Talented Cards Quietly Continue Quest

November 12, 2010

The first installment of Inside the Webb heads down to Louisville where off a school-record 50 wins and national-seed season, the Cardinals are aiming to soar even high in 2011.

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Don’t feel bad for Dan McDonnell and his Louisville Cardinals.

Assuming that is you’re thinking about them in the first place.

A program that has a recent Omaha trip (2007), continuously is ranked in the top 15 in the nation, has a choke-hold on its conference, recruits with the best in the nation, and is coming off of a National Seed, is perhaps somehow flying under the radar.

But that may very well be the case with Louisville as news during the offseason has revolved around a big coaching change at Notre Dame, and a star-studded Connecticut team.

“We live in our own world,” said McDonnell now in his fifth season as head coach.

In Louisville that world is a pretty darn good place to be in.

To say the 2010 season did not end as envisioned for Louisville is an understatement. As the No. 7 National Seed in the NCAA Tournament, big things were expected from the Cardinal as McDonnell’s veteran-squad was expected to head to the College World Series for the second time in program history, the second time in just five years.

However a heartbreaking Regional in which Vanderbilt upset the host Cardinals in a back-to-back days to end the Louisville season at appeared to many to be the start of a tumultuous time.

Within one week of season’s end, Louisville, who finished 2010 with a 50-14 mark, would see 10 players drafted with four incoming freshman as well being tabbed by MLB clubs.

On top of that, assistant coach Chris Lemonis was one of four finalists for the vacant Ohio State head coaching position, while pitching Coach Roger Williams was being courted by National Champion South Carolina, for a vacancy on their staff.

Suddenly it appeared Louisville’s seat at the grown-up table with the elites of the college baseball world would be pushed to corner, forcing the Cardinals to rebuild and revamp their suddenly powerful program.

Well I’m sorry to inform the LSUs, Fullertons, and South Carolinas of college baseball, don’t push aside Louisville just yet.

Though the Cards were hit heavily by the draft, Stewart Ijames spurned a professional offer, as three of the four incoming freshman headlined by eighth-round selection Dace Kime.

Both Lemonis and Williams are back to their duties in the Bluegrass state digging in alongside McDonnell, and the program few are paying attention to is again back to work, trying to yet again move the bar higher, which with a young group has McDonnell excited and eager to dig in.

“There is a lot of respect from the previous classes did…but there is still a lot to accomplish,” said McDonnell.

What type of expectations are in Louisville?

“We want to win our first national championship, we have a high bar but we’re very hungry.”

It is true Connecticut has two elite prospects in pitcher Matt Barnes and outfielder George Springer. However McDonnell was quick to point out that he also can boast a roster with top talent as the Cape Cod League’s Top Prospect Award went to Cardinal closer Tony Zych. Fellow pitcher Derek Self had a good summer as well in the prestigious league, and second baseman Ryan Wright was a Team USA member alongside Springer. Those three along with Ijames show the cupboard is not bare.

Though it may be young in spots.

“A lot of experience left, and we had a big recruiting class, we’re going to be young, stated McDonnell. “But we’re excited about this freshman class, they’re talented.”

The excitement of the newcomers centers around Adam Engel, Kime, Alex Chittenden, Ty Young, and Kyle Gibson. Many are raving of the shortstop Engle and his athleticism, McDonnell said he broke all of the Cardinal’s physical fitness records upon entering Fall practice. Kime is going to be special according to his coaches, while Chittenden, in the infield, and Gibson, behind the plate, are both making pushes for insertion into the UoL lineup.

The infusion of youth will complement the veterans who may not have been everyday starters in the past, but have experience and are expected to perform. Prime example of that is in the outfield where a returning star is entrenched, with a player who not a starter in 2010, but has seen plenty of playing time.

“We’re going to be experienced in the outfield, two of the three spots will have veterans starting” eluded McDonnell.

A year ago Ijames hit .324 with 14 home runs and 63 RBI before being selected by the New York Yankees in the 29th round. The offensive prowess the second-team All-BIG East performer displayed, alongside Nate Holland who missed all of 2010 with a hip injury, but has 56 games under his collegiate belt, will heavily be depended upon.

Moving into the infield, like fellow classmates Ijames and Holland, junior Ryan Wright’s big bat is expected to lead the way. As second-team All-American, first-team all-conference selection, before being tabbed to the USA Baseball Collegiate National Team, Wright led the Cards in RBI with 80, was second on the team with a .366 average, second in home runs with 16, and stole 10 bases. Whether it is Chittenden or Engle who is his double-play partner, at second-base McDonnell has one he would trade for none.

Or Wright’s twin-killing partner could be a returning player looking to seize the moment. That prospect is not lost on McDonnell.

“Its going to be different than last year,” said McDonnell of a lineup that has question marks. “There is a chance for a lot of guys to step up and play, to have everyday roles. They see the opportunity in front of them.”

On the mound Louisville has the unique duty of replacing two All-Americans, yet still have an abundance or riches.

Louisville will need to replace their Friday night ace in Thomas Royse as well as closer Neil Holland. Those are big holes to fill, but showing the mark of a consistent contender, McDonnell has options.

The closer’s role will be the easier of the two tasks to fill as Zych has all but secured that spot, providing the Cardinals with the luxury of having a closer who can dial it up to 96.

How the weekend rotation will shake out is a completely different task, a chore that could ultimately determine the success of Louisville in 2011, as an emphasis on pitching and defense replaces a mindstate of hang ‘em and bang ‘em the offensively talented Cardinals have enjoyed the last few year.

McDonnell pointed to sophomores righties Justin Amlung and Matt Koch as two among five or six that are fighting for weekend innings.

“Last year as freshman we threw those two into the fire and they handled it well. Credit Williams as he gets them ready to compete.”

Competed, and competed well the two did. Amlung finished 5-2, with a 4.27 ERA and 55 strikeouts, in 65.1 innings over 20 games which included 10 starts. For Koch, his 2010 record was 3-0 as he recorded 31 strikeouts pitching in 11 games, maing six starts, compiling a 3.27 ERA in 44.1 innings.

When you add in Self’s 7-0, 4.52, 50-strikeout, 61.2 innings season, with a pair of sophomores returning after missing all of 2010 with injuries in RHP Mike Nastold (2-0, 3.52, 28 K, 32.1 IP in ’09) and LHP Keith Landers (1-0, 3.86, 10, 9.1), and the high ceiling of Kime, you begin to wonder is it wise to pencil in the Huskies as the Big East champ just like that?

While they know with just seven juniors, and four seniors, they’re not going to get the preseason love that was showered in years past, that they’ll need to prove it on the diamond first, that suites McDonnell fine. While it may take outsiders a bit longer in 2011 to take notice, those within Louisville’s world led by McDonnell are doing just fine.

“Expectations have changed here. I told the coaches following last season’s finish, that ‘if you’re in the thick of it, knocking on the door year after year, you’re going to have heartbreak’ you learn from it. It is good that our fans, administration, coach, and players were crushed. They expect postseason success, and we’re going to continue to make a great commitment here in college baseball.”

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