LOUISVILLE, KY – Prior to head coach Dan McDonnell’s arrival in 2007, the Louisville Cardinals had only appeared in the NCAA Tournament once (in 2002 under the helm of Lelo Prado), but since his arrival the Cardinals have undergone a renaissance and have blossomed into a national powerhouse. Since 2007, the Cardinals have advanced to the postseason in seven of eight seasons, including a pair of trips to Omaha (2007, 2013), and with a 48-15 record thus far, Louisville has the opportunity to turn in one of, if not their strongest season to date.
After spending the previous eight seasons in the Big East, the Cardinals’ first season in the American (the successor of the Big East) has been quite successful, as they turned in a 19-5 conference record to take home the inaugural conference championship; however, after downing Rutgers to face Houston in the American Tournament championship game, the Cardinals were unable to tame the Cougars who took the tournament title with a 10-4 victory.
In losing the title game, the Cardinals were incentivized to turn in a great (rather, winning) showing at Jim Patterson Stadium, their home and the host site of the Louisville Regional. The Cardinals did just that, upending Kent State 5-0 in Friday’s regional opener behind a stellar outing by Kyle Funkhouser who turned in eight scoreless frames. Louisville responded with a 6-2 victory over Kansas on Saturday to advance to the regional final, where Josh Rogers and company held the explosive Kentucky offense at bay for the 4-1 victory.
As for Kennesaw State, the Owls began the season with a paltry 13-18 record. But when assistant coach Trey Fowler started the tradition of giving out a wrestling belt to the most valuable player of each game (to be passed on following each game), the fun initiative struck a chord with the Owls, who caught fire and in grabbing a 3-0 victory over Georgia Southern on April 3, commenced a 27-4 run that has included a 4-0 showing in the Atlantic Sun Tournament (downing Lipscomb 7-1 in the tournament final) and 3-1 showing in the Tallahassee Regional.
The Owls brought that momentum into their regional opener against Alabama, as Travis Bergen held a seasoned Crimson Tide lineup scoreless over 8 2/3 innings en route to a 1-0 Kennesaw State victory. The bats came out in Saturday’s game against Georgia Southern, as prized prospect Max Pentecost led the 13-run, 20-hit attack with four hits of his own, an extra-inning affair that saw the Owls explode for eight runs in the top of the 11th. In Sunday’s regional final, Alabama grabbed the 4-1 victory, but the Owls battled back on Monday to score two late runs and take the 4-2 triumph over the Tide.
Both schools have as their primary objective to turn in a successful, winning performance in Super Regional play, and for good reason, as Louisville will attempt to further build upon their status as a national powerhouse, while Kennesaw State attempts to put its name into the fold as a possible contender for seasons to come. In chronicling the journey that each team has experienced up to this point in the NCAA Tournament, we should have a feel of what to expect from each team, which is detailed in the below brief assessments of what both teams bring to the table at this point in the postseason.
The Cardinals have been a model of consistency all season long, having lost just a single weekend series that being a mid-April series at Central Florida – and since then, the Cardinals have turned in a 20-4 record, including a clean sweep of the competition at the Louisville Regional. Louisville has displayed an aggressive offense (much like the one that rolled through Vanderbilt and into Omaha last season) that attacks early and often, as McDonnell loves to employ the type of offensive game plan similar to Los Angeles Angels (MLB) manager Mike Scioscia.
Louisville loves to run and can do it well, as they rank second in the country with 127 steals, 36 of which have been contributed by Sutton Whiting, one of the many catalysts on this offense that know how to get on base. Jeff Gardner is the premier hitter in the lineup, flashing gap (and over the fence) power and clutch hitting ability, whereas Cole Sturgeon is an overall impressive athlete who paces the team with 82 hits and 57 runs scored, and Grant Kay compliments Gardner with his ability to smoke the ball on occasion. The lineup is balanced from top to bottom and if you cannot keep them off-balance, they will make you pay.
One may have thought the Louisville rotation would take a critical hit with the loss of both Chad Green and Jeff Thompson to professional ball, but Kyle Funkhouser and Jared Ruxer have been impressive throughout the season. With each passing start, Funkhouser is showing that he is one of the premier right-handed arms in the country, as the sophomore turned in a gem against Kent State in the regional opener.
He knows how to attack early and gets better as the outing progresses, which a talented Kennesaw State offense will have to vigilant on, as they must beat him to the punch in order to fare well. Anthony Kidson knows how to throw strikes and kept a crafty Kansas offense at bay on Saturday, despite walking five batters. The bullpen worked a combined six innings over three games, two-thirds of those by Kyle McGrath. Nick Burdi struggled to find the strike zone early in both relief appearances, but finished nicely and will be of key importance in what could be close ball games with a dangerous Kennesaw State offense.
Can you name another team that has been as focused and successful over the last month or so? The Owls have registered wins in 26 of their last 28 games and can owe much of that due to one of the stronger offenses in the country, led by surefire first-rounder Max Pentecost. The star catcher comes into the Louisville Super Regional as the national leader in hits (110) and second in batting (.423), as he is the type of toolsy athlete that not only combines plate discipline, power, defense, and speed, but leads by example and makes those around him better.
Bo Way and Alex Liquori know how to get on base and flash strong bats, while Cornell Nixon and Kal Simmons have been strong both on offense and defense up the middle throughout the postseason. This is a talented lineup, but they will have to attack early against a Louisville staff that knows how to counter aggressive with aggressive.
On the mound, a pair of sophomores in Travis Bergen and Jordan Hillyer helms the front of the rotation – and for good reason. Bergen got the starting nod in the regional opener against Alabama and held the Crimson Tide scoreless over 8 2/3 innings en route to a 1-0 victory. On just two days rest, Bergen tossed 3 1/3 innings of scoreless relief in Monday’s regional final, holding Alabama’s lineup at bay as the Owls scored late to seal the 4-2 victory.
The bullpen has been stout with Justin McCalvin leading the way, who worked three perfect innings to preserve Saturday’s extra innings victory over Georgia Southern, while both Will Solomon and Nathan Harsh turned in impressive relief appearances, who are two of many in a bullpen that can make spot starts or be utilized in long-relief spots. The Owls know how to make it work on the mound and adjust accordingly, which should present an aggressive Louisville offense with an intriguing challenge.
Game 1: 5:30 p.m. (ESPNU)
Game 2: 6:00 p.m. (ESPNU)
Game 3: 5:00 p.m. (ESPN2) (if necessary)