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September 20, 2013

Extra Innings: Louisville Baseball hits the field

The Louisville Cardinal baseball team kicked off fall practices Sept. 9 at Jim Patterson stadium. The first practice came only two and a half months after the Cardinals second College World Series appearance at Omaha.

The 2013 season was a great with an overall record of 51-14 and a conference record of 20-4.

The Cardinals took the field Friday at 3:30 for a free scrimmage at Jim Patterson Stadium. They will also scrimmage for free Saturday at 3:30 p.m.

Prior to the scrimmages, CardinalSports.com sat down with Coach Dan McDonnell to get his thoughts on the team.

Q&A with the Coach Dan McDonnell

Q. Fall practices started four days ago now, how is the team preparing for the upcoming season? What kind of workouts are you going through?
A. "Two-week individual period, 6 a.m. workouts 5 days a week. In afternoon groups with pitchers getting their arms in shape, fielders getting their legs in shape. First two weeks pushed hard to make sure that you're in top shape. We want to make sure that you're physically able to endure the length of a practice as well as mentally prepared. There's a mental side of it. Week three start team practices lift three days a week instead of five. Pitchers have routines, like they are going through the season. As well as position players."

Q. Are there any freshman or JuCo's on the team that have come in that you think will make a direct impact right away?
A. "Junior College kids seem to have some advantages, Grant Kay. Grant's an infielder from Iowa Western Community College who is very versatile. Physically and mentally more prepared coming from Junior College baseball he understands the speed of the game. Freshman, have been doing individuals for two weeks, so its really hard to single out any one freshman. They're a good group of hard working guys. We're having our first scrimmage Saturday at three o'clock so I don't want to start naming kids, I'd like to see how they perform over the next couple of weeks."

Q. Will there be any changes this season in terms of offense or how you will attack other teams?
A. "We always want to learn from the past; my message to the team in first week was that we've been to Omaha twice. In both years we've stolen an awful lot of bases, and I don't believe you can steal your way through the post-season, but I do believe that you can steal a lot of bases during the season to help set you up to be in a good spot in the post-season. So I made it clear our emphasis on stealing bases and being aggressive has to be at the forefront. As well as our success in strikeouts per inning on the mound, which I believe, we led the country in. That's two fold, the pitchers are always going to strikeout as many guys as they can, but as hitters we take a lot of pride in limiting the strikeouts and Coach Lemonis does a great job with our guys and he's been meeting regularly with those guys on their approach."

Q. Which players will you miss the most from this past season's team? How big of an impact did their leadership have on the team last season?
A. "We lost seven juniors to the draft and three seniors, Wasserman, Ratajczak, and helms. So ten leaders if you want to call it that. We've used the word opportunity, because there's a great opportunity for guys to step up. Because we're not necessarily young, we just have guys who maybe haven't been in leadership roles and it's time for them to step up. Even though we lost seven juniors and three seniors, we have a lot of older guys in the mix. Two of the catchers, Gibson and Crain. In the infield Rosenbaum, Whiting, Chittenden, Lucas, Striegel. In the outfield White, Sturgeon, Gardner. It's time for them to maybe accept bigger roles that some of them haven't had in the past."

Q. What type of things have the guys been doing during the summer while baseball wasn't going on that you know of? Summer leagues of any sorts?
A. "From the time we we're eliminated in Omaha, within 24 hours we had a team meeting and within 48 hours we had individual meetings with all of the players to start working towards getting back to Omaha and winning a National Championship. As I've said, it's not like a New Year's resolution; we don't want to wait until a certain day to start achieving that next goal. The next goal in our world starts as soon as the season is over. Because of the time of the year, we meet with kids and then they go off and play in the summer leagues. Like we've done the past few years, our guys have took off and had a lot of success in the Cape Cod League, the New England Collegiate Baseball League, and the Coastal Plains League. You know our guys went off and immediately started working on their game and honing their skills. Vise-versa with all the incoming players or signees, we brought them here in July to get a month with them where they can take six hours get in our weight room and get acclimated to camp. So all the returning players get shipped off in the summer and all the new guys we get them in here early so they can get acclimated to what Louisville is all about."

Q. How excited are you to head to the ACC, with eight teams in the top 25 for this coming season I'm sure you're ready for the challenge. How do you think you'll prepare for conference play with tough games coming week in and week out.
A. "We're extremely excited, we have a lot of respect for that league, for the coaches, the consistency and success, the tradition that the ACC has in baseball year in and year out. We want to be one of those so called great baseball programs and so we're looking forward to that challenge and opportunity to week in and week out play against the best programs in the country."

Q. With the new turf being put in have you had to make any adjustments defensively or had to adjust where you would want a player lined up as opposed to the old turf?
A. "In two and half weeks it does feel as if it's going to play faster and that's what we wanted. We wanted a faster turf and so defensively you just get used to it. With the shortage of home runs over the past three years teams seem to be putting in the faster fields just to add a little more offense to the game."

Q. What players from last year that will be returning do you expect to take a leadership roll?
A. "I think they had leadership roles last year, but now it'll be magnified because those ten players are gone. Clearly Sturgeon and Gardner because they were named captains this summer and we normally don't name our captains until December, but we kind of pulled a Rick Pitino move and named our captains before the next year just to kind of set the tone. Everyone kind of knew these guys were leaders in our program and we wanted to make it clear that all the new players coming in had two guys that they could look to and to challenge all those other guys that I mentioned. We'll add another captain at the end of fall, but do and act as Sturgeon and Gardner do if you want to be a leader on this team. These guys have been leaders in the past but now they've really thrust to the forefront."

Q. Are there any aspects that you think really need to be improved? Pitching, hitting, fielding? I know you lost four great pitchers in Dace Kime (Cleveland Indians), Jeff Thompson (Detroit Tigers), Chad Green (Detroit Tigers), and Cody Ege (Texas Rangers) who do you see being the ace this year?
A. "If we do everything we did last year as a team we feel like we'll have a chance to be in Omaha, but the personnel has changed and so obviously you want that personnel to do what those guys did last year. It has to be on an individual basis. Jeffrey Thompson had the ability to strike guys out, as a pitcher Coach Williams will make sure whatever is the best way for that pitcher to get outs that's what we'll set him up to do. Adam Engel was a base stealer and so you might not have a guy who can steal as many bases as Adam Engel but for that player lets make sure we get the most out of his skill set and collectively with nine hitters and your starting pitcher, yes collectively as a team you want to duplicate what we did last year but it doesn't mean individually that Kyle Funkhouser now has to be Jeffrey Thompson, that's not fair to ask Kyle to do let Kyle be Kyle, but lets maximize all the strengths that Kyle Funkhouser has."

Q. Obviously an important part of any championship team is chemistry; with all the new players coming in (freshman and JuCo) what do you do as a coach to build team chemistry?
A. "It starts in the summer I meet with whatever players will play in the Cape Cod League, I sent six letters, newspaper clippings whatever you want to call it to the team this summer preparing them for what we're trying to accomplish this fall and spring. I think it's just being able to communicate. I think at the end of the day be very clear as to what your goals are as an administration, from a coaching staff, and a fan base and allow those players to ultimately choose what their goals and path will be going into the spring and so from the workouts in the weight room to on the field work, we'll wrap up the fall with our "Pizza Bowl," we'll have a team meal at my house. We'll do some things community service wise, we're going to do the Susan G. Koman 5k or 10k in October as a team, because Kyle Gibson's mom is a breast cancer survivor. I told Kyle last year that my wife and I did it and we're going to get the whole team to do it next year so we'll do things in the community, we'll do things on the field and just as important we have to get it done in the classroom. Last years team, as much as we like to brag about their on field success it was the highest team GPA we ever had. We won the highest GPA in Omaha and we had the single GPA Award winner in Jared Ruxer. So three areas academics, baseball and socially we're going to try and succeed in those three areas."

The Cardinals played 36 home games last season and are looking to play 36 home games again this season.

Tom Jurich has said that Louisville is always preparing for the future and Coach McDonnell said the same. As in any sport, the Cards baseball team can't look past this season in the AAC. There are some teams from the south like USF, UCF, Houston and Memphis that are going to pose a serious challenge with the southern talent you see.

Although some of these teams may not be in the BCS, the Cards schedule got drastically better in Coach McDonnell's eyes. Schools in the south have the resources they need to be successful so any time UofL faces teams like that they have to come prepared.

You can also follow the Louisville baseball team on Twitter @UofLbaseball.

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