Of all the major athletic programs at UofL facing a hike in competition thanks to the move to the ACC, it was Dan McDonnell's baseball Cardinals who seemed to be staring at the steepest fresh uphill climb.
Loaded with teams from warm-weather areas who can play the sport year-round, the ACC has long been a baseball powerhouse. The conference churns out more Major League talent than any conference this side of the SEC, and has sent at least seven teams to the NCAA Tournament in every year since 2007. Being located in recruiting fertile areas allows programs like Miami, Florida State and North Carolina to stock their rosters with handfuls of the top young pitchers in the country, one of the biggest keys to success in a sport which revolves around three-game weekend series.
The days of Louisville baseball dominating its conference were supposed to be long gone, with the days of the Cards hoping to ride a solid strength of schedule into the NCAA Tournament all set to take their place.
A funny thing has happened through the first two months of the season, though. UofL has played seven ACC series, and they have won them all, five of them via the sweep. The Cards will enter the month of May a sparkling 19-2 conference record, good enough to put them a full five games ahead of preseason Atlantic Division favorite Florida State. The dominance has also resulted in Louisville earning a top four national ranking from five different major polls, including a No. 3 nod from Perfect Game USA and Collegiate Baseball Newspaper, the highest ranking in program history.
None of this was supposed to happen, but then again miracle working is nothing new for McDonnell.
Playing in a city that's known for college basketball and the Kentucky Derby as much as anything else, Louisville baseball was inherently tasked with a seemingly impossible assignment: capture the hearts and minds of the local fans while competing during the spring months. With all due respect to free admission and dollar beers, winning big at the sport's highest level was the only way to make that happen, and that had never come close to happening when McDonnell arrived in town back in 2007.
For all intents and purposes, the Dan McDonnell era at Louisville represents the entirety of the program's history. Before McDonnell arrived, UofL had been to exactly one NCAA Tournament (2002) and won exactly zero games in the big dance. Since then, the Cards have missed the tournament just once, crashed the College World series three times, captured four regional titles, and are now in the hunt to earn a national seed in the NCAA Tournament for a second time.
Despite all this success, being a diehard Louisville baseball fan isn't exactly the easiest task in the world. Not only does the sport begin at a time (February) when Cardinal basketball hysteria is at its peak, but the first half of the season takes place during a period of time that few sports fans ever associate with baseball.
This being the case, the average UofL fanatic keeps a casual eye on the Cardinal Nine in February and March, and then really starts to get to know their team once the basketball madness has died down. Another chunk of folks will start to pay attention only when the postseason rolls around. And then, of course, there is another contingent of fans who just don't care for the game of baseball and have a hard time getting into the whole thing at all.
If you fall into one of the latter groups and have been wary about hopping on the Cardinal baseball bandwagon up until now, it's certainly not too late. There's still room, but you should probably hop on now because there's a pretty large fact floating around right now that's impossible to gloss over casually: this Louisville baseball team is good enough to win a national championship. Love the sport or loath the sport, the preceding statement should be enough to at least catch your eye, if not your head and heart, for these next couple of months.
A version of this column appears in the most recent issue of The Voice-Tribune