Louisville seeking a return to the College World Series

No. 2 Louisville is seeking a return to the College World Series, with the goal of returning with the national championship

Following a record-setting ACC regular season, Louisville came up a game short of reaching the College World Series for a third consecutive time last spring. With a strong nucleus of that roster returning, bolstered by the return of MLB first round draft selection Kyle Funkhouser, this year's squad is viewed as a heavy favorite to reach Omaha in 2016.

A unanimous No. 2 preseason ranking by the multitude of college baseball polls, the Cardinals realize the expectations that come with such a lofty ranking - the highest preseason perch in program history - and while they try to shrug off the preseason accolades, they aren't bashful to discuss the team's own expectation level.

"It's never really been a thing for the guys in the locker room," said refief pitcher Zack Burdi. "We all know what we got ourselves into when we came to Louisville baseball. Part of this team and this culture is having those high rankings and having to deal with the expectations of it."

Louisville has participated in the College World Series three times since Dan McDonnell was hired to guide the program to new heights, including back-to-back trips in 2013 and 2014.  As the players and coaches describe it, "the culure" of Cardinal baseball is to a legitimate contender for the national championship on an annual basis.

Sophomore two-way player Brendan McKay added that the early high ranking "really means nothing to us," adding that the team is focused on where they finish the season, "when we are in Omaha standing on the field holding the national championship trophy."

The Cardinals 2016 roster is, as they say, loaded.  In addition to Funkhouser, last season's ace, McKay, last year's John Olerud Two-Way Player of the Year, slugger Corey Ray and Burdi all earned All-American honors last season. Those four, along with junior infielder Nick Solak, garnered preseason All-American honors.  There is experience and depth, along with a talented rookie class, that is helping to fuel to lofty expectations.

"From the inside out, I think we have everything that we need to acheive our goal of a national championship and the only team that's going to beat us this year is ourselves" said Burdi. "I wouldn't change anything, I'm excited for the season."

With the regular season set to begin on Friday afternoon against visiting SIU-Edwardsville, the importance of the team's overall goal becomes surpassed by its daily challenges.

"The expectations for this team is to go out everyday and win that game, that day," said junior catcher Will Smith. "The overall goal for our season is to win a national championship, but it takes playing everyday to win a lot of games during the regular season and perform in the postseason to do that."

"We've talked about it a lot as a team and we talk about it in the off season a lot, that the ultimate goal and vision for this team is a national championship," said Solak. "As we start getting closer to opening day on Friday, the importance becomes that particular game. Being where our feet are and worrying about the opponent in the dugout on that particular day."

The impact of Louisville taking the next step and winning a national championship would impactful, both across the sport and throughout the community.  A pair of local products - Will Smith and Drew Harrington - have watched as the program has grown since it's first trip to Omaha in 2007.

"I think it would really solidify U of L as one of the top programs in the country," said Smith. "I think over the last eight years or so we have been, but getting that national championship would really bring it back home."

Harrington, Sunday's scheduled starting pitcher, noted the continued record-setting crowds at Jim Patterson Stadium.

"In just my previous two years here I've really seen the baseball program, and the support behind it grow," said Harrington. "It's just exciting to see fans getting involved in baseball and supporting us more and more. I think the national championship would grow that support that the fans have for us."

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