(Photo of Dan McDonnell: Steven Branscombe/USA TODAY Sports)
LOUISVILLE, Ky. - After having their 2020 campaign cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Louisville baseball program is now a little over a week away from the start of the 2021 season.
With eight days until the Cardinals take the field against Bellarmine at Jim Patterson Stadium, head coach Dan McDonnell took some time to meet with the media. He discussed the long offseason, how he has dealt with a deeper than usual roster, COVID lessons from other sports, and more.
Below is the transcript from the press conference as well as the video:
(On how it feels that the season is just a little over a week away)
It's like Christmas. It's exciting. I felt for these guys last year, and they handled it very well. Those that went on to pro ball, so many that returned. We had a very productive fall and we're having a good spring training right now, so we just keep preaching prepare. Put your head down, stay focused, and the season's a week away. These guys are excited and ready to play somebody else.
(On how he will go about putting together a lineup with such a deep and versatile team)
Yeah, it's a good question. But I don't want to get ahead of myself. We've had some great lineups, and the reason they were great was because they produced, and they put up numbers. Potential, yes, this lineup has a chance to to produce and score runs. But it just takes guys finding their role, and doing what they can do to help line up. Hopefully, guys staying healthy, and you got to avoid the COVID bug. Being an older lineup, that's a big deal in college baseball. For us, an old lineup is juniors, and sophomores, because we lose (seniors). Now that you have those seniors, like Lucas Dunn, Cameron Masterman, Ben Bianco, Trey Leonard, yeah, we're not used to having that many seniors - fourth year guys in our lineup. Then all the juniors: (Levi) Usher, (Luke) Brown, (Alex) Binelas, (Tim) Borden, (Henry) Davis, you feel like they should - that they should be very productive. Then the challenge of being clear - hey guys, these are the 14/15 guys in the mix, this is how we've done it in the past. I show them the past classes, and how a lineup looks, and how many at bats certain guys get. They know going into the first three weeks of the season, our job is to give opportunities to those 13/14/15 guys who deserve an opportunity. It's a good challenge to have, and I think in a year like this, we'll need that depth as much as ever.
(On playing Bellarmine to start the season)
I think it's great for the city. You got two universities, Division I, in a great sports city, and I think it's fitting as they make the transition to Division I baseball - they get to play at the University of Louisville. I've known Larry (Owens) for, heck, 20 years. I got a lot of respect for him. I know Scott the AD, and obviously everybody knows Scotty D the basketball coach. We've been fans of Bellarmine, and I'll root for Bellarmine, every game, except the times that they're playing Louisville. I think it's fitting that they kick off Division I baseball in their backyard. I think it's great for the fan base, and I think it's great for college baseball.
(On replacing the pitching talent lost to the 2020 MLB Draft)
Well, what makes Roger, Roger, he's been doing this for 30 years. The one thing about Friday night starters, and weekend arms, and great closers is that you lose them and you turn them over. We can't sign them to a 10-year deal like we wish we could. So, that's part of it. That's part of putting together a pitching staff every year. Obviously, we all have trust in Roger Williams, and his ability to do that. I'm excited, because last year, the pitching staff got a little more love and the names were a little more recognizable than the offense. Then this year, the offense is probably a little more recognizable and getting a little more love. But, it's not like we're just running out a bunch of unknowns, or necessarily young guys, it's just that they're gonna fill different roles. So, when you look at the possible weekend starters of (Glenn) Albanese, (Michael) Kirian, and (Adam) Elliott - I say those three guys, because those three guys have traditionally been in our bullpen. Luke Smith is a familiar name, so everybody's familiar with that. (Michael) Prosecky got some midweek starts last year. Just like I said with the lineup, we'll take those first few weekends to give guys opportunities, and just let it shake out. That's one of the - I don't know if it's called crazy things about baseball, but it never goes the way you draw it up. Like it just - as long as I've been doing this - I mean we're close, and you'd like it to go the way you draw it up, but there's something about the lights being on, and guys getting hot, and just getting that momentum going. So, I'm excited and looking forward to, because there's a lot of competition on the mound, which is the best thing for amateurs, and to see how this thing all shakes out over the next month.
(On how player versatility helps him build the lineup)
Well, they've seen over the years - they saw Nick Solak, they saw Drew Ellis, they saw the value of - the more positions you play the more valuable you become. Because they see it in the big leagues. We call the Ben Zobrist, or now it's Kike Hernandez, you know, the guys that can play infield/outfield and. Lucas Dunn is so valuable, because there's not many guys in college baseball that can play shortstop and centerfield. He was a pitcher when he got here, he was a two-way guy. Now, I don't think he had as much success as he'll tell you he had success, but he did pitch that first fall. He is that talented. He's that athletic, and I know that's what pro ball loves about him. That's what USA Baseball loved about him, and why he made that team. Why the Cape Cod (League) loved him when he was up there. For a guy that's played second, third, and all three outfield spots, and was our centerfielder in 2019 when we were in Omaha, I think it's pretty cool that he's the opening day shortstop. We do have options in the middle, and he's genuine. I talked about this when he was deciding 'should he sign' or 'should he not sign'? I'm going over possibilities of this year, and I said, 'what position do you want to play?' thinking he's easily going to say, 'I want to be the shortstop', and there's nothing wrong with that. It's like pitchers saying I want to be the Friday night starter. He didn't say that. He genuinely said, 'Coach, I'll play wherever you need me to play'. It wasn't like, 'hey don't sign, come back this year, and you'll be the shortstop' to entice him. He was genuine. He's got a little bit of a SpongeBob mentality, where he just smiles a lot. He seems very happy. I don't think - I mean if I put them in right field in the starting lineup, I don't think he bat an eye. I think he'd smile that his name's in the lineup, and he run out there and play right field.
(On taking notes from other sports on how to handle COVID)
Yeah, I mean the bummer was: we were in the middle of a storm last year as a spring sport. The positive of that is, now we've gotten to be kind of the third season, and learn from the fall sports, learn from the winter sports, and we should have the advantage. Our medical team, our trainer Pat Hassel, he works hard, trainers work hard. They're here when it's dark, and they leave when it's dark, and treatment goes early in the morning before class and after practice. But this has been unbelievable what our medical staff has done. We're just constantly - ears and eyes are open, 'hey, what do we need to do?'. It's amazing, from how to feed the kids - I mean the check in with one thing. Check in, get to the field, the showers - when do guys showers, and we learned all that in the fall. But as we're about the start of season it's like: where do we sit for pregame meals, and how do we do scouting reports, and what happens when we get on a bus, and who should room with who in the hotel. It's so much. We should have the advantage, not that we'll be perfect, but we definitely learned from the fall and winter sports.
(On if he relieved knowing that even though there will be bumps in the road, that they will have a season)
I'm optimistic. I can never say never, right? But we're definitely optimistic. I'm using other sports, I'm using other successful teams - 'Hey, they did it'. I've used our women's hoops team a lot with this group, because they're doing it right now. Not that the men aren't doing it either, but obviously the women - just you know getting to that number one ranking, and getting game times moved, and having a game start with players not on the bench. I've been so impressed with how well they've handled it. We're learning, and there's hope, and we're optimistic, and we're excited knowing that, I don't think it'll be perfect, but we should be able to handle it. I'll divulge this secret: the quote on the practice schedule today is "we eat obstacles for breakfast". That's the mindset. You got to be able to handle the curveballs of life, as I always say, and I'd be shocked if this group is not ready to handle that.
(On the plan for fans this year at games)
I keep answering the question this way, and I hope I'm right. Just watching football and basketball, I know we we submitted our hopes, and you're hoping that if it's 20% or whatever it is, that we're hoping to have over 1000 fans. Maybe it's a little less, maybe it's a little more. I believe we're doing what we've done the past few years, which has really worked. That there's so many games with free admission, like the Bellarmine weekend and the non conference games on the front end. Then when conference play starts, we do need to have a season ticket. Not that you have to have a season ticket to get in the game, but I think the advantage will go to the season ticket holders just because, that's always been the fairest way to do it. It's gonna stink if fans get turned away from those gates, but I think it's inevitable it's gonna happen. We're just asking fans to take advantage of the free admission when you can, and then even for those if you have a season ticket, I hope there is a system where you could maybe let people know, let our people know you're not coming. Just so fans have an opportunity to see these kids play in person. Speaking of optimistic, who knows how this spring goes with the vaccinations, and being an outdoor sport and a low risk sport. Let's hope Let's hope our numbers might increase as the spring goes on.
(On the improvement he's seen from Luke Smith)
Luke was, you know, he had that great run in '19 in the postseason, and then he was a weekend starter. Not that he hasn't improved, you just hope he gets mature and he gets wiser. He's obviously got a ton of confidence in his ability, and I think everything will show. I'm more into the Albanese's, the Kirian's, the Elliott's, whose roles are, let's say possibly changing. It's fun watching those guys improve. Because, as you go from the bullpen to a starter, you can get away with being a very successful bullpen pitcher, honestly with one pitch. Be nice to have two, but at least one. As you become a starter, and you turn over lineups, two becomes three or three becomes four, the arsenal of pitches has to increase. That's what I've enjoyed seeing in the pitching staff. Luke is definitely the experienced leader of that group, and I think they're all learning from him. They're all trying to find their way. The one thing I love about pitchers, and I think Miller and Detmers is where this and a lot of a lot of great pitches we've had, the internal competition is very healthy. I could get five/six pitchers - I don't think I've mentioned Jack Perkins, there's probably a couple guys I haven't mentioned, I could get at least six pitchers who right now would say they want to be the Friday night starter. I think that's healthy, and that's okay. Coach Williams does a great job of, 'okay, Saturday is just as important as Friday, Sunday's just as important as Saturday, Tuesday is as important outside of a conference game'. I'm just looking forward to guys filling in a role, and getting outs. If we're supposed to be so good offensively, and hopefully pretty good defensively, then I'd like to think as a pitcher, you don't have to be perfect. Just run out there and compete, and give us a chance.
(On his motivational message this year)
In simple terms, preparation, has been the staple word. That was, as I learned from football and basketball and other programs, there is so much noise out there. There's so many distractions. We have a saying on the bottom of our shirt that hangs in the dugout that says, 'Don't look at the clowns'. Meaning don't get distracted. I don't want to hurt anybody's feelings, but there's a lot of people that fall in the category of clowns. Not literally, but meaning as a distraction. The message to these guys, when I say prepare or preparation, it's just put your head down and stay focused. Let our training staff do what they're doing behind the scenes, let Coach Mundorf and our coaches do what they're doing behind the scenes. Because there are so many logistical things happening right now. Just prepare. Just put your head down and prepare. We're about to unveil another message in terms of the difference between a lion and another animal, where the lion always eats. It's always hungry. We have to have a mentality this year, because you just don't know. You don't know, like last year when you can't play. You don't know when COVID is going to hit. We sort of learned a lot from last year, and the message is going to be always be hungry, always be ready to eat, and always be ready to play. Because more so than ever, I think we're playing on Mondays. I think we're playing on Thursdays before a weekend series, doubleheaders, I mean we've been doing that forever. We just got to have a mindset to one: always be prepared, and two: because of that preparation, be ready to eat and have that mindset.
(On the practice quote)
We always have a quote on the practice schedule every day. Whether we have a theme for the week, a theme for the month. Like we had Super Bowl week last week, so we had a bunch of Tom Brady quotes or Mahomes quotes, or legendary coach quotes, because I want guys to read the practice schedule. I want them to read the quote, think about it, we have a little fun with it. I call someone up at the end of practice: if you don't know the quote on the practice schedule, we got to take a little fun lap around the field. I always say the reason guys play baseball is because they hate to run. They don't like to run when they don't know the quote on the practice schedule. But we have staples. This week is called 'staple week'. This week, every quote on the practice schedule, because last week we had Super Bowl week or the last two weeks, are what we call 'oldies but goodies'. These guys have heard these for years: 'repetition is the mother of skill', 'organization is man's greatest asset'. Today is 'we eat obstacles for breakfast'. So, I'd be very shocked if they don't get the quote right today on the practice schedule, I'd be beyond disappointed.
(On the newcomers competing with an increased influx of older guys)
It's a good question, and we addressed it last weekend, and we'll address it again this weekend. It's usually like black and white. Okay, here are the 13 to 15/16 guys in the mix, and here are a few guys that are good players, but it's just hard to get you enough quality at bats or innings. Where we sort of have that right now, the reality is, because of COVID, it's like, 'We can't close the book on anybody'. Because, who's to say that we don't lose a player for a week or two, and a guy that I was maybe gonna hold out because of a depth chart, or maybe he just wasn't ready. Fortunately, now I feel like most of our young guys are ready to step in if we need them. So I think it's good and bad. I think the good is they've all got hope right now, and my job is to just keep them going and keep them ready. As I always say, the bus will pull up to your stop at some point. When we talk about preparation, you have to be ready to get on the bus. The worst thing as an athlete, is when the bus pulls up to your stop, and you weren't ready to get on it. Because you you felt sorry for yourself, you threw in the towel and woe is me. I'm not playing this year, they don't need me, I hadn't pitched in two weeks, I haven't gotten to bat in two weeks. I'd like to think now more than ever, we got to keep these guys going. That was my message to our coaches. There's something about making sure your All-Americans are ready to be All-Americans. I respect that. And I love coaching the backup player, like I've always liked that challenge. That's what keeps me up at night. If this guy rolls his ankle, who's playing that position? So, I enjoy coaching that guy and not over coaching the All-American. That's been my message to our coaches, is let's make sure we got everybody ready to step in and help us play.
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