Dan McDonnell proved precocious in leading Louisville to its first-ever College World Series appearance last season in his first year as a head coach at any level. So what's he going to do for an encore?
Set realistic goals, for one.
"I know how hard it is to get there," said McDonnell, who was an assistant for powerful, favored Ole Miss teams that lost home super-regionals in consecutive years. "You try to bring people down to attainable goals. There are 293 Division I schools, so I don't know if it's reasonable to live and die off [getting to] Omaha.
"It's a great goal, and it makes for a special year, but over the last few years some great teams and strong programs haven't even made it out of regionals. We're not afraid to set the bar high, it just needs to be a realistic height."
Fan support and expectation will be higher for McDonnell's second Louisville season, and those fans will see a team constructed in a very different manner. The Cardinals entered 2007 relying on a lineup packed with six seniors to support an inexperienced pitching staff. This year a deep pitching staff will be expected to buttress an offense that returns just two starters (though one is third baseman Chris Dominguez, who homered eight times in 12 NCAA Tournament games).
Top starters Zack Pitts (10-3, 2.52) and Justin Marks (9-2, 2.67) return to front the rotation, where they could be joined by senior B.J. Rosenberg, who missed 2007 with a torn labrum, and power-armed junior Matt Lea, a Mississippi State transfer and the son of former major leaguer Charlie Lea. While the bullpen loses closer
Trystan Magnuson, all the setup arms return, and Louisville also welcomes a deep recruiting class that features four players who turned down professional contracts to attend school.
"The landscape is 180 degrees from last year," McDonnell said. "We're going to have a lot more [options] on the mound and some returning experience, so hopefully we won't have to lean on our offense so much.
"I think I might have to get up with [Oregon State coach] Pat Casey to try to pick his brain to see how he did it with just his shortstop and catcher returning last year, because we've just got our catcher and third baseman and seven new guys in the lineup."
McDonnell also was working to put some new faces on the schedule. He contacted all the SEC and Big Ten conference teams within driving distance and set up games against Vanderbilt, Ole Miss, Tennessee, Ohio State, Purdue and Indiana for the next few seasons. In 2009, Louisville will play 16 of its 29 nonconference games against teams from the SEC and Big Ten.
In news larger than just Louisville, McDonnell added that the Big East and Big Ten conferences have discussed starting a preconference "challenge" event, possibly in 2009, similar to what the ACC and Big Ten conferences have done in basketball during the last decade.
Tulane back on track
Tulane coach Rick Jones went to the NCAA Tournament in 2007, but without his team. Jones went to Houston to watch former assistant Jim Schlossnagle's TCU team play after the Green Wave missed the postseason for the first time since 1997. That experience gave Jones even more motivation to get his program back to its customary standards as it continues to recover from Hurricane Katrina, which derailed a renovation project at Turchin Stadium. Tulane finally returned to a rebuilt red brick Turchin this fall, marking the first time it played in a home stadium since June 13, 2005, the date it clinched a trip to the College World Series.
"It's been the longest two years I've ever had," Jones said. "Everything just got turned upside down, and we were part of it like this whole city."
Katrina forced Tulane's baseball team to spend the fall of 2005 attending class and practicing at Texas Tech before moving into Zephyr Field, a Triple-A park 15 minutes from campus while the city and stadium were rebuilt. While Tulane made the NCAA Tournament in 2006, recruiting suffered as prospects had to make official visits to Lubbock, Texas, and then think about what New Orleans would look like when they enrolled.
Tulane made up for its recruiting slow-down by adding a talented group of transfers the last two falls, including junior right-hander Shooter Hunt, a potential first-round draft pick this June, sophomore shortstop Josh Prince, a highly recruited prep star who spent 2007 fighting for playing time at Texas, and a solid crop of junior college talent. Tulane was six-for-six on commitments from high school players who visited campus and the rebuilt Turchin this fall, a sign that Tulane and New Orleans are getting back to normal.
"The majority of this city is getting back to like it was prior to the storm," Jones said, "and I hope we are, too."
The NCAA is set to eliminate the one-time transfer exemption for players from four-year schools with the intent of slowing down transfers and their drag on the sport's Academic Progress Report. But the effect this spring will be exactly the opposite. Expect floods of transfers at the semester change as players make use of their last Get Out of Jail Free card, where stars at smaller programs trade up for glory and backups at larger programs shift schools for a chance at more playing time.
The best player transferring this year might just be junior Tony Delmonico Jr., who left Tennessee for Florida State this summer after the Volunteers fired his father as head coach. The intriguing twist is that the talented middle infielder enrolled at Tennessee following his junior year of high school -- passing up his senior year and chance to be drafted -- in part to help his father save his job. Now, the younger Delmonico will play for Mike Martin, the coach under whom his father coached before taking the Tennessee job in 1990.
Oklahoma State also should prove a winner in the transfer derby. The Cowboys corralled a sweet-swinging third baseman for the second straight year in landing Matt Hague and his .353 average and 13 homers by way of Washington a year after adding Matt Mangini from North Carolina State. Mangini was a supplemental first-round draft pick of the Mariners.
Oklahoma State also added Luis Flores from Houston. Flores, a Freshman All-America pick as a pitcher and catcher for the Cougars, will serve mostly as a catcher for the Cowboys. He's never hit .300 in a college season, but Flores does have 17 homers in two years and could reach double-digits in a season for the first time at homer-happy Allie P. Reynolds Stadium.
Will Kimmey has covered collegiate baseball for five years. He can be reached at email@example.com.