Been there, done that doesn’t make it any easier for UofL Baseball

Here we go again.

College World series time again for the University of Louisville baseball program. Never gets old.

Five times in 13 years for UofL under Coach Dan McDonnell.  Could easily have been seven times, without some unpredictable outcomes against a couple of California programs.

Some are saying it is expected of UofL to make the CWS. I don’t know about that but it is always an amazing feeling when Louisville wins another Super Regional and becomes one of the select few.

Already one has heard some critcism on a couple of sports talk shows about UofL’s lack of success during the past four trips to Omaha. Two wins against eight losses is nothing about which to write home. But it’s no disgrace either. These are, after all, the best of the best teams year after year.

The ups and downs of college baseball are unpredictable. For example, UofL losing both games, going home early from the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament. UofL losing to Iowa State in the second game of the Louisville Regional, then winning four straight to host the Super Regional. UofL literally beating the crap out of 10th-ranked East Carolina.

As always the CWS presents some major hurdles, with UofL facing second-ranked Vanderbilt in the first game. Vandy has a lineup that includes some of the most effective pitchers and best hitters in the nation. UofL lost the regular season game by a score of 6-2. 

The really discouraging part about the loss was the score was tied 2-2 going into the eighth inning. UofL employed both of its ace relievers — Michael Kirian in the eighth and Michael McAvene in the ninth. Each of them facing only two batters,  each of them giving two hits and two runs. Not cool at all.

But baseball being baseball, it is difficult to use one game or even a series of games from the past for predicting the future. Some of the most intimidating teams are often eliminated early in the College World Series, with the likes of Virginia and Coastal Carolina having prevailed in recent years. 

McDonnell has said it usually  comes down to the teams that are playing the best at the time. UofL has been there often enough now to avoid all the distractions in Omaha.

A business trip, time to focus on good baseball.

Tough times make for better Louisville baseball in post-season play

By Ed Peak

There are certain things I know about this University of Louisville baseball team. I know it is not coach Dan McDonnell’s best or most talented in his 13 seasons. This Cardinal team has had more than its share of ups and downs.

There was so much drama in Monday's game I had to turn my radio broadcast off at work.

Getting just four hits and scoring two runs in two Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament losses last week clearly signaled a red flag. After a sluggish win Friday over UIC in the first NCAA Tournament game, Illinois State beat the Cardinals to send the No. 7 overall seed into the losers bracket. They would hang on for a two-run win over Indiana on Sunday.

UofL lost top reliever Michael McAvene to an ejection with two outs in the ninth inning against IU when he questioned umpire Ken Langford’s call of a pitch. He did not get a warning, he got ejected. Umpires sometimes overreact. Players sometime overreact. He will sit out three more games. That’s the rule, fair or not.

Dan McDonnell has had plenty of success but says it has never come easily.

There was so much drama in Monday’s game I had to turn the radio broadcast off at work. When Louisville went up 3-1, I thought this might be in the bag. But a line drive mishandled by Trey Leonard in centerfield was deemed a three base error. The next batter singled and the game was tied 3-3. Nothing came easy in the Regional.

“It shouldn’t come easy,” said McDonnell. “All of these teams have done something that has gotten them here. I talk all the time about toughness. Everything in life isn’t going to be easy, go the way you think it should. The same on the baseball field.”

The thing that impresses me most about this team is its mental toughness. It is team-first driven. These players seem to really care for each other. A lot of that had to do with McDonnell and the way he coaches and the kind of person he is.

When was the last time you heard a Louisville player in trouble off the field or discipline for an off the field problem. Never. Athletes and coaches a like have egos. Bigger than most people. They are sure of their abilities beyond belief sometimes. 

What also impresses me is the Louisville players are classy, short on ego.  No, they aren’t perfect and they’re not choir boys. Just look at some of  players that have gone to play professionally. A long list, including Brenden McKay, Will Smith, Drew Ellis, Zack Burdi, Corey Ray, Nick Solak, Chris Dominguez. I’m sure I’ve left some names out but the list is impressive.

Toughness and class abound in the McDonnell’s baseball program, and UofL will continue to reap the benefits in post-season play.

McDonnell trusting Bennett to get Louisville baseball off to good start

There’s Dan McDonnell again, presiding over still another NCAA Regional press conference at Jim Patterson Stadium. The eighth hosted by the baseball program in the coach’s 13-year tenure at the University of Louisville.

Then, of course, there are those five Super Regionals and those four trips to the College World Series in Omaha. Probably more to come in the not-too-distant future. But still a relief to see UofL  back in the picture after a year’s absence of not hosting a Regional.

“I don’t want ever to take success for granted,” he said. “It’s not as easy as maybe people think it looks. Lot of great players, great coaches and great support staff. I want a lot of people to feel a sense of pride in what has been accomplished. ”

The early exit from the Atlantic Coast Conference, with two lifeless losses, providing a painful reminder of how quickly things can go sour in baseball, especially against good pitching. The middle of the lineup nowhere to be found on the bases during those two games.

“We ran into two really good pitchers,” said McDonnell. “We didn’t play particularly great. Offensively, it’s nice to be home and get back to a routine.   We feel really good. We wouldn’t be in this position if our offense hadn’t produced this year.”

Nick Bennett, with a 6-3 won-lost record, will start the first game Friday at 6 p.m. against Illinois Chicago. McDonnell still feels comfortable with Bennett despite some shaky starts lately.

“We’re confident Nick is going to give us six, seven or eight innings. He has given us some really good starts this season. We have a lot of faith in him.”

The vote of confidence coming from a coach who has been there many times. 

McDonnell, Tyra share high expectations for Louisville baseball

No last minute pitches unnecessary when one of the game’s traditional powers came calling. Dan McDonnell and Vince Tyra have been discussing the future of University of Louisville baseball for quite a while now. 

“I’ve enjoyed our conversations about the program and a relationship we’ve developed going back to when Dan first arrived in Louisville, and certainly over the last eight months,” said Tyra at a joint press conference Thursday.

Dan McDonnell reflects on past season, looks to future with Louisville baseball (Charlie Springer photos).

“That relationship has made the last few days it very comfortable for us to talk openly about what we would like to see for the Louisville program.”

McDonnell told fans Wednesday that he had talked with John Cohen at Mississippi State about the job but he wanted to remain at Louisville. 

A grateful Tyra said UofL wants to provide a great atmosphere for players, as much as facilities and more seats. “We’re exactly on the same page … We want to make sure we’re together with Dan for a long time, and that this is where he is going to stay. I’m going to do every thing in my power to keep him here and keep producing the kind of kids and winning teams we’ve had.”

He added that he has kept new UofL President Neeli Bendapudi informed about discussions. “She has been terrific,” he said. “Neeli has been hand in hand with both of us, and she has been supportive of someone who represents what we want this program and this university to be.”

When we get to Omaha, I want them to say, 'There's Louisville again.'  There's the bird with teeth, and there's their fans ...

McDonnell has received Tyra’s support for a new pro locker room addition to Jim Patterson Stadium to accommodate former UofL players now in professional baseball. There are approximately 30 of them now, many returning during the off season to study and to hone their athletic skills.

“Louisville is like a second home to them,” said McDonnell. “We want to provide a comfortable environment for them. We enjoy having them around in the locker room but it’s getting a little crowded with so many professional players now. They need to have their own facility.”

Tyra said he hoped a Request for Proposals could be submitted within the next 60 days, and indicated that the project could funded by a combination of private donations, athletic funds and the Dugout Club, a fan support group.

McDonnell said expectations for UofL baseball are at an all-time high. “The fans expect it, the media expects it, and I want college baseball to expect it. I want them to expect Louisville to be in a regional, hosting a regional, in a super regional. When we get to Omaha, I want them to say, ‘There’s Louisville again.’  There’s the bird with teeth, and there’s their fans and they’re a regular. We want to be knocking on the door to Omaha every year.”

Pretty obvious that Tyra and McDonnell have much in common with their aspirations for the program. 

Mississippi State rears its head again, threat to Louisville baseball

Dan McDonnell has transformed the baseball program during his 12 seasons at the University of Louisville (Charlie Springer photo).

Always something.

During an academic calendar year when Mississippi State teams brought abrupt ends to numerous University of Louisville athletic teams, one is not shocked that the same school is believed to be pursuing UofL’s baseball coach. This one may not end well either.

Louisville fans learned the hard way to not take Mississippi State lightly. Losses to the Bulldogs downed the football team in the TaxSlayer Bowl, the men’s basketball season in the NIT, the women’s basketball season in the Final Four, and the men’s tennis team in NCAA play.

Artist rendering of 13,000-capacity Mississippi State baseball facility.

The latest clash between the two schools is the most serious challenge yet. Dan McDonnell is among the best college baseball coaches in the country. He has guided UofL to four College World Series appearances, 11 appearances in the NCAA tournament and a school record 554 wins against only 222 losses in 12 seasons.

Mississippi State, however, has been serious about college baseball for much longer, compiling a program resume that could intimidate even the most serious UofL baseball fan. The Bulldogs have been to the College World Series nine times, participated in 33 NCAA regionals, won the SEC regular season 11 times, and the SEC tournament seven times. Their best finish in the CWS was second in 2013.

Mississippi State plays in a newly-renovated 13,000-seat Polk-Dement Stadium in Starkville, a facility that rivals many minor league baseball parks. The Bulldogs average more than 10,000 spectators per game. Their largest crowd ever was 15,586 for a game against arch-rival Mississippi in 2014.

With that kind of success come come sky high fan expectations. Mississippi State Athletic Director John Cohen has been looking for a new coach since the beginning of the season when Coach Andy Cannizaro was fired for an alleged affair with an athletic department employee.

Still looking for a new leader even tough the interim coach , Gary Henderson, formerly at Kentucky, wrapped up a championship in the NCAA Regional at Tallahassee on Monday. It’s possible Mississippi State will host Vanderbilt in a Super Regional next week. Cohen is probably still in the hunt despite the team’s recent success.

Dan McDonnell reportedly turned down overtures from Auburn baseball a few years ago, saying something to the effect that grass is not always greener somewhere else. McDonnell has built something special at Louisville and he knows it, exceeding the expectations he has set for the program on an ongoing basis.

Mississippi State is a whole different story, with a whole new level of pressures and assumptions, and a rowdy and demanding fan base   Whether that appeals to McDonnell wants remains to be seen, but he has always seemed happy at Louisville. The Bulldogs have a lot to offer, and no UofL baseball fan can relax for now.