Dating back to the days of the Big Ten/Big East Challenge, Dan McDonnell has often taken his team to the Tampa area on Opening Weekend for sunshine and the chance to play three quality opponents. No. 7 Louisville will do just that again this weekend, as it travels to Clearwater, Fla., for a tournament with No. 24 Maryland, Alabama State and Ball State.
|TOP 25 SERIES|
|Penn State at (1) Texas Christian|
|Virginia Commonwealth at (2) Florida State|
|William & Mary (3) Florida|
|UNC Greensboro at (5) South Carolina|
|(6) East Carolina at Mississippi|
|(23) Stanford at (8) Cal State Fullerton|
|Wright State at (10) Clemson|
|(11) Vanderbilt at San Diego|
|(12) Washington at Santa Clara|
|(14) North Carolina State at Hawaii|
|Kentucky at (17) North Carolina|
|(18) Oklahoma State at Grand Canyon|
|(19) UC Santa Barbara at Loyola Marymount|
|(20) Long Beach State at Oklahoma|
|Eastern Kentucky at (22) Arizona|
"I love starting the season off with a tournament because that's the way it ends the season before," McDonnell said. "Good competition, tournament atmosphere and there's nothing like sitting in the stands when a game's going on before yours and you're waiting to play because that's like conference tournaments and regionals."
The teams gathering at Spectrum Field, the spring training home of the Phillies, are a strong collection of talent for the first weekend of games. Louisville and Maryland open the season in the Top 25, Alabama State is coming off a regionals appearance and is again the favorite in the Southwest Athletic Conference, and Ball State is again expected to be one of the best teams in the Mid-American Conference.
While some teams prefer to ease into the season with lighter competition on Opening Weekend, Maryland coach John Szefc said he likes to challenge his team right away.
"I'd rather play good competition," Szefc said. "I don't know that it does you a whole lot of good to play a schedule where you're playing weak RPI schools. If you're constantly challenging your guys, it elevates their game and prepares them for tough opponents down the road. Also, I think if you're playing challenging opponents day after day, not only do they get challenged, their expectations get raised."
The tournament features some excellent hitters, including two Preseason First-Team All-Americans in Louisville first baseman/lefthander Brendan McKay (.333/.414/.513, 6 home runs; 12-4, 2.30 last season) and Maryland shortstop Kevin Smith (.259/.308/.409, 8 home runs). Alabama State is headlined by senior second baseman Carlos Ocasio (.327/.417/.580, 12 home runs, 19 stolen bases), the reigning SWAC player of the year. Ball State's experienced lineup is led by catcher/first baseman Caleb Stayton (.377/.482/.614, 11 home runs, 71 RBIs).
There will be impressive arms on the mound, as well. McKay could be drafted in the top five picks in June as a pitcher and Louisville righthander Kade McClure (12-0, 2.54) has also attracted significant interest from scouts. Maryland's rotation is fronted by junior righthanders Brian Shaffer (8-3, 2.60) and Taylor Bloom (6-5, 2.46), who combined to throw 205 innings last season.
With so much talent on the field, Opening Weekend will provide a good test for all four teams as they begin their 2017 campaigns. More than anything, the teams are excited to play competitive games after months of preparation.
"We're ready to play," McDonnell said. "It's so much fun.
"It feels like a long time coming."
|TOP 25 TOURNAMENTS|
|Louisiana Tournament, Baton Rouge, La./New Orleans|
|(4) Louisiana State, Air Force, Army, Tulane|
|Clearwater (Fla.) Tournament|
|(7) Louisville, (24) Maryland, Alabama State, Ball State|
|Sanderson Ford College Baseball Classic, Surprise, Ariz.|
|(9) Oregon State, Duke, Gonzaga, Indiana|
|Tangi Tourism Baseball Classic, Hammond, La.|
|(13) Louisiana-Lafayette, Hofstra, Murray State, Southeastern Louisiana|
|Caravelle Resort's Baseball at the Beach, Conway, S.C.|
|(15) Coastal Carolina, James Madison, North Carolina A&T, Richmond, St. John's, Western Carolina|
|Charleston Crab House Shootout, Charleston, S.C.|
|(16) Virginia, the Citadel, Kansas, Liberty|
|(21) Georgia Tech, Brigham Young, Georgia State, Kennesaw State, Marshall, Western Michigan|
|Mississippi State Tournament, Starkville, Miss.|
|(25) Texas Tech, Mississippi State, Western Illinois|