OMAHA—One NCAA official said he's never seen a team draw the kind of pre-College World Series media crush that Stony Brook generated Thursday.
There was not even enough time to accommodate all the reporters who wanted sessions with the Stony Brook players after their morning batting practice session. And when the the day's final press conference with CWS coaches wrapped up, SBU's Matt Senk was swarmed by reporters for follow-ups, while Florida State's Mike Martin, Arizona's Andy Lopez and UCLA's John Savage exited quietly.
In the apparel tents ringing TD Ameritrade Park Omaha, Stony Brook gear has been flying off the shelves. Yes, it's fair to say the Seawolves are an Omaha sensation—and the first pitch hasn't even been thrown in the 2012 CWS.
"We went out and got some dinner last night," said All-America outfielder Travis Jankowski, "and we were getting cheers, and people wearing Stony Brook stuff."
It takes a lot for the media in the nation's largest city to pay any attention to college baseball, but Stony Brook's run through the Coral Gables Regional as a No. 4 seed and its conquest of SEC champion Louisiana State in Baton Rouge has captured the Big Apple's imagination. The New York Times profiled the Seawolves on Wednesday, and Newsday has been chronicling the team's journey in significant depth. The Associated Press reported that the school is hoping to capitalize on the baseball team's sudden popularity by spending $100,000 to produce and air a commercial that touts its achievements in athletics and academics during the first game of the CWS.
Being the subject of so much adulation surely has the potential to be overwhelming for a group of players accustomed to toiling in relative obscurity, but Senk seems confident his team will respond appropriately.
"I've been explaining to the guys all along that we wanted to enjoy the experience, playing for example last weekend in Alex Box Stadium," said Senk, who has coached the Seawolves since 1991. "We've heard everything about Alex Box, and we can go two ways. We could either be intimidated by the situation or embrace it. And to my players' credit, I think they embraced it, and we're trying to do the same this week. We're looking to strike a balance. Today was amazing—the autograph session was just blowing our minds. And the people of Omaha, since we've been here, have been absolutely incredible. But our attention will be turning back to baseball."
This isn't the first time Savage's Bruins will go head to head with the darling of Omaha.
"We faced it a little bit in 2010 with TCU," Savage said. "TCU was certainly the fan favorite, and I use the word 'embrace' a little bit like (Senk) did . . . We hope the stadium's filled, and if everyone is pulling for them, that's what college baseball is all about. So we'll embrace it, and go play."
In any other year, Kent State would surely be the fan favorite, as a team seeded No. 3 in regionals making its first-ever CWS appearance, and the first by a team from Ohio since 1970. The Golden Flashes were bemused to arrive in Omaha and discover NCAA-licensed merchandise sporting the name "Kentucky State." But they shrugged it off.
"We're getting all the love we need, trust me," Kent State coach Scott Stricklin said. "We're getting plenty of exposure—Northeast Ohio and Western Pennsylvania, we're getting all the exposure that we need. We don't recruit nationwide anyway. But I feel we're getting a lot of respect."
Expect Omaha to really hop aboard the Kent State bandwagon once it gets a chance to see the Flashes play, especially if they can win a game or two. The character of the team is endearing.
"People will enjoy watching us play," Stricklin said. "We're just a bunch of dirtbags, kids that play the game hard. We don't necessarily look like we belong in a uniform—we've got a couple of guys that look like bat boys instead of three-hole hitters, but they play the game. I think people will enjoy that."
Stony Brook mania might be all the rage right now, but fans looking for a sleeper team that is truly a sleeper need look no further than the other bracket, where plucky Kent State is up against three Southeastern Conference titans.
Of course, Kent State's first opponent—Arkansas—won't be taking it lightly. Razorbacks coach Dave Van Horn said he felt like he learned a lot about the way Stricklin runs his club by spending a month serving with him as an assistant coach for Team USA last summer.
"It's not like Kent State came out of nowhere," Van Horn said. "They've been pretty good for a long time, and Scott's taken them to another level. Some great coaches have gone through (Kent), and he's just taken it through the roof.
"We kind of know what we're up against, and we know we're up against one of the best eight teams in the country at this time of year."
Media Day Notes
• Maybe Vanderbilt head coach Tim Corbin wins every practice, as BA podcast listeners can attest, but Florida State's Mike Martin wins every press conference. There is just an endearing, genuine quality about Martin's gravelly Southern drawl and wholesome sense of humor—which was on full display Thursday.
Martin has spent a lot of time at Rosenblatt Stadium over the decades, but he has embraced TD Ameritrade Park with open arms.
"I guess the only way I can describe it is I started driving a '49 Ford, and now I'm driving a Denali," Martin said, by way of comparing the two stadiums.
With Rosenblatt scheduled for demolition in July, the Omaha Zoo Foundation (which now owns the stadium) decided to open it for five days starting today, allowing fans to get one final look. But given the run-down state of the old Diamond on the Hill, people who remember it fondly might be best served by staying away. That's what Martin decided to do.
"I was going to take the family back to Rosenblatt tomorrow because I know they're demolishing it next (month), and I've changed my mind, because I don't want to see Rosenblatt like it is now," he said. "I want to remember the hill, the beautiful ballpark. I was told that I wouldn't want to hit my golf ball out there in center field, because I might not ever get it out, it's so thick. I'm going to remember Rosenblatt like it was."
The other great Martin moment came when Arizona coach Andy Lopez was recounting a trip the Seminoles made to Pepperdine when Lopez was the Waves' head coach back in the early 1990s.
"I came out to see what it was like to win a national championship," Martin interjected, referencing the Waves' 1992 title.
Florida State's coach clearly has a good sense of humor about his famous title drought. That's probably a good thing for his chances to finally end it.
• Expect the Seminoles to see a healthy dose of Kurt Heyer in the opener. Lopez is well known for his history of developing great bullpens, but this year his team leans very heavily on its starting pitchers to go very deep into games. Lopez said he wasn't worried about Heyer, his junior ace, after he gave up six runs on 17 hits over 9.1 innings in a no-decision last week against St. John's. He preferred to give St. John's the credit, and he implied that Heyer is likely to shoulder a significant burden again in Friday's opener against FSU. The discussion resulted in the day's most unusual metaphor.
"Starting pitching, we go with them for a long, long time," Lopez said. "It's not because I don't like going to the pen, but I don't like artichokes, so I don't eat it very much. My wife loves them, but I don't. I like our starting pitching, so we stay with them for a long, long time. I have nothing against artichokes, and I have nothing against our bullpen but I really like our starters."
• Seven of the eight CWS teams will start their usual No. 1 starter in the opener: the first game pits Stony Brook's Tyler Johnson against UCLA's Adam Plutko, the second game matches up Heyer against FSU's Brandon Leibrandt, and the third game features Kent State's David Starn against Arkansas' D.J. Baxendale.
South Carolina will go with ace Michael Roth, of course, but Florida threw a bit of a curveball, announcing it will start junior lefthander Brian Johnson rather than usual No. 1 Hudson Randall. The reason isn't necessarily because Johnson has beaten the Gamecocks twice this year, including a complete-game gem in the SEC tournament. Gators coach Kevin O'Sullivan said later that Johnson did not throw in super regionals and simply needs to get back out on the mound—and the couple of extra days of rest won't hurt Randall. Johnson is also better suited to bounce back on short rest if needed later in the tournament, because he is more physical than Randall.
• Coaches expect another low-scoring CWS, even though the bracket that starts Friday features four dynamic offenses who should be well suited for TD Ameritrade because they don't rely too heavily on the home run. The new ballpark suppresses the long ball: in 42 Creighton games plus 14 CWS games at TDAP over the last two years, just 27 home runs have been hit in 3,702 at-bats—an average of one homer every 137 at-bats. But aside from Florida, which leads the nation with 75 home runs this year, no other team in this CWS has hit more than 43 homers (FSU and Kent State each have 43, tied for 35th in the nation). Yet four of the teams in this field rank among the nation's top 20 in scoring (Arizona is sixth, Stony Brook eighth, FSU 13th and Kent State 17th), while a fifth ranks No. 42 (UCLA). Those teams can generate offense by stringing together hard line drives, and given the spacious dimensions at TDAP, that should be a winning strategy.
"It's a big yard," Savage said. "Whenever you see that, there are hits. You've just got to know where they are."
Of course, dominating pitching can shut down dynamic offenses; last year's CWS featured not just a power shortage (nine homers), but also just a .239 overall batting average. But this year's field—especially in the Friday bracket—appears at first glance to be less stocked with power arms, and better stocked with dangerous offenses.
• No newsworthy developments came out of the NCAA's annual State of Baseball press conference, which served mostly as a reminder that the game is in great shape.
"I don't think in all my years with college baseball that I've seen a healthier sport at this point in time," said Dennis Poppe, who heads baseball and football for the NCAA. "The progress of the stadiums being built and the success of teams from areas that have not normally had success—I think those are all good signs for college baseball."
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