OMAHA—Every national championship means something different to every program, to every coach. What would a championship mean to this year's eight participants in the College World Series? Here's my take, presenting the teams in alphabetical order . . .
Dave Van Horn won a national championship at Division II Central Missouri in his first season as a head coach at a four-year school. He has had a storied coaching career, especially at Nebraska and Arkansas, leading the two programs to six CWS trips. A national championship would just take him to another level as a head coach, but his resume already is outstanding. It won’t make him a better coach overnight; it will just add emphasis to an already outstanding career.
But for the school and program, the title means more. Arkansas has been in the Southeastern Conference for 23 years, yet the school remains something of an afterthought compared to some other SEC schools when it comes to national media attention. Van Horn wins consistently, the team gets to Omaha regularly and Razorbacks go on to play in the big leagues—the 2009 CWS team alone featured future big leaguers Mike Bolsinger, Dallas Keuchel, James McCann and Andy Wilkins.
It may take a Series championship for Arkansas, with a successful coach, excellent staff including recruiting coordinator Tony Vitiello and longtime pitching coach Dave Jorn, and a first-rate ballpark constantly filled to the gills with 10,000 fans, to get the recognition it deserves.
Cal State Fullerton
Getting to Omaha and ending the five-year Series drought for the Titans is a big deal. I detailed what it meant in our preseason issue, and being part of the team that ended the drought has significant meaning to Titans ace Thomas Eshelman. He got the save in the finale of the super regional and was drafted in the second round of the draft on the same night.
“After the game after we were celebrating and all that,” he said Friday, “and I had a post-game talk with (coach Rick Vanderhook), and we just talked about everything that was going on, and my strength coach came over and showed me a text from his wife that said I was the 46th overall pick. It was just a whole bunch of emotions and I just got down on my hands and knees and started tearing up.
“I've worked hard for it my whole life, and it was two dreams in one night—going to Omaha and getting drafted by a class organization. it was really exciting.”
Now that he’s helped lift his team to Omaha, Eshelman takes his place on the Titans’ pitching Mt. Rushmore, alongside Ted Silva (1995), Kirk Saarloos (here in Omaha as TCU’s pitching coach) and 2004 CWS hero Jason Windsor. (Since you asked, I’ll put Tim Wallach, Phil Nevin, Mark Kotsay and Kurt Suzuki on Fullerton’s hitting Mt. Rushmore.)
Fullerton represents the West in the Series this year, so their title would have meaning for fans in that part of the country in general, but a fifth national championship would be among Fullerton’s most unlikely feats. In its 41st season, one that started with a 40th-anniversary celebration of the 1975 team that got to Omaha in the program’s first Division I season, a title would put Fullerton in truly elite company. Only Southern California with 12 titles and LSU with six would have more.
And a year after being suspended in the middle of the season, Vanderhook would put his own stamp on a program noted for coaching giants such as Augie Garrido and George Horton.
Gators fans don’t always seem to notice, but Kevin O’Sullivan has produced a juggernaut in Gainesville. Since he arrived on campus in the summer of 2007, O’Sullivan has led every Gators team to regional play, and this year’s team appears to be his most athletic and most versatile. His 2010-2012 clubs made three straight trips and were preseason No. 1 twice in that stretch, with great expectations. This year’s club had expectations but a win would stamp O’Sullivan as a champion, much in the same way that Vanderbilt’s win certified the career of O’Sullivan’s former Clemson co-worker, Tim Corbin.
“We were fortunate enough to get here three years in a row in ’10, ’11, and ’12 and didn’t get back here until this year,” he said. “I think from my perspective, I think I’ve enjoyed this journey a little bit more than the other ones.”
This Gators club is so loaded with talented underclassmen, such as sophomore aces Logan Shore and A.J. Puk and center fielder Buddy Reed, or freshmen catchers Mike Rivera and J.J. Schwarz and second baseman Dalton Guthrie, that people often forget the leadership of juniors such as Harrison Bader and Richie Martin or senior Josh Tobias. Rival coaches point to those players, particularly because they went through the struggles of 2013, when Florida went 29-30, barely making it into regional play before going 0-2. That veteran group has not been satisfied with “good enough” in 2015; that’s one of the reasons the Gators are the favorites on their side of the bracket with Arkansas, Miami and Virginia.
This city perks up when LSU is in the Series. There’s no question the Tigers bring plenty of fans, or that they have earned many, many local fans since winning their first championship in 1991. Restaurants around town fly LSU flags; even old favorite Lo Sole Mio, normally a Texas redoubt (I’ve seen Augie Garrido there at least twice in my BA tenure and his picture is hanging on the wall), had a Tiger Platter special on the menu Friday night. It was an appropriately outrageous sounding dish, with crab cakes, chicken and some other meats mixed around with rice and a mango salsa.
The reason for LSU’s influence in Omaha is simple—six championships all since ’91. No program has stood taller in college baseball since Rod Dedeaux’s last USC title in 1978. A second title under coach Paul Mainieri and seventh title would truly set LSU apart in the modern era, not just in baseball but in all college sports as one of the true dynasties.
This LSU team also would set itself up as an all-time great team, considering it has a crazy 53-10 record and an all-timer in Alex Bregman, their junior shortstop. Bregman would go down as one of the Tigers’ Mt. Rushmore players as well, alongside the likes of Todd Walker, Eddy Furniss and Brad Cresse, though you can also argue for Warren Morris and his one shining moment (sorry, Joey Belle, no title means no Rushmore).
“They have my favorite player in college baseball at shortstop,” one SEC coach said prior to super regionals. “It's an intangible thing with Bregman; the whole team feeds off him. That's Bregman's team, and he has good guys around, but that's Bregman's deal. He's something. He might be my favorite college player that I’ve ever watched. He’s terrific defensively, runs the bases, doesn't strike out . . . He's a coach's dream. He's a baller.”
Jim Morris is set to retire at Miami after the 2018 season, and a fifth championship for the Hurricanes would be his third as a head coach. Coming in the program’s first CWS trip since 2008, it would be extra sweet.
It also would set up Morris in his own unique club as a three-time champion. The others on that list include Dedeaux (10 or 11, depending on the source), Skip Bertman (six), Augie Garrido (five), Dick Seibert (three for Minnesota), Jerry Kindall (three at Arizona) and Bobby Winkles (Arizona State).
Of course it also would be Miami’s first title as an Atlantic Coast Conference member, ending that league’s ignominious streak without a title, which is in its 60th year since Wake Forest’s 1955 title.
TCU would join Vanderbilt last year as one of college baseball’s relatively nouveau riche programs to become a champion. You go from nouveau riche to established power pretty quickly when you add a national title to the trophy case.
TCU never had won more than 38 games before Jim Schlossnagle arrived on campus prior to the 2004 season; he’s won less than 39 once since then.
“He’s just one of the best there is,” said Saarloos, TCU’s pitching coach who joins Bill Mosiello, plus volunteer Zach Etheridge, to give the Horned Frogs a stellar coaching staff. “He lets us do our jobs and sets us up for success like a good CEO would do. He still recruits and knows the game like anybody. He’s a great guy to work for.”
Want to talk dynasty, Commodores fans? Here’s your chance.
Most observers still believe Vandy’s 2007 team was its best, probably because it had David Price, Pedro Alvarez, Ryan Flaherty, Mike Minor and closer Casey Weathers (a first-rounder if not a big leaguer like the others). But back-to-back championships, especially with three first-round picks in 2015—including No. 1 overall selection Dansby Swanson—would cement this dynasty as one of college baseball’s best.
It would be a fascinating debate—who’d you take, South Carolina’s consecutive champs from 2010-11, or Vandy from ’14-15 if the ‘Dores can pull it off? South Carolina gets bonus points for winning the last title at Rosenblatt followed by the first at TD Ameritrade Park Omaha, switching from BESR bats to BBCORs in the process and adjusting to the new era while repeating. Swanson and Carson Fulmer could convince me to take the Commodores in that matchup, but they have to repeat first.
Like TCU, Virginia is new to college baseball greatness, but now it has made four CWS trips since 2009. Capping that with the ACC’s first title in 60 years would probably get coach Brian O’Connor his own statue back in Charlottesville, rather than having to share one as he does as the model for one of the players in the Road to Omaha sculpture out in front of the ballpark. (Of course, most if not all of the statues at UVa. are for Thomas Jefferson, so maybe I’m speaking out of turn.)
This title would be unlikely, considering last season’s team was much more talented and more veteran but fell to Vandy in a tightly-contested best-of-three Finals. It would throw another piece of evidence into the case O’Connor and his assistants Kevin MacMullen and Karl Kuhn have as college baseball’s best staff. They’ve been together since O’Connor’s arrival 12 seasons ago, and that kind of stability is increasingly hard to find in college baseball.
At some point, MacMullen likely will become a head coach; he’s had interviews at schools such as Michigan and Ohio State in the past. Kuhn has established himself as one of the college game’s best pitching coaches. It’s an all-time staff that’s only missing a national championship.