Weekend Preview: Big Ten, Pac-12 Powers Meet In The Desert

Nick Madrigal is off to a hot start, hitting .400/.375/.667. (Photo by Bill Mitchell)

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SEE ALSO: Louisiana-Lafayette, Sam Houston State Face Off | Off The Wall

Teddy Cahill looks at college baseball’s biggest series heading into the weekend

The Big Ten Conference and Pacific-12 Conference have long be tied together by the Rose Bowl. This year, the two conferences will come together on the diamond in the Big Ten/Pac-12 Challenge at Surprise Stadium, the spring training home of the Rangers and Royals in Surprise, Ariz. Appearing in this weekend's tournament will be No. 8 Oregon State, Ohio State, Nebraska and Utah.

Arizona State at (1) Texas Christian
Samford at (2) Florida State
Miami at (3) Florida
Maryland at (4) Louisiana State
(25) Wright State at (5) South Carolina
Nebraska-Omaha at (6) Louisville
(7) Cal State Fullerton at Nevada-Las Vegas
Illinois-Chicago at (9) Vanderbilt
(10) Washington at Saint Mary's
La Salle at (11) East Carolina
Austin Peay at (12) North Carolina State
Rutgers at (13) Virginia
Radford at (14) North Carolina
Elon at (15) Clemson
(16) Louisiana-Lafayette at Sam Houston State
Youngstown State at (17) Georgia Tech
McNeese State at (19) Arizona
Texas State at (20) Oklahoma State
California at (21) Texas Tech
UNC Wilmington at (22) Mississippi
Kansas at (23) Stanford
Tulane at (24) UC Santa Barbara
Pac-12/Big Ten Challenge, Surprise, Ariz.
(9) Oregon State, Nebraska, Ohio State, Utah
Caravelle Resort Tournament, Conway, S.C./Myrtle Beach, S.C.
(18) Coastal Carolina, Ball State, George Mason, West Virginia

The tournament begins Thursday with Nebraska facing Oregon State and Ohio State taking on Utah. The teams will play both schools from the opposite conference twice each.

Oregon State organized the tournament, which has some added juice after last season's results. Ohio State won the Big Ten Tournament and Utah won the Pac-12. Nebraska also was a regional team last year, and Oregon State enters the season as the Pac-12 favorite.

Beavers coach Pat Casey said facing tough competition early in the season is important.

"You always want to come out of the gate and do things right," Casey said. "You always want to get quality competition to begin with."

Ohio State coach Greg Beals said he "jumped" at the opportunity to play in the event.

"We get to go to a spring training site there in Arizona, so the weather should be good," he said. "We like the competition, we like the format. We think it's a great idea."

Oregon State, which has already been in Surprise for a week, had the best opening weekend of the group. The Beavers (4-0) opened the season with a perfect weekend in the Sanderson Ford College Baseball Classic, beating both Duke and Indiana twice. The Beavers got a strong showing from Preseason All-American infielder Nick Madrigal, who is hitting .400/.375/.667.

In addition to his big offensive weekend, Madrigal played three games at shortstop after spending his freshman year at second base. Fellow sophomore Cadyn Grenier, a third baseman last year, played three infield positions last weekend, showcasing the defensive strength and versatility of the Beavers.

"I think we’re going to be good in the infield with Madrigal and Grenier and some people like that," Casey said. "So I like the fact that the defensive part of the game has been pretty solid."

Utah (2-1) won a series at Cal State Bakersfield, while Ohio State (2-2) and Nebraska (1-1) both split opening weekend.

The Buckeyes are still working to settle in as a team after losing 13 lettermen from last year's championship team, including six lineup regulars and two starting pitchers. Ohio State won its first two games last weekend at the Sunshine State Classic in Kissimmee, Fla., defeating Kansas State and Delaware, before dropping the next two, against Pittsburgh and Kansas State.

Beals said it was a good learning weekend for the new-look Buckeyes.

"There were a lot of things to like in our weekend and a lot of things to get better," he said. "From a coach's standpoint, it was a good weekend. I saw some things I liked, but plenty to improve on."

Gunner Leger will pitch Friday night against Sam Houston State

Louisiana-Lafayette, Sam Houston State Meet For Early-Season Showdown

In the past five years, Louisiana-Lafayette and Sam Houston State have both become consistent regional teams. ULL has made five straight NCAA tournament appearances, while Sam Houston State has missed just once (2015) in that time.

This weekend, No. 16 Louisiana-Lafayette will travel to Sam Houston for a three-game series, returning a trip the Bearkats made on opening weekend last season. The Cajuns swept that series.

Sam Houston coach Matt Deggs, who spent two seasons as the hitting coach and recruiting coordinator at Louisiana under Tony Robichaux before he was hired away in June 2014, has plenty of respect for the Cajuns.

"They play with a lot of discipline," Deggs said. "They play for each other. There's a lot of support there. That's a top 10 program in my mind right now. It'll be a scrap, I guarantee that."

The Bearkats (2-2), coming off an opening weekend series win against Nevada, will be ready for the Cajuns. The reigning Southland Conference champions have won 16 straight home series, dating back to 2014.

Louisiana (1-2) has started the season slowly, splitting two games last weekend at the Tangi Tourism Baseball Classic in Hammond, La., and lost Tuesday to Nicholls State. Offensively, the Cajuns have sputtered so far, scoring only two runs. But their pitching staff has only allowed five runs.

With Louisiana's pitching staff, runs will likely be at a premium this weekend. That will be especially true on Friday night when Louisiana junior lefthander Gunner Leger (0-1, 4.50) faces Sam Houston senior righthander Heath Donica (1-0, 0.00). Leger lost his first start this year, but his 2.26 ERA last season was the best in the Sun Belt Conference and he has been the Cajuns' ace since he was a freshman.

Donica was outstanding on Opening Day, as he threw a one-hit shutout and struck out 14 batters. Donica is in his second year as the Bearkats ace after transferring from Navarro (Texas) JC.

Deggs said Donica stands out most for his professional attitude and work ethic.

"The biggest thing about Donica is he knows what he is and has enough smarts to get you out," Degg said. "He knows who he is and he knows how to go about his business and then he goes out and executes."

Deggs is pleased by the way the Bearkats started the season last weekend. Now, he wants to make sure they continue to grow as a team as they play quality opponents like the Cajuns.

"It's good to start playing again," Deggs said. "You want to see what you're all about. I thought we had a chance to get better in a lot of different ways."

Rivalry renewed: Miami travels to Gainesville this weekend to take on No. 3 Florida in one of college baseball's bet rivalries. Florida has won 23 of the last 29 meetings and has won the season series in six of the last seven years. The teams split the first two games of last year's series before Florida won the rubber game, 7-3. Righthander Alex Faedo and lefthander Kirby Snead combined to throw eight hitless innings before the Hurricanes broke up the no-hit bid in the ninth against Shaun Anderson.

Since Kevin O'Sullivan's took over as Florida coach for the 2008 season, the Gators are 13-5 against the Hurricanes in Gainesville. Florida (3-1) will look to continue its dominance of in-state opponents, while Miami (2-1) has a chance for a marquee series victory.

The Gwynn Classic: Last year's inaugural Tony Gwynn Classic brought together an impressive field, including two College World Series participants (Arizona and UC Santa Barbara, the event's champions) and three other regional teams (Bryant, Nebraska and Tulane). This year's field doesn't look to be as strong, but a strong weekend in San Diego would be an early-season boost.

The event does bring together several prospects who are attracting significant draft interest this season. Thursday's game between Oregon and UC Irvine will feature a matchup of USA Baseball's Collegiate National Team teammates in Oregon lefthander David Peterson and Irvine outfielder Keston Hiura, a first-team Preseason All-American. Other notable prospects include San Diego catcher Riley Adams (a first-team Preseason All-American), Seton Hall righthander Shane McCarthy, Notre Dame righthander Peter Solomon and Tennessee lefthander Zach Warren (another CNT alumnus).

Wright State returns to the Palmetto State: After starting the season with an upset series victory at Clemson, No. 25 returns to the state to take on No. 5 South Carolina. The Raiders (2-1) entered the Top 25 for the first time ever this week, but are now in for another tough weekend.

The Gamecocks (3-1) have lived up to expectations on the mound and enter the weekend with a team ERA of 1.00. Its rotation of Clarke Schmidt, Wil Crowe and Adam Hill combined to go 2-1, 0.48 on opening weekend against UNC Greensboro. South Carolina is still working out its lineup and has averaged 4.25 runs per game in the early going.

Off The Wall

Carson Shaddy (Photo courtesy of Arkansas)

Arkansas opened the season last weekend with a three-game sweep against Miami (Ohio). After finishing in last place in the Southeastern Conference last season and going 26-29 overall, the Razorbacks were eager to get the 2017 season started and did so in front of 29,354 fans throughout the weekend, an opening series record for Baum Stadium. This weekend, Arkansas will host Bryant (2-2), last year's Northeast Conference champions, in a tough, early-season test.

Baseball America caught up with redshirt junior second baseman Carson Shaddy, who led the team in hitting last season (.332/.400/.521, 8 HR), to talk about the Razorbacks' start to the season.

What did you learn on opening weekend?

Carson Shaddy: "I think we learned that we can hit. I think that it's a different lineup than it was last year. I think that if we play good defense, we'll be able to put up a lot of runs. I already knew this, but having the crowd size that we have is pretty incredible and it's great to have that home field advantage."

What's your favorite part of playing at Baum Stadium?

"The fact that these fans came out after a terrible season like we had last year and we had 10,000 each day. That says something for your fan base, how much this program means to them. It's crazy what these people will do just to watch some 20-year-olds come play baseball."

You're facing a tough pitcher Friday night in righthander James Karinchak. Who is the toughest pitcher you've faced in your career?

"I would say either (Alex) Faedo or (A.J.) Puk. Puk is just so raw and powerful with all of his pitches. You got Faedo, who's coming at you 92-94 with just an absolute wipeout slider. So he's pretty tough. (Tanner) Houck is up there too, as well. When Houck was facing us, he was sitting 97 (mph) with a little of run, so he was pretty incredible. I'd say those three are the toughest I've faced. I don't know if I could pick one out of those three. They'll all be in the big leagues someday, that's for sure."

What are your goals for this season?

"It's really just team based. I want to get us back to where we need to be. Last year was an embarrassment. Being a junior captain, it's kind of on me to get the guys ready to go and kind of implement good goals for them and for the team as well. I have one goal, I haven't told a lot of people about it, but just to break the hits record here."

What is your walkup song and how did you choose it?

"My walkup song is "Shoop" by Salt-N-Pepa. My older brother (Taylor) used it as his college walkup song (at Arkansas-Fort Smith). We were all sitting together at Christmastime, trying to think of something. I've always been kind of an old school walkup guy, so he said, 'Why don't you use mine, I'll just pass it down to you.' I like it a lot, so I started using it."

What's your go-to Chipotle order?

"Definitely the bowl. Double steak, guac, white rice, black beans, chips and everything on it. You've got to have everything on it. And eat it with chips. You can't eat it with a fork either."