By Derek Brightwell–
Three years ago, Louisville head coach Dan McDonnell sat in front of his team and told them that they would make the trip to Omaha the next three years. That may have seemed like a lofty goal to a young team then, but now the experienced Cards have a chance to make good on that prediction.
“We led the Cape Cod league in players that summer, with nine, and we knew we had a talented group coming back,” McDonnell said of what gave him the confidence for that prediction. “They’d been through some tough times early in their career and so we didn’t want to just get to Omaha, you’ve got to get to Omaha multiple times. We felt like now is an opportune time for our program to not only get to Omaha, but get there three years in a row.”
“This year we’ve got a great opportunity to do it. It’s kind of crazy to see how far this program has come and what we can accomplish this year,” senior captain Sutton Whiting said.
“I wouldn’t have come to a program where the goal wasn’t to win a National Championship or get to Omaha,” junior pitcher and captain Anthony Kidston added. “So, realistically, obviously it’s every kid’s dream to go there, and when a coach comes in and challenges you to go there three years in a row when you’ve only been once in the program’s history – did we believe it? Yeah, but at the same time we knew it would take some luck and we’ve been fortunate so far.”
The University of Louisville has made the NCAA College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska three times in program history. The first was in 2007, McDonnell’s first year with the program, and the other two were the last two years.
Now, heading into the Atlantic Coast Conference, entering the season ranked seventh and armed with a deep and talented pitching staff, the aim for the Cardinals is no longer making it to Omaha: it’s winning it all.
“Losing in Omaha is better than losing in a regional or super regional, but losing is still in that equation. It’ll be nice to end the season in a dog pile,” McDonnell said. “We’ve had 14 dog piles in our eight seasons; it’s something we take pride in, but I’d like to see one end our season.”
Louisville will enter this season without seven players who were drafted in the 2014 MLB First-Year Player Draft. The most notable of those was second-round selection and closing pitcher Nick Burdi. Senior captain Zach Lucas was selected in the 29th round of the draft, but chose to come back to play out his final year for the Cards.
“I really just wanted to come back and win a national championship. I really just want to get back to Omaha and win the whole thing,” Lucas said.
In addition to the loss of players, McDonnell has had to welcome two new faces to the coaching staff as well. Eric Snider will take over the role of the hitting coach and will help with recruiting. Adam Vrable also joins the staff this year.
“We did a lot of research and homework to make sure we got the right people,” McDonnell said of the new coaches. “We had such a good thing going here. We wanted two guys to come in here and run the offense, work with the hitters and get these guys to perform at a high level. Also, from a defensive standpoint, they’re very versatile. These guys can coach just about any position on the field, if need be.”
Snider, in particular, was a key addition because of his relationship with some of the players on the team, having previously coached at Illinois.
“When you look at the landscape of our roster, its Kentucky guys right on up through the Midwest,” McDonnell commented on the relationship between Snider and the current roster. “We’ve actually had many recruiting battles with him over the years at Illinois. He was personally familiar with a lot of the kids in the program, already having recruited them out of high school.”
In their first season, in the tough ACC, Louisville is projected to finish second in the Atlantic Division, behind a Florida State team that has finished atop the division eight years in a row. The change of conference for the Cards will be both challenging and exciting.
“It’s going to be a blast. It’s going to be a dogfight every weekend. We know that,” Whiting said of the conference. “We’ve got to show up every game and be ready to compete, because any team can beat you in this league.”
“Obviously we know that Florida State’s good, Clemson, pretty much every team we play is going to be good. So, we’ve got to bring our A-game every day to compete in the ACC,” Lucas added.
However, the Cards, who have played in three conferences in as many years, are keeping their focus off the conference as a whole.
“Obviously, everyone’s aware of the new conference; but as I always make sure our guys know, we respect everybody in college baseball,” McDonnell said. “I think now, college baseball is at an all-time high when you talk about parity. The teams that have advanced in the regionals, super regionals and Omaha, you can’t look past anybody.”
“At the end of the day, the ACC gets the credit it deserves because it’s a prestigious conference, but I don’t think this program has ever been consumed by what conference we’re in,” Kidston added. “It’s more about doing what we do and playing to our strengths.”
Photo by Austin Lassell / The Louisville Cardinal