After winning their Super Regional on Saturday, Dan McDonnell had infielder Drew Ellis read the Lion Chaser’s Manifesto to the media audience.
The excerpt, pulled from Mark Batterson’s book Chasing the Lion, is the anthem that U of L baseball has lived by this season. The motto “Run Towards the Roar” is printed on the back of every t-shirt this year, with each passing victory. McDonnell uses similar excerpts of inspiration to convey a unifying message; that their journey will have a destination — paradise, even — if everyone comes together towards a common goal
Inspiration is not lost when the teams meet in what is called the “Omaha Room,” a small room decorated with panoramic shots of their three prior visits to Omaha. Louisville meets in here regularly, whether it’s for studying game plan or, as McDonnell put it, daydream by staring at the photos on the walls. It’s a room that provides two feelings; lofty ambition for those who aspire to be there at the season’s end, and heartbreak for those who see their path stopped at Louisville. Even Jim Patterson Stadium’s signage at the stadium entrance says the road goes through Louisville.
From the player’s perspective, only the seniors had tasted the experience of playing on college baseball’s biggest stage, taking the trip in 2014. McDonnell has taken three trips to Omaha as Louisville’s skipper, and one as a second baseman on The Citadel’s 1990 World Series team. For most on the team though, including stars Brendan McKay and Drew Ellis, they only experienced soul-crushing ways to watch their trip to Omaha go up in smoke.
Controversial game-winning home-run against a legitimate baseball powerhouse? It happened. U of L had opportunities to close it out in extra innings, but was caught trying to steal second to end their season.
Blowing a 3-0 lead in the bottom of the ninth with your star closer at the mound, via walk-off grand slam from a pinch hitting true freshman? It’s hard to imagine a more crushing defeat than that, especially considering last season had arguably the most talent-loaded roster in Louisville baseball history.
“I give them a lot of credit,” McDonnell said. “(They had) no self-pity. We met in this room 24 hours after losing in the Supers. You gotta have a lot of courage … We could have made a lot of excuses. I wanted these guys to go to Omaha something fierce.”
For McDonnell, the stars seemed to align in this chapter of his era. Louisville earned a number one ranking for the first time in the program’s 100-year history. Brendan McKay earned multiple accolades, including being named the Player of the Year by multiple publications. U of L earned another national seed, and even won the ACC overall regular-season title.
But even after entering the tournament losing four of their last five games, U of L wouldn’t allow destiny to deny them yet again. Louisville rallied around great offense to run by Radford, Oklahoma and Xavier in their Regional round. Their 15-game winning streak in the Regional round is undoubtedly impressive. Few coaches and programs could have attained success immediately like McDonnell did, and continue to be consistent at a high level.
But it would have been reasonable to suggest another collapse in the Super Regional could have happened, given the track record from the last two seasons. Add in the seemingly inevitable matchup with rival Kentucky, in arguably the biggest stage Jim Patterson Stadium has experienced, and the trepidation from both fanbases was a feeling all too palpable.
Make no mistake about it; Kentucky had a team that could have easily made it to the College World Series, if circumstances were different. They were one of three teams in the top 50 nationally in both batting average and ERA (only top-ranked Oregon State and #4 national seed LSU can boast the same), and had the reigning SEC Pitcher of the Year in Sean Hjelle. And the Wildcats embraced the challenge of playing in their first Super Regional, or as head coach Nick Mingione put it, doing things that had never been done before.
But after the heartbreak the Cardinals experienced the last two seasons, Louisville grabbed the opportunity by the mane, and did not let go. Not in front of a record crowd for two straight days, and not at the cost of watching your most prominent rival go to Omaha for the first time.
The Cardinals pounced on Kentucky early both times, never gave up the lead and used elite defense to seal their spot. Drew Ellis broke out of a 4-for-28 slump since May 16th to bat 4-for-8 in the series with three home runs and six RBI, making a strong case for the de facto MVP of the Super Regional series. McKay became the all-time and single-season leader in strikeouts at Louisville, and may very well be the top overall pick in the MLB Draft tomorrow night. Outfielders Logan Taylor and Colin Lyman made heroic plays in the outfield to thwart any momentum Kentucky could have established on offense.
“There’s no way I wasn’t catching that ball,” Taylor said when referencing his ninth-inning catch at the wall. “Last two years, the games got away from us late in the Supers. I saw it, and I knew it had to be me.”
But despite the accolades and victories that mount like their celebratory dogpile on Saturday, the Cardinals still have their sights set on a bigger prize; the program’s first national title. Despite McKay potentially being the first overall pick in tomorrow’s MLB Draft, and despite the cathartic relief of going back to Omaha after the failures of the last two seasons, the goal of a national title is a God-sized goal for their God-given passion for baseball.
“It’s very refreshing to be able to go back to Omaha,” Logan Taylor said. “But now that we’re here, we still got a mission to do.”
As has been the case all season, the Cardinals are not holding out, holding back or running away. They are, as the Manifesto lastly states, ‘chasing the lion.’
Or in a more literal sense, chasing a national title.