LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Looking at the way Kennesaw State coach Mike Sansing has built his program reminds Louisville coach Dan McDonnell of his start with the Cardinals.
The teams meet in this weekend’s Super Regional with a berth in the College World Series on the line.
Though the Cardinals (48-15) are looking to make their third CWS appearance since hiring McDonnell in 2007, he recalls the struggles of building a title contender.
The Cardinals hadn’t won an NCAA Tournament game before he arrived.
“Everybody’s selling a bright future,” McDonnell said. “Nobody’s recruiting a kid saying, ‘Hey, we’re going to stink the next few years.’ Everybody’s got this vision, and so kids have to believe your vision.”
Kennesaw State (40-22) built its program from NAIA to Division II and now to success in Division I all under Sansing, who is in his 23rd season as the Owls’ coach.
The Owls transitioned from Division II in 2006, but they aren’t out of place this week. Junior catcher Max Pentecost is a finalist for the Dick Howser Award, one of several national honors, after leading the nation with 110 hits and ranking second with a .423 batting average. He was taken by the Toronto Blue Jays with the 11th pick in Thursday’s Major League Baseball draft.
McDonnell said he would approach Pentecost’s at-bats similar to how Louisville handled Kentucky’s A.J. Reed in the regional final. Reed, also a Howser finalist, went 0 for 4 despite hitting the ball hard each time.
The Cardinals’ defensive shifts pegged Reed perfectly and made easy outs.
“You play the law of averages, and it doesn’t mean it’s always going to work out,” McDonnell said. “Nothing’s 100 percent, but the more times you do it, you hope over the course of a game or a weekend series that it pays off.”
Here are five things to watch about the best-of-three Super Regional between Kennesaw State and Louisville:
NO BURDEN ON BURDI: Louisville’s top professional prospect is closer Nick Burdi, a right-handed junior with a fastball that consistently nears triple-digit velocity and a hard, tight slider. But Burdi didn’t have to do much in the Cardinals’ sweep through the regional thanks to the contributions from their offense and starting pitchers. Burdi has 16 saves and a 0.54 ERA this season. The Cardinals are 41-0 when leading after eight innings.
STEADY SANSING: The Owls were NAIA national champions in 1994 and Division II champions in 1996. With Sansing’s first appearance in a Division I super regional, he is the only coach in college baseball with an NAIA championship, a Division II championship and a Division I super regional appearance.
GARDNER’S STRUGGLES: Louisville senior left fielder Jeff Gardner has traditionally performed well in the NCAA tournament, but the American Athletic Conference player of the year struggled in the first three games of this postseason. He went 1-for-12 with four strikeouts in the regional round. Gardner led the AAC during the season with a .575 slugging percentage and 61 RBI, ranking eighth in Division I.
HOT, HOT, HOOT: The Owls are among college baseball’s hottest teams with 26 wins in 28 games. That surge includes last weekend’s regional appearance, when they lost the first game of the final against Alabama before rebounding to beat the Crimson Tide 4-2 on Monday.
ROCKING ROTATION: The Cardinals’ three starting pitchers in last week’s regional - Kyle Funkhouser, Anthony Kidston and Josh Rogers - combined for 21 innings and three earned runs. The same three are scheduled to start against Kennesaw State. Louisville’s rotation has thrived in the postseason despite losing No. 2 starter Jared Ruxer to a forearm injury. Ruxer last pitched May 10 and is not expected to be available in the tournament.