in Alabama, they might know who we are now.”
Adding to the bizarre rise of the Owls is the fact that Sansing’s team started the season 14-20, before turning it around and winning 26 of its final 28 games.
Kennesaw State boasts one of the top offenses in the country, led by senior catcher Max Pentecost, who was the 11th pick in the first round of the Major League Baseball Draft Thursday night (by Toronto).
Pentecost leads college baseball in hits this season with 110, while carrying a .423 batting average.
“He doesn’t have any holes in his swing,” Bergen said of Pentecost. “He sees the ball better than anybody I’ve ever seen. I think of him at the plate as something special.”
Ironically, Pentecost is good friends with Louisville senior star Jeff Gardner, a left fielder, who leads the Cardinals with 67 RBI, nine home runs and a .326 batting average.
Pentecost and Gardner played on the same team in the prestigious Cape Cod League this past summer.
“Jeff is a great athlete and a great guy ... a lot of fun to be around,” Pentecost said of Gardner. “We became friends real quick, and have kept in touch throughout this season. He texted me last week, and said you take care of your regional and we’ll take care of ours. And here we are.”
McDonnell said there’s zero chance his Cards will overlook the Owls, and Pentecost indicated McDonnell had better be right.
“Going into our regional, we knew that we were the underdogs,” Pentecost said. “But that’s just other people’s view. We know that we can play with anybody.”
TOURNAMENT NOTES: Tonight’s pitching matchup has Louisville sophomore Kyle Funkhouser (13-2, 1.68 ERA) vs. Kennesaw sophomore Jordan Hillyer (7-3, 3.55).
Bergen will start on the mound for the Owls Saturday night, vs. Louisville sophomore Anthony Kidston (8-0, 3.30).