The College Baseball Blog continues our series of interviews with Louisville’s Dan McDonnell. He is entering his third season in charge of the Cardinals program. He led the team to the College World Series in 2007 and last year the team received an at-large berth in the NCAA Tournament before bowing out in the Athens Regional.
1. Louisville is coming off a 41-21 overall record and a 16-11 record in the Big East conference. This season you return seven out of your top eight hitters from the 2008 Big East Tournament Championship squad. Who do you think has improved the most during your fall workouts in 2008?
Josh Richmond: He put together a great summer playing for one of the top summer teams in the country (Midland Redskins) and I think he broke their home run record as well. He moved from left field as a freshmen (originally a shortstop out of high school) to right field to utilize his arm. He had eight assists this fall, which seems unheard of. He could end up in center field for us. A five-tool guy, he could hit second or third for us.
Gabriel Shaw, RHP: He had a great summer in the Northwoods League. He pitched in their all-star game and is a three-pitch guy that can pitch anywhere in our rotation, starter, middle guy or closer. He pumps the zone and was dominant this fall.
2. In your first season (2007) with the Cardinals, you brought them to the College World Series. As you enter your third season, how did the CWS run affect the program in terms of recruiting and other areas?
It has helped a great deal, but the better the player, the more schools that recruit him. Going to Omaha, hosting a Super Regional, winning a Big East Championship, back-to-back trips to the NCAA’s are all great starting points, but our biggest attraction is our commitment to the future. Every year we have added to the stadium, which is a beautiful facility to begin with. Our AD, Tom Jurich, has a lifetime contract. And we’ve kept the same coaching staff with all five coaches together, so our consistency, commitment and desire to win a National Championship, along with our work ethic, are our biggest recruiting tools.
3. Chris Dominguez is your top returning hitter and best pro prospect in the Big East conference. Where has he improved most since your staff’s first day working with him?
Obviously, he has always been a very talented baseball player. But first, our system was perfect for him. Coach Lemonis has gotten the most out of Chris offensively. The system is a very aggressive style that encourages hitters to get their best swing off. To not be so selective or patient. Don’t make him take and don’t make him bunt. Defensively, he went from double digits errors in 2007, to only six errors in 2008, and will hopefully have another great year defensively. He’s made great strides in his body. He can now bench over 300 lbs, runs a 7.0 60-yd dash and finished fifth over all in our Omaha Challenge, which is a five-day, grueling physical fitness test where he never did better than 18th the two previous years. We are adament about structure, nutrition, commitment to your body and Chris has really taken off in that area. He is a very motivated kid and you can easily see how he has steadily improved from year to year. He never has the mentality that he “has arrived” and that things are owed to him. He stays hungry, respects the game and knows that he must prepare in order to succeed.
4. The Cardinals pitching staff returns their top two starters in Justin Marks (9-2, 2.37 ERA) and Bob Revesz (1-0, 3.90 ERA) but lose Zach Pitts (6-5, 4.90 ERA) to graduation. Who do you expect to fill into Pitts spot in the rotation?
We are as deep now in pitching than we have been in 3 years. Coach Williams is an unbelievable pitching coach and will have those guys ready. There are several guys who can step into the midweek starter spots. Matt Lea finished strong last year and had a good fall, Dean Kiekhefer and Tyler Mathis are healthy again and have both been weekend starters the past 2 seasons. We have 4 freshmen fighting for a starting role in Keith Landers, Mike Nastold, Derek Self and Alex Blodgett.
5. Have any of your incoming freshmen impressed you during Fall Workouts? Do you see any of them breaking into the starting lineup/rotation this season?
Several pitchers impressed us, especially Landers, Nastold, Self and Blodgett. But Tony Zych really shined with his velocity sitting at 93-94 and his competitiveness out there. He has no fear and could be the closer as a true freshmen. He could be a starter, but also plays a position, so closing may be the best for him. He’s athletic and can play anywhere on the field. Also, Ryan Wright, a freshmen from Indiana, was a football player in high school so he doesn’t come in with a lot of recognition because he’s never been on the summer circuit, but he’s very athletic and physical. He worked at shortstop this fall, but with senior John Dao there as well, he can play anywhere on the field. He punched the clock every day and was very steady this fall.
6. The Big East conference has become more competitive over the last few years. What team do you expect to be your biggest challenge in making back to the NCAA Tourney?
We’re not a one-bid league, so I don’t see it as a challenge or something that would keep us from going to back the Regionals, meaning you don’t have to win the conference tourney to advance to the NCAA’s. We obviously have to do well in the league, but we also strive to win at least 40 games a year to put us in position to get an at large bid to the tourney as we did the year we went to Omaha. Now as for winning the Big East, there are many teams to get by. You have to give the nod to St. Johns for their consistency the past several years. Rutgers will bounce back, Notre Dame will be strong, South Florida is a scary club and UConn was very young last year. But I would be a fool to not respect all the teams in the Big East. This league has made a real commitment to baseball. Everyone knows the Big East is a great basketball conference, but we have made greats strides in all sports, football, etc.
7. Last season we saw the implementation of the Uniform Start Date. What are your early impressions on it? Did you think it has leveled the playing field?
Definitely. Other conferences/schools are learning what it is like to play four to five games every week, therefore, you have to put more scholarship money in pitching. That changes your recruiting and the face of your club. Now, when a northern school plays a southern school, the lineups have a chance to be similar, meaning a southern lineup in the past could have had seven or eight scholarships in it where a northern school had five or six. That is a big difference.
8. How have the new rules with the way scholarships are split on the team affect your program? Do you think it is a good change for college baseball?
Not particularly. If they wanted to cap our roster, then cap it. But to say that eight guys on your team cannot be on aid is really very difficult for us to sell. They should let us split up the money the way we see fit for 35 guys.
9. With the removal of the one-time transfer exemption that allowed student-athletes to change schools once without having to sit out a red-shirt year, do you feel that there is more pressure on a coach to recruit with responsibility or for the student-athlete to be aware of what programs are the best fit for them?
Clearly both. I’m okay with that. If you treat kids right, take pride in developing them and make good decisions in recruiting, then your program should be fine. For a program like ours, with the job our coaching staff does, I think it’s a clear advantage for us. We take pride in all three of those areas. Some programs have survived on the transfer guy, but not any more. We hope high school and junior college players do their homework and really see who develops players.
10. Final question, who has been your biggest influence on your coaching philosophy or career?
I can’t say just one. My Dad, my older brother Mike (high school basketball coach in New York), my high school and college coaches, coach Fred Jordan (Head Coach Citadel), Mike Bianco (Head Coach Ole Miss), my wife Julie and my relationship with God.
The College Baseball Blog would like to thank Dan for taking some time out of his day to answer some of our questions about his 2009 squad. Special thanks to assistant coach Chris Lemonis and SID Garett Wall for setting up the interview. If any more coaches or SID’s are interested in doing an interview with a staff member please feel free to contact us by clicking here.