LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) - Louisville’s upperclassmen hope their familiarity with the College World Series and opening-round opponent Vanderbilt helps them get off to a good start in the tournament.
The Cardinals (50-15) are making their second straight appearance in Omaha, Nebraska, and third in the past seven years under coach Dan McDonnell. They’re also the only team returning from last spring, their first appearance since 2007 and one that ended quickly.
Louisville returns with a better understanding of the atmosphere, and its veterans aim to use that knowledge Saturday night against the Commodores (46-19). The Cardinals are certainly familiar with the Commodores, having swept them in last year’s super regional and beaten them in last month in Nashville, Tennessee.
“We’ve been there before, so now we know what to expect a little bit,” Louisville senior center fielder Cole Sturgeon said.
He added that the Cardinals know Vanderbilt are “a great team and have been for a long time. … We’ve had some fun games with them over the years. It’ll be a fun night.”
At least, the Cardinals hope that’s the case this time after losing to Indiana (2-0) and Oregon State (11-4) a year ago and falling to 1-4 all-time in the double-elimination event. From a thunderstorm that shortened the opening ceremonies, to being held to four hits by the Hoosiers to getting drilled by the Beavers, Louisville’s on-field experience was over before it got settled on the national stage.
Cardinals junior left-hander Kyle McGrath recalled bright spots such as being recognized while walking through town and playing in a venue about four times the size of their home stadium. The spotlight was palpable nonetheless, something Louisville’s veterans are preparing younger teammates for.
“It was a little overwhelming at first going out there,” he said. “Now to be going back there, it’s just a lot of experience and we realize what’s going to happen with all the media and what not.”
Though returning to the CWS was Louisville’s goal, the Cardinals’ postseason suggests a team on a mission to go further. They once again enter on a 5-0 roll thanks to veterans such as senior left fielder Jeff Gardner (.321 batting average, 9 home runs, 68 RBI), the American Athletic Conference’s player of the year.
Louisville’s youngsters have also thrived, especially a pitching rotation led by sophomore right-handers Kyle Funkhouser (13-2, 117 strikeouts, 1.73 ERA) and Anthony Kidston (9-0, 3.54) and freshman left-hander Josh Rogers (3-3, 3.63). Freshman designated hitter Nick Solak meanwhile propelled the Cardinals to last weekend’s sweep of Kennesaw State with go-ahead hits in both games, including a two-run homer in the fifth inning of their 7-4 clinching win.
Besides filling voids left by graduation and the departure of seven juniors to the pros, this year’s mix has shown a resolve the Cardinals help will carry them in the CWS. McDonnell makes a point of crediting upperclassmen that haven’t missed a beat while mentoring the younger players.
“We challenged this group,” McDonnell said. “Can you guys be that first group to maintain that high level and not take a step back? They did. … They obviously wanted it.”
Louisville’s next challenge is Vanderbilt, a team it’s facing for the fourth time in six postseasons. Members of both schools consider this particular pairing interesting but somewhat fitting given the rivalry.
At least neither team can claim it’s facing the unknown.
“Pretty much it’s going to be the same thing we’ve been doing whatever the past eight years playing them,” Commodores junior pitcher Tyler Beede said. “It’ll be a cool way to kick off Omaha for us and for them.”