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Baseball Cards planning to end their 'funk,’ resume winning ways this season

By Russ Brown

Call this a bounce-back season for Louisville's baseball team. At least that's the plan after the Cardinals uncharacteristically had to sit on the sidelines during the 2023 postseason tournaments due to a rare disappointing campaign under highly successful coach Dan McDonnell (719-311-1).

UofL missed the 2021 NCAA Tournament for the first time in 10 years, then won the Atlantic Coast Conference's Atlantic Division in 2022 and advanced to the program's ninth Super Regional, losing a pair of one-run games to host Texas A&M. Last season, the Cards were on fire early, compiling a 17-1 record. But, with key injuries playing a major role, they sagged at midseason, losing 9 of 11 games and never recovered to finish 31-24 overall and 10-20 in the ACC while failing to qualify for the ACC Tournament.

It marked the first time since 1970 the Cardinals had failed to make a conference tournament, snapping a streak that dated back to their days in the Missouri Valley Conference. 

"I don't know if I've ever gone into a year not thinking, acting, talking like we're going to compete to win a conference championship, play in the NCAAs and compete to go to Omaha (for the College World Series)," said McDonnell, who is beginning his 18th season at the helm. "We played so good the first half of the year. It wasn't just talk or belief — it was action, it was product. We did it between the lines. Then as the injuries started to pile up, we fell below the threshold to win and then just couldn't get out of that funk."

With a battle-tested roster returning and bolstered by a Top-20 recruiting class, Louisville appears to be primed for a return to the level of excellence McDonnell has been noted for and a potential deep season run with the ultimate goal of a sixth trip to the CWS.

His comment after being eliminated by A&M in 2022 is appropriate for this season:

"For anyone who doubts this program, I don't know what you're smokin' or drinkin'," McDonnell said. "We'll be back. I think the future is very bright. I'm just very optimistic." 

UofL's experience is evidenced by the five captains who will lead the Cards into the season this month — infielders Logan Beard and Dylan Hoy; outfielders JT Benson and Isaac Humphrey; and pitcher Evan Webster. All are veterans starting their fourth or fifth season in a Division I program.

Beard is in his fourth season with and is a two-year starter, having played in 118 career games with a .297 average, 11 home runs and 88 RBIs. The North Oldham High School product was a Freshman All-American in 2022.

Benson is also set to begin year four with the Cards. After an injury-riddled 2022, he fought the injury bug again in 2023 but played in 49 games, hitting .288 with six home runs, 34 RBIs and 16 stolen bases.

Humphrey is a two-year starter returning for his fourth season. The Livermore, Ky., native holds a .295 career average in 112 games with 20 doubles, eight homers and 62 driven in. Humphrey also has a career .437 on-base percentage and 17 stolen bases.

Hoy is one of four 4-year transfers the Cardinals added during the offseason. The senior infielder played four seasons at Marist, posting a .277 average in 128 games while racking up 25 doubles, 65 RBIs and 22 stolen bases.

Webster returns for his fifth season in a Louisville uniform. The left-handed pitcher has been one of the anchors of the bullpen during his career, making 68 career appearances on the mound. Webster is 9-5 with a 4.06 ERA, striking out 101 batters in 108.2 innings.

Besides Hoy, the other transfers are southpaw pitcher Sebastian Gongora (2023 Horizon League Pitcher of the Year from Wright State); right handed pitcher Jake Karaba (D2 All-American from Lewis University); and catcher Luke Napleton (D2 All-American from Quincy University).

UofL has experience all over the field. It is bringing back seven of nine starters from last season in Benson, Beard, senior infielder Ryan McCoy; Humphrey; junior infielder Brandon Anderson; junior outfielder Eddie King Jr.; and sophomore infielder Gavin Kilen. In all, there are 11 seniors on the roster, far more than usual.

Ten pitchers return, headed by right handed junior Carson Liggett and lefty Webster. Liggett led UofL in wins while posting a 7-2 record with a 3.42 ERA and 64 strikeouts, which was second on the team. Webster appeared in 22 games with a 4-2 record and a team-best 3.09 ERA.

The Cards lost four players to the major league draft — shortstop Christian Knapczyk (5th round, Cleveland); pitchers Tate Kuehner (7th round, Milwaukee) and Ryan Hawks (8th round, Seattle); and catcher Jack Payton (11th round, San Francisco).

Payton and Knapczyk were the biggest losses. Payton led UofL with a .374 batting average and 12 home runs, and was second in RBI with 41. Knapczyk was one of the best leadoff men in the ACC, with a .331 batting average and a .455 on-base percentage. He drew 21 walks and was hit by a pitch 19 times while striking out just 19 times in 169 at-bats. Hawks (5-3) will also be missed after recording 80 strikeouts in 76.2 innings, both team highs.

UofL will face a challenging schedule that includes six ACC teams that are ranked among the top 15 in the country: No. 1 Wake Forest, Clemson (10), Duke (12), NC State (13), Virginia (14) and North Carolina (15). Wake advanced to the CWS last season as the No. 1 seed. The schedule also includes a trip to No. 6 Vanderbilt on May 7th.

The Cards will open the season as part of a four-team round-robin event in Tampa, Fla. Feb. 16th-18th that also Indiana State, UConn and USF. Their first of 35 games in Jim Patterson Stadium is scheduled for Feb. 21st against Xavier, weather permitting. It will be the start of an 18-game homestand that will feature their opening ACC series against Virginia Tech (March 8th-11th).


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