Louisville Aims To Bounce Back After Disappointing 2023


Image credit: Louisville's Matt Klein (Mikes Janes/Four Seam Images)

For nearly two decades, Louisville has been one of the most consistently successful programs in the country. Since Dan McDonnell’s first season with the Cardinals in 2007, they have made the College World Series five times and won 10 conference titles spanning three different conferences (Big East, American and ACC).

Louisville’s ascension is one of the game’s 21st century success stories. The Cardinals had made the NCAA Tournament just once prior to McDonnell’s arrival but missed it just once in his first 13 seasons. The Cardinals produced a wealth of big-league talent and two-way superstar Brendan McKay became one of the most decorated players in college baseball history. Louisville became a powerhouse.

Since the 2020 season was cancelled, however, Louisville has not made the NCAA Tournament in two of the last three seasons, sandwiching misses around a super regionals appearance in 2022. They last season went 31-24 and finished 13th in the ACC.

After the season, McDonnell evaluated the program as he does every year. He looked at the team’s strengths and weaknesses and also why the Cardinals had been bitten by the injury bug. He decided to go into the transfer portal for the first time, signing a quartet of four-year transfers, led by righthander Sebastian Gongora (Wright State) and catcher Luke Napleton, a Division II All-American at Quincy (Ill.). Combined with a top-10 traditional recruiting class and an older, veteran returning roster, confidence in Louisville was high throughout the offseason.

“The vibes are good,” fifth-year lefthander Evan Webster said on the eve of Opening Day. “There’s a lot of hunger right now, a lot of guys that don’t want to repeat what we did last year. We’re using 2021 when we didn’t make the postseason and how we came back in 2022, using that to go into the season with that attitude.”

Still, Louisville found itself in a different position heading into the spring. It was picked fifth in its division by ACC coaches, and it was not ranked in the Baseball America Preseason Top 25 for just the fourth time since McDonnell’s first year. After last season, the Cardinals have something to prove.

The season is just a week old and its far too early for sweeping conclusions. But Louisville has stumbled out of the gate to an 0-3 start, matching its worst start since 2009, when it got swept Opening Weekend at Florida.

This year, Louisville lost a pair of one-run games on Opening Day in a tournament in Tampa, 8-7 to Indiana State and 4-3 to UConn. The Cardinals led both games late before falling. The third game of the weekend, against South Florida, was rained out. The Cardinals returned to action Wednesday at home against Xavier and lost, 9-1. It was just their third loss in a home opener under McDonnell.

“This group looked very tight,” McDonnell said. “They’re a good group of kids, they work hard. You can’t play this game tight. You can play with juice and energy and emotion. We looked tight [Wednesday].

“That’s frustrating as the head coach and always a little concerning because I’ve got to get them out of that.”

Louisville is just three games into the season and all three of its opponents so far were NCAA Tournament teams a year ago. It will have a chance this weekend to get right with St. Bonaventure (1-2) coming to town for a three-game series. The Cardinals have three weeks to figure things out before the start of ACC play. But it’s also clear that they do have some things to figure out.

“The good news is there’s a long way to go,” McDonnell said. “The bad news is we’re not playing great baseball right now.”

Following last year’s season finale – a loss to Florida State at home, McDonnell answered questions from local reporters. He was asked about publications (including Baseball America), mentioning him as a possible candidate for job openings in the SEC. He started by explaining that he always expects to remain at Louisville, but he that he has certain expectations for the program. He then laid those expectations out.

“I want to work for people and be with people that want to win as well,” he said. “Don’t tell me you want to win; show me you want to win. That’s all I ask for. I think our fans ask for that. I think our players ask for that.

“I’ve been recruiting these kids, they’ve been committed since eighth, ninth 10th grade year. Well, they showed up on campus and they haven’t seen a whole lot different. We said it was going to be different, we promised them it would be different, but it’s not different.”

McDonnell was sounding an alarm that Louisville was falling behind in certain areas, especially facilities. An indoor practice facility has long been a target and even got a lead fundraising gift in 2021. But nothing had progressed. McDonnell had made similar comments over the previous year, but none got as much play as what he said at the end of a disappointing season with one SEC job already open and two more to follow in the next week.

In the days that followed those comments, Louisville athletic director Josh Heird told Louisville Report that he had spoken with McDonnell and said, “we’re committed to making sure he has what he needs to compete for championships.”

McDonnell, obviously, did not leave Louisville. He’s back at the program’s helm for an 18th season and there’s been progress on some of those facility projects, starting with renovating the team’s locker room, training room and weight room.

Those are projects that had been previously talked about and planned but hadn’t been enacted because the university went through a significant transition in the last five years. The administration completely turned over both at the university and athletic department level. McDonnell felt like baseball had gotten lost in the shuffle and was working hard to remind people of that. It finally clicked last May.

“It comes back to, ‘Wait a minute, he said the same thing last summer. But it was just kind of like, ‘Eh, he’s being a coach and he just wants more,’” McDonnell said. “But it was like, ‘No, guys, we’ve fallen behind in some areas and we need some help. We’ve got to step it up.’

“Fortunately, the administration has responded, and the fan base has responded. But this is an ongoing thing just like anything, just like any relationship. For me, knowing we’re heading in the right direction, we’re not where we want to be yet but we’re in the middle of a locker room project, a training room project, a weight room project.

“I like the direction we’re headed in.”

The next steps from a construction standpoint still have to be ironed out. Will the practice facility be built as originally designed beyond the left field wall? Will Louisville’s indoor batting cages down the right field line be expanded or turned into a pitching lab? There are options. But after some delays, it looks like the grand vision is once again coming together.

So, with the program making progress off the field, the attention can now turn back to the diamond.

After evaluating last season’s disappointment, McDonnell made the decision to go into the transfer portal for the first time. While he had long been a proponent of players having the opportunity to freely transfer, he hadn’t used the portal to bring in new players since the NCAA’s transfer rules changed in 2021.

McDonnell said they hadn’t previously used the portal for a variety of reasons.

“We’re rolling, developing,” he said. “We’ve got great recruiting classes, we pride ourselves on recruiting at a high level and developing kids. The longer you’re in our program, the better you’re going to be. But when you have a hole or a gap, you have to fill it.”

Louisville had two gaps it wanted to fill. The first was at catcher, where the Cardinals had taken some tough injuries down the stretch that had left them catching a player who hadn’t played the position since high school. McDonnell wanted more veteran depth at the position after that experience. And, like most teams, Louisville wanted more pitching.

So, the Cardinals added Gongora, the 2023 Horizon League pitcher of the year, and righthander Jack Karaba, a Division II All-American at Lewis (Ill.) on the mound, as well as Napleton and infielder Dylan Hoy (Marist).

In addition, Louisville added the No. 10 recruiting class nationally, highlighted by some high-end pitchers like lefthander Colton Hartman and righthander Parker Detmers, the younger brother of former Louisville ace Reid Detmers. Junior college transfers Noah Bush and Jared Lessman only added more depth.

Those reinforcements gave Louisville what looks like a solid roster. Gongora, a fourth-year junior, in 2023 went 10-1, 3.17 with 89 strikeouts in 93.2 innings at Wright State. Shortstop Gavin Kilen is coming off an all-star summer in the Cape Cod League, as are righthanders Patrick Forbes and Will Koger. Ryan McCoy is back after hitting 12 home runs a season ago and Louisville also returns JT Benson, who posted a .894 OPS and stole 16 bases. Its newcomers are talented, and it can play an old lineup, starting eight upperclassmen on any given day.

This isn’t Louisville’s most talented roster under McDonnell. It doesn’t have a first-round prospect – and the Cardinals haven’t had one of those since Henry Davis went first overall in 2021, a fact that probably helps explain what’s happened the last few years – but there’s plenty of depth and experience.

The Cardinals are coming off a strong, determined fall. Many played well in summer ball and returned to campus eager to put 2023’s disappointments behind them.

“I think there was a lot of hunger,” Kilen said. “A lot of guys wanted to push to get themselves back to an Omaha run or a productive season, where guys were giving everything, we had on a given day.”

They also came together during a trip to the Dominican Republic, where they played a few games against Dominican Winter League teams and served in the community. McDonnell regularly takes his teams on those trips and noted that every Louisville alumnus who played in the big leagues last season had travelled to the Dominican when they were Cardinals.

The trips help from a pure baseball perspective, giving the Cardinals an opportunity to play against quality competition and strengthen their bonds as a team. But they also open the players’ eyes, as they see more of the world.

“It’s a very educational baseball trip,” McDonnell said. “Then there’s the perspective trip, serving in the communities. It’s very educational for an American kid to go to a third-world country. We don’t stay at a five-star resort, that’s not why we’re going. I think it gives a really good perspective.”

Louisville has all the pieces to make this a strong bounce-back season. Its disappointing start is not ideal, but three losses against NCAA Tournament-caliber teams is hardly the end of the world.

But with a very competitive and deep ACC this year, the Cardinals can’t waste any time figuring out how to get on track in the next few weeks. Once conference play begins, there will be no letup, as they found a year ago, when they lost their final six series.

The Cardinals didn’t come out of that experience feeling like they needed a total overhaul for 2024. They know they have to work hard to get back to the program’s standard but believe they can get there this spring.

“I don’t know that there’s a culture thing that needs to change,” Webster said. “We got a little bit unlucky last year with the injury bug hitting us in the middle of the season and down the stretch. We’ve got a talented team with a lot of guys who are going to help us. So, staying healthy, guys embracing their roles and taking the steps they need to take to get to that next level.”

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