Nick Solak powers Louisville baseball to Super Regional

Nick Solak doesn’t hit many homers but when he does they are worth savoring.

The University of Louisville baseball team is headed back to its fourth consecutive Super Regional this weekend, thanks largely to Solak’s fifth home run of the season — a two-run blast in the fourth inning.

Providing the margin of victory in a 3-1 win over Wright State. He would, in fact, drive in all three of UofL’s runs in the Regional Final in front of 4,295 fans at Jim Patterson Stadium.

A couple of seasons ago, remember, Solak was the guy with the two-run home run that lifted UofL past Kennesaw State and into the College World Series for a second consecutive season.

Drew Harrington was back to his old self again.
Drew Harrington was back to his old self again. Photo by Cindy Rice Shelton.

Left hander Drew Harrington badly needed a good game and he got it. After being chased from the mound in his last outing, he was back to his ACC Pitcher of the Year form. He would pitch into the eighth inning, strike out five batters, allow only five hits, and earn his 12th win against two losses.

Nice game for Will Smith, too, collecting three hits, scoring a run on Solak’s decisive four-bagger.

And another Dan McDonnell team is back in the Super Regionals. That would be six of them, starting in 2007.

Super Regional opponents will be announced Tuesday but Louisville is a lock and UofL is already selling tickets. At a fast pace. As of early Sunday evening, only tickets on the berm were available.

Photos by Cindy Rice Shelton and Charlie Springer:

Nick Solak returns just in time for Louisville baseball

Nick Solak is back.

The All-American and team captain is back in the University of Louisville baseball team’s lineup after missing 18 games. An eternity in college baseball, especially when the player in question is the team’s most prolific hitter. He was batting .461 when he suffered a hand injury on March 26 against Virginia.

Solak says he is feeling no pain in his hand. “Just kind of picking up where I left off and getting on base, scoring runs, playing good defense, being a leader in the infield and on the team – if I stick to that I think I can help the team win,” he told the Courier-Journal.

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Solak seals win in opener, Louisville takes Notre Dame twice

Gotta love those welcome home committees at home plate.

Bottom of the 11th inning, two outs remaining, Louisville trailing Notre Dame by a run, the first game of a doubleheader at Jim Patterson Stadium. Runs hard to come by, UofL hasn’t led all day. Now or never.

Stepping up to the plate for UofL is Nick Solak, the player with the Hollywood looks, the player born for these kind of situations,  with a runner on first base. He will not disappoint, blasting the baseball into outer space, a 380-foot drive easily clearing the 2007 College World Series sign in left centerfield.

Nick Solak sends one into orbit.
Nick Solak sends one into orbit.

The two-run home run capping a third come-from-behind effort in the game, giving Louisville a dramatic 4-3 win before 2,288 fans at Jim Patterson field.  His third hit in the game, extending his hitting streak to 11 games. Zack Burdi having shut down Notre Dame with a runner on third in the top of the 11th, claiming his first win in relief.

Especially encouraging is Kyle Funkhouser, the starting pitcher, going eight full innings, allowing only one run on three hits. The senior right hander has now pitched 311 innings, the most ever for a UofL pitcher, surpassing Mike Shields during three seasons in the late seventies.

UofL will win the nightcap 8-2 behind left handed pitcher Brendan McKay, striking out 13 batters, allowing only three hits in six and two-thirds innings. He’s off to a 4-0 start and hasn’t allowed an earned run yet. The sophomore also had two hits, including a double, while driving in two runs. Solak also had a couple of hits in the second game, raising his hitting streak to 12 games.

The defending ACC champs are off to a 2-0 start in conference play, with a 12-2 overall record.

McDonnell vowed Louisville baseball will be back

Corey Ray, an All America outfielder who batted 325 last season, returns for his junior year.
Corey Ray, an All America outfielder who batted 325 last season, returns for his junior year.

Tears were flowing down his cheeks the last time we saw Dan McDonnell. As disappointed as we’ve ever seen him, struggling to regain his composure, one game short of a fourth trip to the College World Series.

His University of Louisville baseball team had just lost a 4-3 heartbreaker to Cal State in the 11th inning of the Super Regional. He was shocked and dejected for his players, but promising UofL fans through the tears, “We’ll be back.”

Won’t be long now. The college baseball season begins in a little over a month, with Louisville opening the 2016 season against Southern Illinois-Edwardsville on February 19th. Gets earlier every year, it seems, despite wintery conditions.

Louisville will enter the season having been picked No. 2 in the nation in three different rating services — Perfect Game, D1 and Collegiate Baseball — and with four players named first-team Louisville Slugger Preseason All-Americans by Collegiate Baseball newspaper. They are junior pitcher  Zack Burdi, senior pitcher Kyle Funkhouser, sophomore pitcher/first baseman Brendan McKay and junior outfielder Corey Ray. Junior infielder Nick Solak was named to the third team.

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Cole Sturgeon lightens up post-game press conferences

Cole Sturgeon (center) can't contain himself during a post-game press conference with Nick Solak and Zach Lucas.
Cole Sturgeon (center) can’t contain himself during a post-game press conference with Nick Solak and Zach Lucas.

Cole Sturgeon often has a tough time keeping a straight face during some post-game press conferences, as was obvious after the Super Regional championship win over Kennesaw State.

The question to freshman Zach Lucas is innocent enough. “Zach, you’ve been hitting the ball pretty well the past couple of weeks. What’s been the difference?”

“Yeah, well, I made a couple of adjustments,” he says. “I’m starting to see the ball well.”

Cole Sturgeon

Then he adds, “Uh, I’m just happy to be playing.”

With that answer, a smiling Sturgeon is unable to contain his laughter, covering his eyes with his hands, lowering his head face down on the table.

The writers and broadcasters asking simple questions, wanting quotable stuff. The players, knowing most plays are instinctive, not quite believing some of the questions, knowing they have to say something, wanting to be responsive but coherent. They haven’t thought much about what it’s happening, they’re just happy to be winning.

While Sturgeon is often amused by the give and take with the media, he is one of the obvious leaders on this team. As a captain who has earned the respect of his teammates while able to add levity off the field.

“We expected to be here,” he says. “We have built a good culture here under Coach Mac, and we set very high expectations for ourselves. I think that shows on the field.”

Center field is in good hands with the six-foot, 180-pound senior from Owensboro Catholic, as was evident when his throw cut down a University of Kentucky runner at the plate during the Regional championship.

Sturgeon has been consistent all season long, departing for Omaha hitting .331 with 86 hits while collecting 25 walks and a team-leading 28 runs. He has 11 hits in his last 23 at bats. A left handed pitcher as well, Sturgeon also had a 2.06 ERA in 24 pitching appearances, notching 35 strikeouts in 34 innings.

“Whatever the team needs to me do, this is my last go round, I just want to help the team anyway I can whether it’s hitting, defense or on the mound,” he says.

If UofL continues to win, he will keep having fun during those post-game press conferences.