By Noah Allison–
A perfect storm has amassed in Louisville’s Jim Patterson Stadium. An amalgamation of talent, experience and hunger for success has brought forth this year’s Louisville baseball squad, a squad that enters the season ranked second in the nation. Coach Dan McDonnell’s team has high expectations for this season after falling one game short of the College World Series last year.
For all the variables on this 38-man roster, no player could prove more valuable than Chicago native, junior outfielder, Corey Ray.
In Ray Louisville returns its most consistent and explosive offensive weapon of the 2014-15 campaign. A campaign in which Louisville baseball went 47-18 overall, 25-5 in the ACC and won its inaugural ACC season. Through last season, Ray led the Cards in almost every major batting statistic.
Starting all 65 games, Ray was first on the team in hits with 86, home runs with 11, runs-batted-in with 56 and triples with 5. He was tied for first in doubles with 15 and was second in runs with 46 on the season. Fellow junior Nick Solak was first with 47 runs. Ray had the highest slugging percentage on the team with .543 and also led the team with 34 stolen bases.
After a seemingly non-existent freshman season Ray’s sophomore campaign has helped thrust him into the forefront of draft talk and the University of Louisville into the forefront of National Championship talk.
“I’ve learned to have fun playing the game. Not to go out there and take it as a job or take it as something that I have to excel in,” Ray said. “You just go out and try to get better every day and have fun while you’re doing it.”
McDonnell is ecstatic about the leap Ray has taken in the short two years.
“I joked with him. ‘Last time this year Corey, nobody knew who you were man!’ But credit to Corey. Its something I’ve always said, you have to want to be great.
“Greatness is a desire that you have to have, and I mean a real burning desire. They all want to be good and they all want to be really good but not everybody wants to be great. I thought last year, Corey, his preparation, his focus, his consistency throughout the year all the way into team USA and the summer he had, I just remember going ‘man, he wants to be great.’”
To improve from his dominant sophomore campaign Ray played with the USA Baseball Collegiate National Team this summer.
“I’ve always been the type of guy to do things that the people in front of you that are successful have done. I think it was good to play around some of the best players in the country to see how they think out on the field, what their approach is and maybe adopt some type of that approach to help make me better. Help incorporate it into my preparation and game,” Ray said.
His dominant play carried over while competing with the nation’s best ball players. Ray hit .355 overall to rank second on the team. He led the team with 12 runs, seven doubles, 10 stolen bases, seven walks and a .548 slugging percentage. He played error-free baseball in 14 starts in the outfield. He also added a home run and five RBI’s.
For his offseason improvement and success from last year McDonnell is changing Ray’s spot in the batting rotation.
“I’m going to move him to lead off. I call it the high school philosophy, put your best player up first. That might hurt the feelings of the other 8 guys in the line up but they know that Corey is a super star. USA baseball did it in the summer and we tinkered with it a little bit in the fall and the spring,” McDonnell said.
“It allows him to get on base. Corey is a dynamic base stealer and it’d be nice for him to get on base with no outs sometimes. Lets pick the right time to run and give him some time. I’m looking forward to seeing him in that spot.”
McDonnell also raves about Ray’s clutch play and mental approach to the game. Stating that for all of his impressive numbers from last season they didn’t come in garbage time. All of his contributions were in meaningful times of the game.
“His home runs, his doubles and his RBI’s would always seem to come when the game was on the line, whether early or late. And I just thought that’s a great quality to have. That is trusting your ability, that’s locking in, focusing and I just notice it in his preparation game to game,” McDonnell said.
Ray and the rest of his Louisville Cardinal’s squad have unfinished business from last year. For the regular and post-season success of the past few seasons, the Cards know not to get caught up in the hype of preseason rankings. Louisville’s focus is game to game, knowing that they don’t want the season to end the way it did last year.
“It’s the beginning of the season. No matter how good people say we are, no matter how bad people think we are, it doesn’t matter. It has no bearing on where we will be at the end of the season,” Ray continues.
“I think for anybody losing the last game of the season is a disappointment. Whether it’s in the National Championship, a Super Regional in your own back yard or whether it’s in the first round of a series in Omaha, I think the goal is to win the last game of the season. I’ve lost in Omaha and it didn’t feel any worse than losing in the Super Regional.”
As a junior, upperclassmen and national sensation Ray is well versed in college baseball. For all of his success and the team’s success over his first two years, it doesn’t end there. For Ray, there has been too much left on the table and second best isn’t good enough.
“As a coach we challenge these kids to be great, at the end of the day you can give us some credit, but it comes down to what’s that gene inside of them,” McDonnell said.
“When they put their head on that pillow at night, what is it that they’re wanting to do? And Corey Ray, he’s worked to be great. It’s fun to watch.”