It's still hard to say exactly how it happened, but the Louisville baseball team saw its season end with a 4-3 extra inning loss to Cal State Fullerton Monday night. No Omaha, no College World Series, no national championship pursuit.
This should rank right near the top of heartbreaking season-ending losses for Louisville athletic teams for a handful of reasons: you've got a remarkably controversial call, you've got a feeling that Louisville was never really in danger until that call happened, and then you have the fact that this Cardinal team could have won a national title. Add all that together and it's understandable to still be hurting as ESPN begins to ramp up its coverage of the 2015 College World Series.
Regardless of whether David Olmedo-Barrera's game-winning home run was fair or foul (it was foul), one game doesn't change what the Louisville baseball team did this season.
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 diamond 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. Not so much. UofL didn't just compete with the best in their first ACC season, they didn't just win the league's regular season title outright, they set a conference record by winning 25 games and all 10 of their weekend series. That success resulted in a No. 3 overall seed for the NCAA Tournament, the highest in program history, and a trip to the Super Regionals for the fifth time under McDonnell.
Having said all that, it's still pretty clear what the next step for Cardinal baseball is. Winning conference titles and advancing to super regionals are always going to be accomplishments worth puffing your chest out for, but great success brings even greater expectations. McDonnell and company are well aware that their fan base is desperate to see the Cards make a deep College World Series run in the near future.
That future could be sooner than you'd think.
College baseball programs typically exist in three-year cycles. First, you bring in an elite crop of youngsters and throw them directly into the fire and hope they can rise to the occasion. In year two, you hope that those players have accrued the experience necessary to compete for a conference title and maybe make a run in the NCAA Tournament. Year three is the year. That's when you shoot for Omaha and, if you're among the nation's elite, a national title. After that, all your key juniors and seniors head off to play the game for pay and you begin the cycle all over again.
The funny thing about the past two seasons for Louisville is that they were supposed to be years one and two of the cycle. The last "big year" was 2013, and the Cards weren't expected to be a major player on the national scene again until 2016.
Two of Louisville's three starting pitchers will be back next season, including cleanup hitter and College Baseball News National Freshman of the Year Brendan McKay. Leading hitter Corey Ray will be a junior with All-American expectations, and regional MVP Devin Hairston will hope to carry the momentum from his stellar postseason into his sophomore year. Nick Solak, Will Smith, Logan Taylor, and Zack Burdi? All back as well.
Guys like Kyle Funkhouser and Sutton Whiting did incredible things for this program and will be sorely missed next season, but Louisville baseball isn't going anywhere.
This column appears in the current issue of The Voice-Tribune