By Josh Cook
Jeff Arnold & Co. were robbed.
Not literally of course. Well, kind of. But really it's University of Louisville baseball fans who should feel like they've just been fleeced.
Arnold and his UofL teammates missed a chance at a third NCAA Super Regional in four years and potentially another trip to the College World Series on Monday night with their 3-2 10-inning loss to Vanderbilt in the deciding game of the Louisville Regional at Jim Patterson Stadium. And arguably the biggest play of the game came in the third inning when Commodores' freshman center fielder Connor Harrell robbed Arnold of a two-run home with a spectacular leaping catch.
"You have to tip your hat to them, they made all the plays," Arnold, a senior catcher, said after the season- and career-ending loss.
But you also have to tip your hat to Arnold and five other seniors who helped turn the UofL team, and program around.
"What Jeff Arnold and this group of guys did is unbelievable," Louisville coach Dan McDonnell said. "Look at where this program is now, I get too much credit for it, it's players."
But first you have to look at where it was before Arnold, a graduate of Male High School, and his class arrived in the fall of 2006. Louisville was coming off a 31-29 season and had just hired a new coach named Dan McDonnell in late June. For a baseball program that had barely had any success in its history a trip to the College World Series seemed like a far-fetched dream, the kind born out of roundtable bantering at a Denny's after an all-night bender.
But surprisingly those dreams came true in the 2007 season when the Cards made their first trip to Omaha, Neb. for the College World Series. Arnold was on of six true freshman on that team. He played in 22 games that season, starting five - the most of any true frosh position player.
Arnold hit just .211 that season, but upped that to .333 the next - his first as a full-time starter - for a team that lost in the NCAA's regional round. Then in 2009 his batting average dipped to .246 but he continued to be a defensive stalwart behind the plate for a team that advanced to the NCAA's Super Regional. This season as Louisville's leadoff hitter (about as common as an MTV Movie Awards show without an F-bomb, or 10) Arnold led the Cards to a school-record 50 wins.
Arnold and pitcher Tyler Mathis are the only remaining members from that freshman class of '06, but they have been joined over the years by four others, including key transfers Andrew Clark and Adam Duvall. Arnold, though, hasn't just been the backstop of the team, he's been the backbone.
That was never more evident than Monday night when his facemask flew off not once, but twice, as he celebrated big strikeouts by his pitchers. And he also showed it with his exuberance after his two-out, game-tying RBI-single in the top of the ninth inning.
"I think the highest honor in the NCAA is to host a regional, and we've hosted one three out of the last four years," McDonnell said in his post-game press conference following the loss to Vandy. "There's a lot of momentum in this program. We have a great (recruiting) class coming in. We'll lose a lot of great players, but the kids that come to the University of Louisville know it's all about championships...We've proven that we're going to win. We're going to compete every year at the highest level. That's where Louisville baseball is. A lot of credit goes to these guys sitting to my left and all those guys on the field. The expectations are very high here - they will continue to stay that high."
Moments later McDonnell, and those players who were seated to his left - one of whom was Arnold - rose from their chairs. But not before McDonnell ended his remarks with these words: "We'll be back."
But sadly Arnold & Co. won't be.
Photo courtesy UofLsports.com