Under the direction of head coach Dan McDonnell and the rest of his staff, the University of Louisville baseball program has risen to elite status. The Cardinals are almost always in the hunt to make it to Omaha and win a national championship every season, while consistently getting players to the professional levels. Even when adversity hits, and the team misses the tournament like it did in 2021, McDonnell’s squad remains focused on getting better and buying into the program’s identity.
Last season was the first time since 2011 in which Louisville did not make the NCAA Tournament field. McDonnell will be the first to say that it supplied some motivation for the offseason.
“It definitely adds extra fire,” McDonnell said. “Whether you’re winning or losing, you want to go into the summer where we’re going to be productive with our guys in summer leagues, in summer school, or working out. You’re always recruiting, and you want to get ready for the fall, but definitely coming off of a tough spring has to add a little more fuel. You’re frustrated and disappointed. Things didn’t go the way we wanted it to. So, we have to be accountable and go back to the drawing board and see it as a great opportunity. You now have everybody’s attention, and the coaches and the players want to get back to where we’ve been for so long. I thought there was a good healthy edge to our program, and we maximized that by having both a productive summer and fall.”
The 2021 campaign was one plagued by many factors, some of those being injuries and COVID. Connection within program is something the coaching staff prioritizes, whether that be in the form of being at the facility, playing ping pong, etc. The team took a trip to the Astral Mountains in the fall for an additional opportunity to bond through staying in log cabins, participating in outdoor activities, and much more. Connection coupled with two other values of the program’s identity have served as the foundation for competing perenially.
“Two of the pillar staples have always been competition and toughness,” McDonnell said. “We had to maximize that in the fall, and we have to embrace competing and then combine with that with toughness; if you’re going to be successful in the competitive world, you have to have a lot of toughness. When you’re ultra-competitive, a lot can sprinkle off of that. If you’re really competitive and you have a desire to win, then there’s a better chance you’re going to show up every day, to compete to get better. You know that you can’t win on your own in a sport like baseball, so you’re going to lift others up and bring them along with you. Reid Detmers is going to bring Bobby Miller along with him, and vice versa. When you’re competitive, and you want to win so bad, you’re willing to sacrifice and realize, you know that ‘it’s not about me, I might have to accept this role’. I think one of my strengths from a player to a coach is that I’m just ultra-competitive; I think that’s a word that I love to hang my hat on.”
Another core foundation of the Cardinals’ culture and perhaps the most important, is love. McDonnell is a firm believer of the notion that creating an atmosphere filled with connection and trust is critical.
“I think when the players know that you love and care for them, it goes a long way,” McDonnell explained. “It doesn’t mean they’re going to get everything they want nor that you’re just going to put your arm around them and tell them everything’s going to be great. Love is a strong word; God loves us, Jesus loves us, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t fall under discipline. We don’t fall under judgment, but rather under forgiveness and redemption. There is tough love at times; I’m being real, honest, and truthful because I want what’s best for you. We coach like that, and when the players know that deep down, they’re being loved in this program and that coaches want what’s best for them, I think it’s easier for them in return to do the things that are necessary to be a successful program.”
Missing the tournament is not the only adversity the Cardinals have to overcome, but also replacing a large number of departures including number-one pick Henry Davis and a handful of other MLB draftees. Davis is the first player in Louisville history to be selected with the top-overall pick. “Catching is one of the sexier positions when you’re talking about organizations and the draft and, and to Henry’s credit, he just got better,” McDonnell added. “He really put together a phenomenal year, even though the team struggled at times, he played at a highly consistent level. One of the more impressive things was going through the pandemic year, he missed his sophomore year that summer and seeing how he was still able to make that improvement and how much better he got. His competitiveness, work ethic, and other intangibles helped as well. It’s an awesome accomplishment for him.”
Despite losing a good portion of production from last season, McDonnell believes that his team will rise to the occasion, just like they do every season. At a prestigious program like Louisville, the coaching staff has come to accept large roster turnover and embrace the “next man up” mentality.
“We expect to lose a lot to the draft every year,” McDonnell admitted. “You could get wiped on a given year with the draft, but we’re kind of prepared for the big turnover. I’m not going to say that we’re Alabama football, but I don’t know if you ever hear Nick Saban really talk about them being young. I mean, they’re losing players and coaches every year, but they just seem to reload. I think we’ve been very much like that for the past decade or so. I don’t I don’t think we’re going to act young this year or come across as being a young team. It will just be some new faces, but I think that’s the norm.”
Getting a record number of players to the MLB isn’t just a benefit in terms of program prominence, but also in recruiting. Currently, Louisville has the third-best class in the 2022 cycle (perfectgame.com) and is setting itself up for stellar classes in the years beyond.
“I think it’s huge,” McDonell said. “At the end of the day if you ask kids, ‘hey, tell me your goals ana where you are trying to get to’, most if not all are going to say that they want to be a big-leaguer. Now, some of them will say that want to play pro ball or major college baseball. Those are all stepping-stones to ultimately being a big leaguer. Since 2014, no division-one school in the country has had more big leaguers than we’ve had, meaning first-time guys that made their MLB debut. In that span, I think we’ve had 20; it shows these recruits out there that you could chase bigger stadiums, more fans, and warmer weather. However, if deep down in your heart your goal is to be a big leaguer, the University of Louisville has showed that this program with its’ resources has helped develop that. That’s why I think you see the 2022 class ranked so high and classes to follow as well, but you still have to get them here because you still have to win the draft as we like to call it and just get enough kids and families that want to experience this.”
The Cardinals enter the preseason ranked at 26th in the most recent baseballnews.com poll after a tough 2021 season, which McDonnell believes is justified. “We were ranked in the preseason top-10 for many years and most of the time we proved them right,” he said. “But last year, we proved them wrong. If it adds a little chip on their shoulder, if they feel a little disrespected, if they get a little pissed off about it, then that’s good. As Saban talked about the rat poison, just say ‘use it for what it’s worth but you have to be mature enough to know it’s all about what we do today and tomorrow’. Preseason rankings are really based on last year and we didn’t finish strong, so I think it’s justified.”
Seniors Ben Bianco, Carter Lohman, and Ben Metzinger were selected as the 2022 captains by their peers. The well-respected trio have been victims of unfortunate circumstances in the past two years, but the Cardinals’ head coach believes that all three will be players that the fans will love this season. Two other names that McDonnell has identified as ones that the fanbase will love are C/1B Dalton Rushing and LHP Michael Prosecky. The former is coming off of an all-star season in the Cape Cod Summer League and possesses a powerful bat from the left side of the box. The latter has had up-and-down moments on the found in his limited time but is extremely talented and poised for a big season.
The season is just around a month away for Louisville, and the team will once again attempt another run at the College World Series. Even with new faces every season, the goal remains the same because of the core foundation within the program, one constructed of competition, love, and toughness.