CRAWFORD | With sweep to Super Regional, Cards prove good guys c - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | With sweep to Super Regional, Cards prove good guys can finish first

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AP photo. AP photo.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — It's always nice to have winning teams. It's even better to have winning people.

The No. 3-ranked University of Louisville baseball team beat Michigan 13-4 on Sunday to wrap up its third straight NCAA regional championship in Jim Patterson Stadium. Nothing unusual there.

What was a bit unusual was how Michigan coach Erik Bakich sat down behind a microphone after the game and uttered these words first thing, before even praising his own team: “Congratulations to Louisville. Dan McDonnell is a personal friend. I'm happy for him. I'm happy for their staff. I'm happy for their team. They work extremely hard. No team, no coaching staff, is more deserving.”

Bakich goes back a ways with Dan McDonnell, to when he was the recruiting coordinator for Vanderbilt — the youngest in the Southeastern Conference — and McDonnell was the lead recruiter for Ole Miss. He said he'll always appreciate McDonnell asking to have lunch with him during a recruiting trip and laying out some things that had helped him along the way. The two became friends, sharing a hotel rooms on recruiting trips and talking quite a bit.

Wait. You're competing for recruits, but he reached out?

“I was just some young coach with no experience, but he took me under his wing a little bit,” Bakich said. “I instantly could recognize that this guy's genuine. This guy has a high level of integrity. He's just class. And we developed a friendship. We'd work out in the morning. Put it this way — he's the only assistant coach in the SEC I invited to my wedding.”

As a result of all that, Bakich said, it's no surprise to see Louisville where it is, celebrating its fifth regional title in nine years under McDonnell, when it didn't have a single one in program history before his arrival.

“Knowing him, and what he's all about, his Christian faith, the type of guy he is and the husband he is and father he is, it's no surprise he has a program that he has a program that is achieving at the highest level of college baseball,” he said. “And it's no surprise that he's regarded as one of the best college baseball coaches in the nation.”

The Cardinals' bats woke up in the NCAA Tournament. But it was pitching again that led the way. Kyle Funkhouser was solid in Game 1. Brendan McKay was tough in Game 2. And then there was Josh Rogers. The sophomore from New Albany now has gotten the win in U of L's last two regional titles.

Rogers gave up a two-run homer in the first, then didn't allow another hit for four innings. He wound up throwing seven complete innings. Nick Solak and Brendan McKay each drove in three runs. By the time McDonnell went to his bullpen, the Cardinals led 13-2.

I was headed down to the postgame news conference when a guy stopped me to talk for a minute. His name was Bobby Rogers, and he's Josh's dad. He wanted to ask me if I remembered writing about his son playing for the New Albany Little League.

And I do. It was August of 2007, and New Albany was playing for a spot in the Little League World Series. I drove up to Indianapolis to watch them play Hamilton, Ohio. I didn't have a press pass or even a seat. I just stood along the right field line. Josh pitched that day, and it was a struggle. He shed some tears when he came off the mound, and then a few more when, as fate had it, he made the game's final out.

I remember talking to his dad that day. It's true. He told me about taping the Little League World Series every year. But the thing I remember most is that amid all that disappointment, this 12-year-old kid remembered he'd told a woman in the merchandise tent he'd come give her a victory hug if the team won. New Albany lost, but he still made his way back there to hug her. When I showed up, she was crying so hard I had to give her a minute before she could talk to me. (I've used the column since, when I talked to journalism classes, to illustrate that losses can be just as fertile writing and reporting ground as wins. I'd include a link, but it's part of the newspaper's paid archive, and let's be realistic, you're not going to pay for it. And I can't pay for you all!)

I hoped, to be honest, that my boys would get to play around kids like that if they played ball.

Not surprisingly, that kid became the No. 2 pitching prospect in the midwest, and signed with the University of Louisville. He endured Tommy John surgery. Not surprisingly, he came back from that too.

With a little added rest going into the regional, Rogers had more than enough pop to shut down Michigan, and to remind people that the Cardinals have three solid starters heading into the NCAA Super Regional. With Rogers as their Sunday starter, the Cardinals didn't lose a Sunday game (or its equivalent on Saturday or Monday) in Atlantic Coast Conference play all season.

“Josh is draft-eligible, so he's got a chance to be a good draft pick this year,” McDonnell said. “We're enjoying him while we have him right now. . . . Who knows? I'm sure Josh and I will talk as the draft gets closer. . . . I've said it all year, he's an X-factor. I don't know many teams that have a No. 3 as good as he is. Those who are familiar with us could argue that we have three No. 1s, with how consistent they've been all year and how well they've pitched in the ACC. I don't think we ever lost on a Sunday in ACC play, and a lot of that credit goes to Josh, where other teams are rotating that guy, somebody in and out, we had a rock in that position. It's been fun to see him grow.”

The Cards had three inning-ending double plays to help matters along. And they had a chance to watch something that McDonnell preaches about all season. Improvement is possible. He told them in the huddle after the game, they had yet to play their best game.

Devin Hairston has been a defensive gem all season after coming as a highly touted shortstop from Lexington Tates Creek. Offensively? Not so much. He was batting only .186 entering NCAA Tournament play. He'd had only four hits in his past 19 games.

So in the tournament opener, he went 4-for-4. On Saturday night, he hit a sacrifice fly for the game-winning RBI in the ninth inning. On Sunday, he went 1-for-4 with a double, a walk, an RBI and two runs scored. He was named Most Valuable Player of the regional.

“He's extremely athletic, he was heavily recruited and he's a really good player,” Bakich said. “He's a tremendous defensive player. And it looked like he found his stride offensively this week. Game 1 he goes 4-for-4, and just the confidence he had, you could just see it, in his body language, his presence in the box. He's a special player, and he's going to be a catalyst for Louisville baseball and a future leader within this team. That's a great individual accomplishment for him. He had an incredible weekend.”

McDonnell credited extra work Hairston did in practice.

“He's the epitome of a great week of practice,” McDonnell said. “. . . Seeing what Devin Hairston did in one week, from the ACC Tournament to the regionals, that should be motivation for every player on this team. . . . We're going to get a lot done this week in practice. I love practice. You rarely lose, and you control everything.”

I haven't written much about the game. In a 13-4 win, there's not much to say.

But with these three guys, and so many others on this team, you're talking about good guys who are doing the right things — and seem to be reaping the rewards.

There was no dogpile after Sunday's win, just as there was none after last season's regional title.

“Our ultimate goal here is to win the national championship,” Rogers said. “Obviously we'll take it one day at a time, but that's the goal, as the players have written down. So winning a regional is great, and hopefully we can play well next weekend as well, but our ultimate goal is to win a national championship.”

McDonnell is well-known for the slogans he repeats so often that players can reel them off at a moment's notice. He tells his players, “Be where your feet are.” He uses the one-word slogan, “Yet.” It means there is much yet to do. But he did take a moment to talk about what it means for the program to be where it is, hosting regionals, and in a third straight Super Regional.

“Two wins away from Omaha, it's a good place to be, it's a fun place to be,” he said. “I enjoy it. And the more I'm around it, the more I enjoy it, the less pressure I feel. And the more comfortable I get, so hopefully that permeates through the players, and they're comfortable and they enjoy it.”

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