LOUISVILLE, Ky. (KT) -- Both the current weather in Kentuckiana and the calendar are reminders that it's still winter and that spring is a month away. But Louisville's baseball schedule says something different: that it's time to throw out the first pitch of what is expected to be another banner season.
With a loaded pitching staff, hitting and experience up and down the lineup, the Cardinals are ranked No. 1 nationally in multiple preseason polls and no lower than No. 2 and have their sights set on their sixth trip to the College World Series.
They'll start their season Friday with a three-game series against No. 25 Ole Miss in Oxford, Miss., then will open a nine-game homestand Wednesday against Wright State in Jim Patterson Stadium, with other games against Valparaiso (3), Xavier, Western Michigan (3) and Morehead State before traveling to Wake Forest for their ACC debut.
UofL returns 24 players from last year's team that finished 51-8 and ranked third in the country after advancing to the CWS bracket final against Vanderbilt for the first time in program history.
High expectations have become the norm under Dan McDonnell, who is starting his 14th season as Louisville's head coach with a 605-240 (.718) record.
"We just have to be mature about it," McDonnell said during the team's recent media day. "We brag about our accomplishments. It's the expectations. It's why these guys came here. The positives are how it gets your fan base excited and obviously, it gets recruits excited.
"And we do believe. You have to say it, you have to see it, you have to believe it. We've always done a good job of that. We talk about goals, we write them down, we put it out there for the world to see. But once the season starts, we respect our opponents and we want to be where our feet are. That's what we focus on and I’m confident we'll do that with this group."
The group includes 2019 ACC Pitcher of the Year Reid Detmers, a preseason All-American. Also back to round out the starting rotation are Bobby Miller and Luke Smith, and the bullpen features Michael Kirian, Adam Elliott and Jared Poland.
Detmers, a lefty, set a school single season record with 167 strikeouts in 113.1 innings while compiling a 13-4 record with a 2.78 ERA. Miller began last year as a reliever, but moved into the starting rotation and had two outstanding appearances in the playoffs, finishing the year 7-1 with a 3.18 ERA and 86 strikeouts.
"I don't think people know how good he is," McDonnell said. "We feel like he's got the talent to be a superstar."
Smith went 6-1 with a 4.64 ERA last season and pitched eight strong innings against offensive juggernaut Vandy in the CWS. But his accomplishments were overshadowed by a four-letter expletive he directed at the Commodores' dugout that was caught on ESPN cameras and created a storm on social media.
The senior righthander from Champaign, Ill., is a fiery competitor and McDonnell says that isn't going to change.
"A great kid, voted team captain, but don't get me wrong, he's not going to be nice this spring," McDonnell said. "I'll tell you that right now. That's not his style, and I'm not going to make him be who he is not."
Kirian has been named to the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association's preseason watch list for Stopper of the Year as the top reliever in Division I. He was 3-1 with five saves in 2019, posted team bests in ERA (1.69) and appearances (26) and struck out 42 in 32 innings.
"We figured we were going to be ranked pretty high and it starts on the mound," McDonnell said. "No disrepect to our position players, but when you return Detmers, Miller and Smith -- three of your top four starters from Omaha last year. When you return Elliott, Kirian and Poland -- three of your top four relievers -- and you finished third in the country with good position players you feel like, okay we're going to probably be ranked pretty high this year."
Leading the hitters who will back up those hurlers are senior outfielder Danny Oriente and sophomore Alex Binelas, a freshman All-American last season after hitting .291 with 14 doubles, 14 home runs and 59 RBI. He's the first freshman to hit 10 homers in a season since Chris Dominguez in 2007. Oriente led the team with a .332 average along with a team-high 17 doubles to go with 49 RBIs.
Among others expected to carry the load offensively are junior outfielder and part-time starter Zach Britton, who hit .288 and became the Cards' most dangerous weapon off the bench as a pinch-hitter, going 12-of-21 (.571); and junior infielder Lucas Dunn (.309).
"We tried to prepare the kids before Christmas as to what the rest of the country will think about us and how you have to be mature to handle that," McDonnell said. "I think it's easy to look at your top 10 arms and go, 'Okay, these guys are getting the ball and unless something crazy happens, they'll take us to Omaha.'"
Russ Brown, a former sportswriter for The Courier-Journal and USA Today, covers University of Louisville sports and college football and basketball for Kentucky Today. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.