On Saturday afternoon, the University of Louisville baseball team advanced to the College World Series by defeating the University of Kentucky by a score of 6-2 in front of a Patterson Stadium record crowd of 6,237. After consecutive years of falling in the NCAA Super Regionals, Cardinal head coach Dan McDonnell steered the Cards back to Omaha for the fourth time in the program’s history. Louisville pitcher Brendan McKay was masterful on the mound, striking out 9 Cats, giving up 8 hits and two runs over 6 2/3 innings. After the game, Kentucky head coach Nick Mingione stated that as the Cats applied the pressure, particularly in the middle innings, McKay and the Cards wouldn’t break.
Coach Mingione’s first year in Lexington was as successful a season as the baseball team as ever had. For the first time in school history, the Wildcats made it to the NCAA Super Regional. And for the first time in a long time, the Cats stayed in the SEC title hunt until the final series against Florida. This year has laid a foundation for the program to achieve even greater things. And yet, for as great of a season as this one was, the ending is not what the team had envisioned.
Louisville head coach McDonnell said that within a few days after losing in the Super Regionals last year, he gathered his team together and talked about commitment. He said they talked about focus. They discussed being a team and achieving goals. And now, the Cardinals can cross one of their goals, returning to Omaha, off their list. He said that he offered advice to Nick Mingione by telling him, “I know it hurts, I’ve been there. But you and your program will be better for it.” McDonnell also reminded the Big Blue Nation of what we already know: The Kentucky Baseball program is headed in the right direction.
In sports, we hear a lot of talk about teams being a family and trusting in one another. After the postgame press conferences from both coaches, I get a sense that those ideals have a bit more meaning for them. Mingione hesitated for a moment when he was asked what he had learned about his team. He responded by explaining how the young men under his charge, players he didn’t recruit, trusted and believed in him and the staff. He talked about the coaches reporting back that the team wasn’t going through the motions, that as a coach he felt they gave everything they had for 66 games. Mingione talked about how each player was accountable, on an off the field. And he discussed the impact this team had on him and his family. He finished his remarks by saying how hard it is to do something that’s never been done and this team, his guys, did that.
After opening up with a reading from the book of Psalms, Louisville’s McDonnell talked about the Cardinal baseball family. He said it was his job to bring joy to what the Cards were doing. He emphasized that just showing up wasn’t enough. The Louisville staff demanded focus and the player’s responded with a record of 52-10 (so far) and another trip to the CWS. McDonnell, spilling some of his recruiting tactics, says that he never promises a kid that he’ll start or how much playing time that he’ll get, but he tells them that they’re going to have the kind of teammates that will help them achieve their goals.
Right now, the Louisville baseball program is better. The two games this weekend prove that. What we also saw, and both coaches pointed this out, is that the gap isn’t as wide as it used to be. What I learned today is that while the fans of both schools can take the rivalry way too far, the coaches and the players showed what sportsmanship and competitive fire is all about. Humble in victory, gracious in defeat – life lessons from two great coaches.
Congratulations to Head Coach Dan McDonnell and his team on making it to the College World Series. It’s a huge accomplishment. However, the next time the Cats and Cards play in a Super Regional, let’s play it in Lexington.