When Dan McDonnell inherited the Louisville baseball program in 2007, the Cardinals had been to the NCAA Tournament just once and had never tasted victory in the summer version of the big dance. Since then, UofL has missed the NCAA Tournament only once, hosted five NCAA Tournament regionals and been to the College World Series three times.
â€œThe ultimate goal is to win a national championship,â€ McDonnell said at UofL baseballâ€™s media day last week. â€œWeâ€™ve put it out there. You have to say it, you have to see it and you have to believe it. It doesnâ€™t guarantee that youâ€™re going to get to the top of the mountain, but weâ€™ve come to realize the only way youâ€™re going to get there is to do those things.â€
This isnâ€™t just wishful thinking or preseason bravado. With all due respect to the teams coached by Bobby Petrino, Rick Pitino, Jeff Walz and Ken Lolla, none of them had or have as much of a shot at winning a national championship as McDonnellâ€™s squad does.
A season ago, Louisville set an ACC record for conference victories (25), tied a program record for both wins (47) and final national ranking (No. 6), and were the No. 3 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament. Returning the lionâ€™s share of contributors from that team meant that McDonnell wasnâ€™t the only one this offseason saying that the goal for this Cardinal squad should be nothing less than achieving the sportâ€™s top prize.
Kyle Funkhouser is entering his third season as Louisvilleâ€™s No. 1 starting pitcher. He ranks second on UofLâ€™s all-time list and stunned much of the college baseball world when he chose to return to school after being selected by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the first round of last summerâ€™s MLB Draft. Heâ€™s followed in the rotation by Brendan McKay, the reigning national Freshman of the Year and the John Olerud Award recipient as the nationâ€™s best two-way player. A season ago, the former blue chip prospect posted the best statistics of any of the Louisville pitchers (9-3, 1.77 ERA) while also batting cleanup and playing first base for the Cards.
McKay wonâ€™t be draft eligible until 2017, but a pair of his teammates have the potential to be very rich men a few months from now. Junior outfielder Corey Ray (.325, 11 home runs, 56 RBIs, 34 steals in 2015) is listed by some MLB scouts as the top position player prospect in all of college baseball. The Chicago native started his third season as a Cardinal by earning ACC Player of the Week honors after going 6-for-9 at the plate with two home runs, seven RBI, nine runs scored and 6-for-6 on stolen bases on opening weekend. Funkhouser and Ray are joined in mock drafts all over the Internet by closer Zack Burdi, who like his older brother, Nick, regularly hits triple digits with his fastball.
Burdi, who finished last season with nine saves and a 0.92 ERA, was asked on Louisvilleâ€™s media day what one thing he would change about his team to make them even more likely to end their season in Omaha at the College World Series.
â€œIâ€™ll be honest,â€ Burdi said. â€œIâ€™m not saying weâ€™re a perfect team, but from the inside out, we have everything we need to accomplish our goal of a national championship. The only team thatâ€™s going to beat us this year is ourselves. I wouldnâ€™t change anything.â€
Louisville outscored SIU Edwardsville 43-5 and won each game of a three-game series by at least nine runs for the first time in program history. Additionally, a whopping 3,116 fans walked through the gates of Jim Patterson Stadium last Friday, the largest crowd ever to see a UofL baseball opener.
Some of the reason for the larger-than-usual February baseball crowd had to do with the unseasonably warm weather, but it would be foolish to think that was the only reason.
This hasnâ€™t exactly been the easiest athletic season for die-hard Cardinal fans. The football team began their season 0-3, and the menâ€™s basketball team is about to experience life without a postseason of any sort for the first time since 1965.
If, in fact, â€œallâ€™s well that endâ€™s well,â€ Card Nation might wind up very thankful that McDonnell and his team are serving as the anchor for 2015-16. VT
Photos by Bill Wine