LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Over the course of his 16 seasons as the head coach of the Louisville baseball program, there have been very few opposing stadiums that Dan McDonnell has not visited, including some of the tougher environments in college baseball.
Ole Miss’ Swayze Field, Vanderbilt’s Hawkins Field, Florida State’s Dick Howser Stadium and Texas Tech’s Rip Griffin Park are among the sport’s well-known hostile atmospheres, and all are places that McDonnell’s Cardinals have competed at. More often than not, they’ve won there as well.
This weekend, Louisville will travel to one of the most raucous stadiums they have ever played in.
The Cardinals (42-18-1) won the Louisville Regional this past weekend, their ninth NCAA Tournament regional title in school history, earning the right to head to College Station for a Super Regional showdown against Texas A&M. The winner of the best-of-three series will punch their ticket to the College World Series in Omaha, Neb.
Facing the Aggies will be hard enough, considering they earned the No. 5 overall national seed for the NCAA Tournament. But their home stadium, Olsen Field at Blue Bell Park, is one of the toughest placed to play in college baseball.
First of all, Blue Bell Park regularly sells out its listed capacity of 6,100, which is 2,100 more than Louisville’s Jim Patterson Stadium. This past weekend for the College Station Regional, Texas A&M averaged 6,472 fans across the Aggies’ three games. Adding insult to injury, the 12th Man is loud and engaged from start to finish, with several established traditions making sure this remains so.
One of the most well known and notorious of them all is the “ball five” chant. When an opposing pitcher issues a four-pitch walk, Aggie fans start chanting “ball five”, and increase the number in the chant with each subsequent ball the pitcher throws, ending when he finally throws a strike. The “ball five” chant record stands at 12, and it can rattle the opposing pitcher on the mound.
As you can imagine, there’s a reason that Blue Blue Park has been consistently voted as one of the hardest places to play in college baseball. But if you ask Louisville’s players, they believe they’re ready to take on the challenge.
“We’ve played in good environments all year long,” All-American catcher Dalton Rushing said. “Here at Jim Patterson, we had a pretty good environment. We played in a packed environment at Florida State. We’ve been around this before, we just have to play our game.”
Rushing also believes that the amount of adversity that Louisville has faced this season will help combat the hostile crowd. Having to deal with at times wildly inclement weather and the delays that come with it, numerous schedule changes, and a literal bomb threat have tested their mettle, and molded them into a mature squad that is never out of any ball game.
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“You see what we’ve done, not only here, but on the road as well. It’s a comeback team,” Rushing said. “This team can play in the first three innings, middle three innings, last three innings. It doesn’t really matter. We just handle everything.”
Of course, Louisville still has to go toe-to-toe with Texas A&M, and winning a best-of-three series against them on a neutral field is hard enough. The Aggies (40-18) are one of the best all-around teams in college baseball.
They field an offense led by three All-SEC selections in second baseman Ryan Targac, outfielder Dylan Rock and designated hitter Austin Bost, with the team collectively batting .294. Pitching might not be their strength, but they have a solid starting rotation and a few standouts in the bullpen.
Whenever he started scouting the Aggies, McDonnell actually compared his own squad to Texas A&M.
“Just how gritty they are, and how balanced they are,” he said. “Yes, they’ve got some stars, but it’s just more of a group coming together of really good college baseball players. With a new coaching staff, and this is year one for them, you can tell they bought in and they got a lot of belief.
They’re coming off of a year where they didn’t get to play in the postseason last year like us, so I just I see a lot of similarities. They shook it up a little bit on the mound this year. They’ve obviously had some guys hot at times, and some guys cold. Anyone that I’ve talked to seem to compare them to us offensively, defensively in those areas.”
Game one of the College Station Super Regional gets underway on Friday, June 10 at 8:30 pm EST. While McDonnell would love to still be playing at home, he thinks he guys are ready to handle both a high-caliber Texas A&M squad, and the hostile environment in which they play.
“You have to be excited that you’re still playing,” he said. “There’s only 16 teams (remaining), so 284 are done. Enjoy being the one of the 16, prepare, and let’s go down there and compete. We’ve been talking about fighting all year, and we’re definitely going down there for a fight.”
(Photo via Jared Anderson – State of Louisville)
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