Coach Dan McDonnell’s Cards were eliminated by North Carolina in their third game in Omaha, but Abramson and about 300 fans greeted and congratulated the team at Jim Patterson Stadium Wednesday afternoon just moments after the squad landed at nearby Louisville International Airport.
In a brief interview, Abramson expressed his appreciation for what the Louisville team had just accomplished – the school's first trip to the CWS, a record-breaking season (47-24) and a top-six finish nationally.
“You can’t put a dollar figure on it, because that kind of positive publicity all over the country and beyond (via ESPN) puts Louisville in such a great light,” said Abramson (pictured left). “The kind of energy these young men showed, the kind of success they had, and the class with which they handled themselves, again showed this community is a very positive place.”
Graduting senior left fielder Isaiah Howes added: "The way the fans came out for the Super Regional and the rallies was terrific. It's good to know we live in a town that cares."
Was the Cards’ success story as surprising to the Mayor as it was to most local fans?
“You know, I was out here throughout the season for several games,” he said. “They looked good but they didn’t look great, and there were times they didn’t even look good. But, gosh, they put it all together, and that’s the name of the game. The question at the /files/storyimages/of the season is ‘how well can you do down the stretch?’ I was very excited about how they finished so strong, but yes, I was surprised, too.”
Abramson is not a Jerry-come-lately to the Cardinal sports scene. He was instrumental in the development of Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium. He’s been a key figure in pushing the new downtown arena that U of L men’s and women’s basketball will call home in 2010 or so. But more than that, he’s been a frequent visitor to a variety of Cards’ sporting events for years.
“Of course, you always have a lot of folks who are big football and basketball fans, but my wife (Madeline) and I have tried to stay engaged with the women’s basketball team and volleyball team, and we’ve tried to come out here and support the baseball team before it was sort of ‘in’ to support them,” the Mayor said. “It’s those Olympic sports that we’ve tried to help and get other people energized.”
Louisville’s first-ever trip to the CWS was the latest in a series of athletic successes for U of L this year. In all, 17 of the school’s 22 sports competed in NCAA championship tournaments or events.
As for his team’s achievement, McDonnell believes it will have long-lasting value.
“This is something our guys will take with them forever,” he said. “As I shared with them yesterday: when they were a little depressed after being eliminated, they needed to realize they’re going to take these memories with them forever. That’s especially true for the 10 seniors – they’ll have memories for a lifetime, and even more important, they’ll have friends for a lifetime. I wanted to make sure they realized what a special year it was. This is one they will be able to enjoy for the rest of their lives.”
McDonnell was impressed with the turnout for the welcome-back rally that began with brief comments from the Mayor, the coach and his senior players about 1:45 p.m. and continued with a feel-good photo and autograph session that extended well past 3 o’clock.
“This is what it’s all about being a student-athlete at U of L or as someone who works in this athletic department,” he observed. “As Chris Cates (the team’s shortstop) said, 'It’s the greatest college sports town in the country.'”
Naturally, since Louisville’s run to the CWS, McDonnell’s name has been floated for a variety of top college baseball jobs available. But he downplayed any talk of moving on after just one season.
“We love Louisville. My wife and I love it, and we’ve had an amazing year,” he said. “I guess it’s always flattering when you name is thrown around here and there, but we’ve really enjoyed our first year in Louisville, and we’re so happy to be here. We’re very thankful that (athletic director) Tom Jurich gave us the opportunity to come to this community.”
McDonnell inherited a talented roster of players from former coach Lelo Prado, who took over the coaching job at South Florida. The group included 10 seniors, so now, he’ll have to reload the lineup in an atmosphere of higher expectations. Can he build a program to challenge the national powerhouses on a regular basis?
“Yes, without a doubt,” McDonnell said. “There’s a lot of parity in college baseball. Now, it wouldn’t be fair to say we’re going to go to Omaha every season, but it would be fair to say that we’d like to be knocking on the door with a chance to go there every year. To be competitive within the Big East, to get to 40 wins and be in the NCAA Tournament every year are going to be our goals. Then at that point, we’ll have to play well in the post-season.”
With top-notch facilities in place, with the College World Series experience to draw on, and with newfound fan support, what else will it take for the Cards to continue their success?
“It will take great players,” McDonnell said. “That’s why we’re standing here today celebrating a remarkable season. We were fortunate; we had a good group of players (such as relief pitcher Trystan Magnuson pictured at left) and we were able to maximize their abilities this year. That’s always a goal in coaching. We’ve done a really good job in recruiting our first year, but this season can only help us get great kids in the future, especially those from throughout the Louisville area, the state of Kentucky, Southern Indiana and all the surrounding states.”
CAMP TIME – Louisville’s coaches will be back on the field next week for the first of six youth-league camps they’ll conduct over the next few weeks. Campers can still make reservations for the sessions by calling (502) 852-1217. The first session was delayed by U of L's trip to the College World Series.
NOTE: Daily columnist Ron Steiner also appears on the Red & Blue Review, a weekly statewide TV sports show (Insight Ch. 2). He’s also published weekly in the Voice-Tribune and is a guest each Friday (5:45 p.m.) on the Cardinal Insider radio program (WKRD, 790AM). He can be reached by e-mail at [email protected]