From the start of fall ball, if not sooner, University of Louisville head coach Dan McDonnell knew that he'd need to rely on a handful of incoming freshmen to help fill the holes left by a number of players headed to professional ball, yet the Cardinals skipper refused to use it as a reason for concern for the 2014 season.
Instead, McDonnell put the focus on the returning veterans and the valuable experience they had gained as Big East Champions and a College World Series participant. McDonnell was determined to bring his newest crop of Cardinals along at a comfortable pace.
"The thing with freshmen, you don't know until they play, until the lights are on," he told Cardinal Authority prior to the start of the season. "There's a good older group in the program right now. They've been to a regional final in Arizona and they've been to the College World Series, so they have the upper hand because of their experience and maturity."
Considered one of the top recruiting classes in the nation, the freshmen class was deep with talent, ambition and drive when they began life as Cardinals last fall.
"These young guys, they are going to get opportunities," he continued. "They just have to be patient."
Fast forward four months and McDonnell has shaped his latest squad exactly as he laid it out during preseason workouts. The veterans are fueling the Cardinals current run, while a group of the freshman class have developed into key position players.
Nick Solak, Corey Ray, Will Smith, Logan Taylor and Colin Lyman have all become consistent position players this season. Each has appeared in at least 35 games and made multiple starts for the top ten ranked Cardinals.
"This freshman class has a lot of talent," said Ray. "When we had opportunities come up we have taken advantage of it."
Ray, who has 15 starts under his belt, has steadily improved at the plate. He's currently second on the team with a .507 slugging percentage and had a few clutch hits during regional play.
"One of my goals when I came in was to find a way to help my team win," said Ray, who was named to the All-Regional team. "That's what I'm trying to do. I've come a long way with Coach Mac and Coach Lemonis working hard with my swing and it has paid off."
Ray isn't the only freshman finding success at the plate. During AAC Tournament play, Nick Solak was the hottest hitter in the league, going 9-for-13 with 6 RBI's at the plate. The freshman from Woodridge, Ill., leads the team with a .456 on base percentage. Lymon, Smith and Taylor have each had clutch hits during the season.
All credit the Cardinals coaching staff and the leadership provided by the seniors on the team.
"My throwing partner is Jeff Gardner and he's a veteran guy that knows what he's doing," Taylor said. "They are always on me no matter what I'm doing. Every time that he can help out and help me learn something I'll take it. Him and Cole, especially being an outfielder, have taught me a lot."
"I kind of followed the lead of Cole Sturgeon and Jeff Gardner," added Ray. "I don't think there are any better role models in the country."
Now, as they prepare for a Super Regional match-up against Kennesaw State, the youngsters are expressing their gratitude and excitement to the opportunity and the possibility of helping Louisville reach the College World Series for a second consecutive season.
"As a freshman you are excited to just be out there playing," said Taylor. "You have older guys out there that know what they are being apart of and that helps us. It's exciting."
The chance to play in such games was a focal point during the recruiting process.
"This is why you come to the University of Louisville," Ray said. "I wanted to win a national championship and I felt this university gave me the best opportunity to do that."
Louisville will begin Super Regional play on Friday evening at 6:30p.m. against Kennesaw State in a best-of-three series.