The College World Series field is set, as South Carolina, Kent State and Arkansas won their super regionals Monday to join Florida, Florida State, Stony Brook, Arizona and UCLA in Omaha. We recapped Monday's action elsewhere on the College Blog, so let's take some time to examine this fascinating CWS field.
The big story is the pair of Northern teams crashing the party. No team from Ohio or further Northeast has been to Omaha since Maine in 1986, and this year's field will include two such teams. Kent State is the first team from the Buckeye State to reach Omaha since Ohio University in 1970, and the first Mid-American Conference team to make it since Eastern Michigan in 1976. Stony Brook is the first team from the Empire State to make it since St. John's in 1980.
The warmest winter and spring that many Northerners can remember certainly made a difference this year, allowing cold-weather teams to practice outside in February—a prospect that is ordinarily impossible. The weather certainly contributed to the great Northern baseball renaissance of 2012, which also included a trip to super regionals by St. John's and a banner season for Purdue, which hosted a regional.
But attributing the success of the Northern teams to the weather is a major oversimplification.
"I think it shows that parity in college baseball does exist," Kent State coach Scott Stricklin said. "And that's something that we talked about a few years ago as coaches, with the scholarships, with the roster limits, with all those things that are put into play—we wanted this to be a national game. Now, I don't know how many coaches in the Southeast and the West actually wanted that to happen, but that's what's happening. You're seeing players that are spread out a little more evenly.
"I watched Stony Brook play three games, and they're really good. Really good. I watched St. John's, and they're really good, and I feel like we are too. And a few years ago we might not be able to be like that because maybe we'd have some kids at an SEC school sitting on the bench, or redshirting. Right now we're able to get kids to come to Kent State, and there's nothing better for our game than to grow it into a national sport."
Of course, this CWS field features a wonderful blend of traditional powers in addition to the upstarts. Four national seeds reached Omaha (No. 1 Florida, No. 2 UCLA, No. 3 Florida State and No. 8 South Carolina), as did another team seeded No. 1 in a regional that also hosted a super regional (Arizona).
The other three teams all won regionals and supers on the road—Arkansas was the No. 2 seed in Houston, Kent State was the No. 3 in Gary and Stony Brook was the No. 4 in Coral Gables. This marks just the second time since the advent of the 64-team field in 1999 that three teams reached Omaha without playing a home game in the NCAA tournament (2009 was the other time).
Perhaps the most intriguing opening-round game pits the Gators against the Gamecocks on Saturday night, in a rematch of last year's CWS Finals. The SEC team led all conferences with three teams in Omaha, and all three are on the same side of the bracket (Arkansas opens against Kent State in Saturday's first game). All four teams on this half are known for stellar pitching staffs, though Florida also features one of the field's most potent lineups.
The two Pac-12 teams in Omaha play on the opposite side of the bracket. UCLA faces Stony Brook in Friday's opener, pitting two dynamic offenses against each other. Arizona takes on Florida State in Friday's night game—another matchup between two outstanding offensive clubs. But none of the four offenses leans too heavily on the home run to generate offense, so all four should be well suited for spacious TD Ameritrade Park Omaha.
Just two of the eight CWS coaches have won national championship rings as head coaches. Arizona's Andy Lopez led Pepperdine to the 1992 title. And of course, South Carolina's Ray Tanner has won each of the last two titles. The Gamecocks enter the CWS riding an NCAA-record 21-game postseason winning streak, which includes 11 straight in Omaha. And the Michael Roth-Matt Price-Christian Walker-Evan Marzilli core that won Omaha's hearts is still intact. South Carolina is trying to become the first team to three-peat since Southern California won five straight from 1970-74.
This looks like one of the best chances for longtime Florida State coach Mike Martin to finally capture his elusive first title, especially in light of the way the Seminoles obliterated Stanford in the Tallahassee Super Regional. Three other very accomplished coaches have been to Omaha before but are still seeking their first title: Florida's Kevin O'Sullivan, Arkansas' Dave Van Horn and UCLA's John Savage.
Aside from Kent State and Stony Brook, the six other teams were all ranked in BA's preseason Top 25. Four teams ranked in our preseason top-five: No. 1 Florida, No. 3 South Carolina, No. 4 Arkansas and No. 5 Arizona. UCLA checked in at No. 14, while Florida State was No. 20. And we picked the Golden Flashes and Stony Brook to win their conferences and make regionals, at least.
There is no shortage of compelling storylines: How about the prospect of a Florida-Florida State showdown for the national title? How about a rematch of the 2010 CWS Finals between South Carolina and UCLA? Or how about the once-unthinkable notion of a Kent State-Stony Brook battle for the College World Series championship? All three outcomes are possible.
"I'm very happy for Stony Brook; I'm glad that we're in different brackets," Stricklin said. "I'd love to meet them in the championship. I'm not sure how much ESPN would like that, I'm not sure what that would do for ratings.
"There's unbelievable support in the Southeast, and the SEC with the attendance and the things that they have there. But there's nothing better for our game than to spread it around, and now we have Stony Brook and Kent State, and I think it's a great story."
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