LOUISVILLE — Two years ago, despite six massively successful seasons, Dan McDonnell felt his University of Louisville baseball program was approaching a crossroads.
McDonnell’s teams had averaged 43 wins in his first six years at Louisville, including a College World Series appearance in his first season, 2007. Still, McDonnell felt something was missing.
So shortly after Louisville was ripped by eventual national champion Arizona, 16-3, in the final of the Arizona Regional in 2012, McDonnell paid a visit to nine of his returning stars, who were all playing that summer in the prestigious Cape Cod League.
“I sat down with that group, and I challenged them,” McDonnell said. “I said, ‘We’re close, (but) we have to get over the hump. We have to be better than an Arizona, and with our maturity and our experience, we should be.”
McDonnell told his Cardinals that they should be among the CWS contenders year after year.
“‘Let’s not be a program that gets to Omaha (site of the CWS) once every five or 10 years,’” McDonnell said. “‘Let’s be a Florida, let’s be a South Carolina. Those are two schools that went to Omaha three years in a row. And I believe you can do that.'"
McDonnell’s players took his message to heart.
Louisville came back in 2013 to finish 51-14 and return to the College World Series, going 0-2 in Omaha, with losses to Indiana (2-0) and Oregon State (11-4).
And this past weekend, the Cardinals swept two Super Regional games at home against Kennesaw State — 5-3 Friday and 7-4 Saturday — to earn a second straight CWS berth.
All this for a Louisville baseball program that had never even won an NCAA regional tournament game before McDonnell came on board eight years ago.
Vandy is next
Louisville takes a 50-15 record into a CWS matchup against Vanderbilt Saturday at 8 p.m. in the eight-team event. The tournament starts Saturday and runs through June 25.
This year’s Louisville team appears to have the numbers, if not the experience, to make its strongest run yet at a national championship.
The Cardinals have a team batting average of .287, with six regulars who have been over .300 much of this season.
The offense is led by freshman designated hitter Nick Solak at .367, senior centerfielder/pitcher Cole Sturgeon at .331 and senior leftfielder Jeff Gardner .321.
Solak has especially been red-hot of late. His two-run home run in the top of the fifth inning gave Louisville a 5-4 lead and control in Saturday night’s Super Regional clincher over Kennesaw.
Louisville’s pitching staff lost its top three starters from a year ago but may be the strength of this year’s team, with an earned run average of 2.78.
Sophomore right-hander Kyle Funkhouser, arguably, leads the U of L starters with a 13.2 record and 1.73 ERA.
Junior right-hander Jared Ruxer (7-1, 2.27 ERA) and sophomore right hander Anthony Kidston (9-0, 354 ERA) are also solid starters.
Junior Nick Burdi is lights-out in relief, with 18 saves and a jaw-dropping fastball and an ERA of 0.51.
Burdi was taken 46th overall by the Minnesota Twins in the Major League Baseball draft this weekend.
The Cardinals are plenty good behind their pitchers, too, with a fielding percentage of .971.
Kennesaw State star Max Pentecost said the Cardinals benefit mightily from superior athleticism throughout the lineup.
“They are just really an athletic team,” said Pentecost, the No. 11 overall pick in this past week’s Major League Baseball Draft. “One through nine, they can all bunt, they can all hit the gap, and they make the plays defensively.”
Still, McDonnell hints that the Cardinals’ hopes for a CWS title may depend less on any one number or overall athleticism and more on their collective emotions this time around.
In 2007, his team had to be starry eyed in their CWS debut, while last spring they were emotionally drained after upsetting No. 1 Vanderbilt in a Nashville Super Regional.
“Last year it was such an emotional win in Nashville against, arguably, the best team in the country at the time,” McDonnell said. “I mean, I was drained by the time we got back to Louisville. We went to Omaha to win the national championship, but I just thought we were mentally a little fatigued.
“This group,” he added, ‘’seems a little more prepared to turn the page and get right back to business.”
Gardner, an eighth-round round draft pick of the Washington Nationals, emphatically agrees with McDonnell.
“Not to say there wasn’t emotion involved here, but I think the attitude this time is a little bit different than it was last year, and that’s one of we’re going there (Omaha) to take care of business,” said Gardner, one of five senior anchors on the team, along with Sturgeon, infielder Alex Chittenden and catchers Kyle Gibson and Shane Crain.
“I think we’re all better,” McDonnell said. “I think we as coaches feel more comfortable. You can’t beat yourself up because there are going to be eight great teams in Omaha, and two of them are going to go 0-2 and two others will be 1-2, but you try to learn from your experiences there and grow and hopefully do a better job.
“We have to take advantage of the opportunity we have,” McDonnell added. “We have to take advantage of being more comfortable and learning from last year.”