(Note: This article is
part of a series, by Jeff Dahn, that highlights specific collegiate baseball
programs going into the 2011 season. To
view the articles on other schools in this series please click here.)
The University of Louisville established its baseball program in 1909 and had trotted 17 coaches out to the third base coaches’ box from that start-up year through the spring of 2006.
The teams the program fielded in those first 98 years were fairly unremarkable. They won 1,315 games and lost 1,246. They won only two conference championships. Only one made an NCAA tournament appearance.
That all changed when the university’s 18thcoach – Port Chester, N.Y. native and rookie head coach Dan McDonnell – came on board and orchestrated a turn-around the likes of which may never been before in the history of American college baseball.
In McDonnell’s first full season in the spring of 2007, he directed the Cardinals to 47 wins, their first NCAA Regional tournament berth, a spot in a Super Regional and finally, incredibly, a spot in the eight-team field at the College World Series in Omaha, Neb.
It was one of those rare instances when a situation really did change practically overnight.
“I remember the phrase being mentioned too me, ‘sense of urgency,’ and to a coach with my beliefs and my passion, that was like music to my ears,” McDonnell said about the interview process at U of L. “It wasn’t just go in and interview and don’t act like you’re going want too much or ask for too much or just kind of blend in.
“I was myself, I came across with my passion and my energy and that’s what Louisville was looking for.”
McDonnell was hired by Louisville athletics director Tom Jurich in June of 2006. Jurich has made some impressive hires in his 13 years at U of L – including that of men’s basketball coach Rick Pitino – and he was immediately impressed with McDonnell.
“When we met him, he was the most prepared of any candidate that I have brought in on an interview in any sport,” Jurich said in a release on the university’s baseball web page. “Recommendations for him came from across the country about his ability to recruit and handle student athletes.”
McDonnell said he challenged his players to “join the train” of success many other athletic programs at Louisville – like the one headed by Pitino – were riding. When McDonnell arrived on campus in 2006, 17 of the university’s 22 athletic programs had played in the NCAA postseason the previous year.
“I challenged our kids that to be a part of this university – the expectation, the commitment, the facilities – everything is set up for you to succeed here,” he said. “We have to get on that train of success and we have to be a part of the great things happening here.”
The Louisville athletics administration allowed McDonnell to go out and hire the best assistants available, which resulted in recruiting coordinator Chris Lemonis and pitching coach Roger Williams joining the staff. They brought years of experience and past success with them and gave the program instant credibility.
Louisville hasn’t returned to the CWS since 2007 but McDonnell’s first four years on campus have all been memorable.
The 2008 team finished 41-21, won its first Big East Tournament title and earned an NCAA tournament berth. The ’09 Cards won both the Big East Conference regular season and BEC Tournament titles, advanced all the way to a Super Regional and finished 47-18.
And last spring, the ’10 team won a school record 50 games (against 14 losses), a second straight Big East championship and made the program’s fourth straight appearance in the NCAA Tournament.
McDonnell’s four-year record at Louisville is 185-77, a .706 winning percentage. That’s considerably better than the .513 winning percentage compiled by his 17 predecessors.
The University of Louisville can boast several advantages when it comes to appealing to potential recruits, from its athletics facilities and past successes to a stellar academic reputation.
The Cardinals play at six-year-old Jim Patterson Stadium, located right on the downtown campus. It has permanent seating for 2,500 fans but has accommodated more than 4,500 fans at Super Regional games.
Most of the major cities with roughly the same population as Louisville (566,000 in 2009) have major professional sports franchises, cities like Milwaukee, Washington DC, Denver and Atlanta. That means a lot of city’s attention is directed toward the athletic teams at the University of Louisville.
“You feel like you’re in the middle of the universe,” McDonnell said. “It’s a little bit of the North, and little bit of the South, and a little bit of the Midwest, and we feel like we can offer it all.”
Playing in the Big East Conference has been a boon for Louisville, primarily in terms of national exposure. The 12 conference baseball schools are located anywhere from Florida (University of South Florida) to New York City (St. John’s), from Indiana (Notre Dame) and Ohio (Cincinnati) to Washington D.C. (Georgetown) and Philadelphia (Villanova).
And on the second-to-last day of November, it was announced Texas Christian University (TCU) from Fort Worth, Texas, would be joining the league. TCU played in the College World Series last season.
“We just added another top-16 team, a team that has hosted back-to-back regionals, and a team that just went to Omaha, from another major city,” McDonnell said. “If you want to play professional baseball, if you want to a big-leaguer one day, you play at Louisville and you play in the Big East.
“You learn what it’s like to get on a plane, to fly into major cities, to stay in major hotels – that’s what the big leagues is going to be all about.”
Before arriving in Louisville, McDonnell had spent the previous six years as an assistant coach at Ole Miss, where he helped guide the Rebels to five NCAA Regionals. The previous seven years were spent as an assistant at The Citadel, his alma mater. McDonnell was a second baseman on the 1990 Citadel team that won 46 games and advanced to the College World Series.
Those experiences allowed McDonnell to work with some outstanding coaches like Mike Bianco at Ole Miss from whom he developed his own system that he applied at Louisville.
“I definitely felt like our system could come in here and be very successful,” he said. “I felt like we could make an immediate impact here.”
Louisville under McDonnell has a growing reputation for turning out All-Americans and players that get drafted professionally.
Last June, Louisville had a school record 10 players selected in the 2010 MLB Draft, including right-hander Thomas Royse who was taken by the Chicago White Sox in Compensatory Round B, which follows the completion of the third round.
Other relatively high Louisville Draft picks included right-hander Neil Holland (11th round, Washington Nationals), infielder Adam Duvall (11th round, San Francisco Giants), third baseman Phil Wunderlich (12th round, Tampa Bay Rays) and outfielder Josh Richmond (12th round, Texas Rangers).
“That’s a great thing. That’s the way we want it,” McDonnell said. “We want to develop kids, get them to play at high, high level, and get them physically and mentally ready for pro ball.”
Three players who were drafted decided to return to school this year, including freshman right-hander Dace Kime, who was taken in the eighth round by the Pittsburg Pirates. Junior outfielder Stewart Ijames was a 29th round pick and freshman right-hander Chad Green went in the 37th round.
Holland, Wunderlich and junior second baseman Ryan Wright earned All-American honors and Royse was named the Big East Pitcher of the Year.
Wright, from Fort Wayne, Ind., is the Cardinals’ most recognized returning player from last season and spent time this past summer playing for the USA Baseball Collegiate National Team. Wright hit .366 with 16 home runs and team-high 80 RBIs last season, and has 146 RBIs over his first two seasons.
Ijames, a Freshman All-American two years ago, hit .324 with14 homers and 63 RBIs and senior outfielder Drew Haynes is a three-year starter who hit .291 last season.
The top returning pitchers with at least part-time work as a starter are sophomore right-hander Justin Amlung (5-2, 4.27 ERA), junior right-hander Derek Self (7-0, 4.52), sophomore right-hander Matt Koch (3-0, 3.27) and junior right-hander Tony Zych (5-2, 5.13).
All of those players participated at numerous Perfect Game events while still in high school.
Like most of the other top programs in the country, Louisville takes advantages of the services Perfect Game provides.
“It’s a real performance-based evaluation service, so when Perfect Game hosts a tournament or they rank a player, that goes a long way with coaches,” McDonnell said. “Maybe 10 years ago, you didn’t really rely on an internet service, but a lot has changed.”
And now the focus will be on the 2011 and building on the past four years of unbridled success. McDonnell knows expectations are through the roof, but he’s not about to back down.
“The people are hungry. They want more. They want to go back to Omaha,” McDonnell said. “How many schools in the country can really say that their fans expect them to compete to go to Omaha? (The fans) want Final Fours. They want BCS games. And I’ve told our kids and our coaches that we have to embrace that.”
What follows is a list of current Louisville players who participated in Perfect Game events while in high school. Click on the player’s name to view his Perfect Game profile.
Alex Chittenden – PG National Showcase/PG Underclass/PG WWBA
Jarred Clarkson – PG WWBA
Cody Ege– PG WWBA/PG Iowa leagues
Adam Engel – PG WWBA
Andy Flett – PG WWBA/PG BCS
Kyle Gibson – PG WWBA
Chad Green – PG WWBA
Drew Haynes – PG WWBA
Brad Hedden – PG WWBA
Nate Holland – PG WWBA
Stewart Ijames – PG WWBA
Dace Kime – PG National Showcase/PG WWBA
Matt Koch – PG National Showcase/PG WWBA
Keith Landers – PG WWBA/PG BCS
Mike Nastold – PG National Showcase/PG WWBA/PG BCS
Ryan Seiz – PG WWBA
Cade Stallings – PG WWBA/PG Underclass Showcase
Cole Sturgeon – PG WWBA
Jeff Thompson – PG WWBA
Travis Tingle – PG WWBA
Zak Wasserman – PG WWBA
Ryan Wright – PG WWBA
Ty Young– PG WWBA/PG BCS
Tony Zych– PG National Showcase/ PG WWBA
If there is a college program that you want PG to do a
story on, please feel free to let us know. Email Jeff Dahn at firstname.lastname@example.org.