LOUISVILLE, Ky. - College baseball's first normal post-COVID regular season in now in the rear view mirror, and one of the most exciting times of the year is finally back: the postseason. Conference tournaments are now in full swing, and Selection Monday for the NCAA Tournament is just one week away.
For Louisville, deep postseason runs have become almost the norm over the last decade and a half. Since head coach Dan McDonnell arrived in 2007, the Cardinals have reached the College World Series five times, and have turned into one of the sport's powerhouses.
But for Louisville, postseason glory has been something they have been denied over the last couple seasons. COVID cancelled the 2020 season entirely, but in 2021, the Cards missed the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2011 after a disastrous saw them plummet to 28-22.
A lack of talent wasn't the reason that Louisville didn't get invited to the Big Dance. Seven players were selected in the 2021 MLB Draft, including Henry Davis getting selected with the No. 1 overall pick. Injuries and inconsistent play on the field did play a role, but the restrictions set in place with the onset of COVID played a huge role in disrupting overall team chemistry.
"For me, it was about the connection piece," McDonnell said. "One of the strengths of our program is the connection. COVID and the restrictions, it just took that away. Now, everybody had to deal with it, so I hate to like make it an excuse. But in our program, it's crucial. It's a staple of our program."
Because of that, Louisville made a concerted effort to the connect, get closer to one another, and build overall team camaraderie once COVID restrictions lifted. Developing as a player in summer ball and in the fall was obviously important, but the players made it a point to develop their bond.
It has made all the difference in the world. Louisville closed the regular season with an overall record of 38-16-1, and with a conference mark of 18-11-1, the Cardinals clinched the Atlantic Division for the fifth time over their seven years in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
"We were good last year, we just didn't know how to play together," junior catcher Dalton Rushing said, with senior infielder Ben Metzinger adding that their "bond has made us really special this year."
Louisville sports a team that is arguably one of the best hitting teams that McDonnell has ever fielded, ranking in the top 25 nationally in batting average (.306), on base percentage (.416), slugging percentage (.515), home runs (84), walks (303) and scoring (8.8). The pitching staff and their 5.23 ERA and 1.53 WHIP leaves a little to be desired, but the Cardinals are still very much a threat thanks to their prowess at the plate
While Louisville isn't perfect, they are absolutely a team that you cannot count out at any given moment. Unlike last year, the Cardinals have an extremely tough mental fortitude, and have come back in the late stages to win games on several occasions. Having to deal with at times wildly inclement weather, delays that come with it, numerous schedule changes, and a literal bomb threat will certainly test one's mettle, and Louisville has proven that they can handle adversity.
"What really opened my eyes was when a coach that I really respect, another Division I coach, told me what he saw from the outside looking in," McDonnell said. "When he tells you what he sees, and the impression he had of us, it was like 'wow, that's really cool.' He saw the toughness, he saw the the adversity that the school has been through, and he's like, 'Man, you guys just overcome everything'."
Now, Louisville turns their eyes to the postseason, starting with the ACC Baseball Championship. With an RPI ranking of ninth, the Cardinals find themselves fighting for a potential top eight seed in the NCAA Tournament instead of the right to play in it period. Given what his team has shown all season long, McDonnell believes his guys are ready for the emotional rollercoaster that is postseason baseball.
"I know their worst, but I know their best," he said. "I think very highly of this group, and they've earned it. They've earned the accolades and the attention they're getting. I told them I believe they're ready for the postseason, and we've we've done our part as coaches to prepare them for that, and they've done their part."
Louisville will kick off their ACC Baseball Championship run with a matchup against Pitt in pool play. First pitch against the Panthers is set for Wednesday, May 25 at 11:00 a.m. EST.
(Photo of Dan McDonnell, Louisville Players: Scott Utterback - Courier Journal / USA TODAY NETWORK)
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