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2016 Louisville baseball preview: It's Omaha or bust for the Cards

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Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

"Despite the forecast, live like it's spring." - Lilly Pulitzer

Today marks the beginning of a quest and a hunt for something special and elusive. After multiple seasons of school record breaking success on the ball diamond, the 2016 University of Louisville Baseball team will run out between the lines for the first time this season later today and begin an expedition for Omaha, Nebraska. But what makes this season a little different than those of the past for Coach Dan McDonnell and his team is the following: just GETTING to Omaha is no longer the ultimate goal. Conquering the College World Series and returning to the UofL campus with a Gatorade drenched National Championship trophy is the new objective for the Cardinal Nine.

Baseball, some would argue, is the ultimate team sport. To be successful, every piece to the team puzzle has to fit well with one another in order for full potential to be maximized. With the 2016 Cardinal Nine squad, the pieces are aplenty and they look to be prepared to form a masterpiece.

If you're looking for star power on this 2016 squad, then you'll have plenty of names to consider. Let's start with junior outfielder and preseason All-American Corey Ray. Ray, a native of Chicago, is as complete of an all-around player that the University of Louisville Baseball program has showcased in years, perhaps ever. His aptness to not only hit for power (lead the '15 team with 11 HRs) but also for a high average makes him a complete nightmare for opposing team's pitchers. Aside from his ability to rake at the plate, Ray also showcases tremendous speed (led the '15 team with 34 stolen bases) and is a constant threat to steal when on base. As a result of his complete offensive package, Coach McDonnell has said that he would be penciling Ray in as the team's leadoff hitter to start the season....my apologies to future UofL opponents.  Defensively, Ray is equally as solid with the glove and is a staple in right field while protecting the gaps and throwing out runners with the bad idea of attempting to advance on base hits and sacrifice fly balls.

Sophomore Brendan McKay is another star piece to the UofL Baseball puzzle. McKay broke onto the college baseball scene last year with a fury not only from the plate but also from the mound making him arguably the best two-way player in the country and gaining him the honor as the 2015 Collegiate Baseball Player of the Year. As a freshman, McKay showcased a gaudy 9-3 record and a ridiculous 1.77 ERA while amassing 117 strikeouts. For those scoring from home, those are Nintendo RBI Baseball Roger Clemens type statistics. A left handed hitter, McKay finished the 2015 season third on the team with 34 runs batted in and produced a .302 batting average. Because of his stellar performance in 2015, McKay enters the 2016 campaign as a Golden Spikes Award preseason watch list member. Cardinal fans should expect McKay to have an even bigger 2016 season which means continued success for the Cards.

Following the 2015 regular season, then junior star pitcher Kyle Funkhouser had a tough decision to make: live it out his dream of playing Major League Baseball (was drafted 35th overall by the LA Dodgers, the highest in UofL school history) by signing with an agent or return to UofL for his senior season. Not many could have faulted Funk for inking a contract with the Dodgers, but in the spirit of the "Louisville First" mantra, he followed his heart and decided to come back to Louisville to finish what he and his 2015 teammates started - a 4th trip to Omaha and a shot at a national title. Funkhouser, an imposing 6'3" power right handed pitcher, finished last season with an 8-5 record and 104 strikeouts while serving as the Cardinal's ace. His return to the pitching rotation will serve as an anchor for what could be the best group of arms in the country.

Everybody loves watching a good closer, especially one that's dominant and intimidating. In 2016, UofL will again have arguably the best in all of Division 1 baseball in junior right handed flame thrower Zack Burdi. If you thought Brendan McKay's numbers as a starter this past season were overwhelmingly good then get a load of this: in just 29 innings pitched, Burdi produced a 6-1 record, an 0.92 ERA and struck out 30 batters. His back end prowess, highlighted by a high 90's fastball, will be instrumental for the Cards this season and when he's on his game, you can turn off the lights because the party's over.

Aside from the four aforementioned stars, the 2016 UofL Baseball squad also features some other key returnees:  2016 Team Captain and offensive juggernaut junior infielder Nick Solak, starting right handed senior pitcher Anthony Kidston, defensive wizard and sophomore shortstop Devin Hairston and sophomore bullpen bulldog Lincoln Henzman.

The table is set, the pieces are in place and the proven talent is ready to ooze out from the Cardinal dugout. Now, it's time for the Cardinal Nine to simply do what they do best: play games and collect wins. Look, please allow me to be frank in saying that this ball club has a chance to be really, really good. Therefore, you as a UofL fan should be really, really excited. My friendly advice would be to drown your men's basketball post season ban sorrows in a cold beverage on the berm later today at Patterson Field and cheer on one of the school's truly special teams. The forecast in the air today calls for highs in the 60's. The forecast on the field calls for a lot of UofL runs and maybe even a Danny RosenBAUMB or two with the wind blowing out (see what I did there).

The quest for Omaha begins today. Be a part of the Cardinal pursuit!