Louisville celebrated earning a trip to the College World Series.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – They started filing into Jim Patterson Stadium when the black wrought-iron gates swung open at 6 p.m. – and they kept coming and coming and coming even after the first pitch was delivered at 7:05.
Children carrying their gloves. Veteran fans who don’t miss a pitch, tackle or dribble of anything that happens at Louisville. Folks who’ve been driving by on Central Avenue and wondering what was going on.
They stuffed every one of the nearly 3,000 red, permanent chair-back seats. The three sets of aluminum bleachers tucked on the berm beyond the left-field wall? No room to wiggle.
The sidewalks and grassy areas along both foul lines? Wall-to-wall people. The concrete decks behind the permanent seats. Fans were standing 8-to-10 deep, making more noise every inning.
University of Louisville baseball has become appointment viewing. The record crowd of 6,007 that watched the Cardinals defeat Kennesaw State, 7-4, Saturday night to win the NCAA Tournament Super Regional was confirmation of that.
So was the conversation that U of L athletic director Tom Jurich had with the program’s primary benefactor, Jim Patterson, a former Cardinal player.
Louisville is going to Omaha for the College World Series, and Jurich is going to talk with an architect because he wants to expand the baseball facility. The Cardinals are growing their resume – and growing their brand.
“He heard it from me all night long,” Jurich said. “I told him, ‘There are no seats here for anybody to go.’ He told me to come and see him.
“We had 6,007 people in here tonight. Last night we had 5,300 (actually 5,351), which was the biggest crowd we’ve ever had. I think anybody that got in the building tonight had a great time.”
The baseball was entertaining and properly executed. The atmosphere crackled with energy. They field was packed with guys who will play in pro ball.
And the result confirmed what insightful folks around college baseball have known for many years:
Dan McDonnell has built one of the destination programs in the game.
This was not a season when Louisville was predicted to make a trip to Omaha. Last season the Cardinals were formidable all season. Next season Louisville’s roster will be packed with talented and experienced hitters and pitchers. Omaha in 2015 seems reasonable.
“Rebuilding year,” Jurich said.
In early January the Cardinals were ranked 20th in the nation by Baseball America. Perfect Game was higher on McDonnell’s team, ranking Louisville 16th. Guess what? Only eight teams make it to Omaha.
The Cards lost four of their first dozen games, stumbling against The Citadel and Western Michigan. Kentucky beat Louisville twice. Indiana did it three times.
Although Louisville lost only two games in a row once all season, they were unable to win the American Athletic Conference Tournament.
Forget about hosting earning a national seed. Don’t even start talking about Omaha. The Cards weren’t even certain they would be asked to host a four-team regional on the first-weekend of the tournament.
The tournament selection committee rewarded McDonnell’s team for the season they had – and the players did the rest.
Louisville followed Texas as the second team to earn its spot in Omaha. The Cards have won all five of their tournament games, outscoring their opponents 27-11. They have trailed in only eight of the 45 innings they have played.
“It’s the culture we have created here,” said Cole Sturgeon.
He is a Louisville senior. He delivered three hits and drove it three runs. He also faced four batters. He retired all four of them, three by strikeouts.
“The guys that are here now, the coaches, all the support staff,” Sturgeon said. “It’s a competitive atmosphere and it pays off every day in the long run.”
It paid off with another trip to the College World Series – and serious talk about expanding Patterson Stadium.