2021 College World Series Preview: What A Trip To Omaha Means For Each Program
Every team around college baseball begins the spring with the goal of getting to Omaha.
It’s what drives players during summer workouts and fall ball. It’s something that players dream of before they ever set foot on campus for the first time. And it’s the mark of a team that will be remembered forever.
Teams want to win titles. And one of these eight remaining teams will dogpile and host the national championship trophy. But much like the Final Four in NCAA basketball, earning a spot among the final eight teams with a trip to Omaha to the College World Series marks a team as one that has cleared the bar and written its season permanently into school history.
And this year, everyone can appreciate it even more after the coronavirus pandemic took it away in 2020. This was supposed to be the 75th College World Series. After last year’s canceled season instead it’s the anticipated return that celebrates a return to normalcy. The crowds will once again flock to college baseball’s biggest cathedral.
With that in mind, here’s a look at what making it to Omaha means for the eight schools that are here, as well as a look at what winning a title would mean for each club.
Arizona is one of the most successful programs in college baseball history. Its 18 College World Series appearances are tied for seventh all-time and its four national championships are good for a tie for fifth. The 2016 Wildcats came up one game short of their fifth national title in coach Jay Johnson’s first season, so Johnson will look to go one step further this time around. This team’s calling card is offense, as it comes into the CWS hitting .329/.428/.513 as a group, led by the dynamic freshman duo of DH Jacob Berry and catcher Daniel Susac. The Wildcats will likely go as their offense goes in this event, but don’t overlook a pitching staff that has improved throughout 2021. Last weekend, it held Mississippi to three runs in each of its victories in the Tucson Super Regional.
For a third-straight season, Mississippi State is headed to Omaha. The streak began with an unexpected run in 2018 at the end of a tumultuous season, but now in 2021, like in 2019, the Bulldogs go to Omaha as one of the favorites. They have experienced hitters leading the way in outfielders Tanner Allen, the SEC player of the year, and Rowdey Jordan and a strong, deep pitching staff. Making it to Omaha is just step one for Mississippi State, however. The program is seeking its first national title and this team has the talent to win it all. The Bulldogs have had some up-and-down moments over the last month, but have lost just once in the NCAA Tournament and will be playing with confidence.
North Carolina State
The Wolfpack are making the program’s third trip to the College World Series and first since a team led by future big leaguers Carlos Rodon and Trea Turner got here in 2013. The road to Omaha has not been easy for NC State. It began the season 1-8 in ACC play before catching fire down the stretch to not only get into the NCAA Tournament but also sweep through the Ruston Regional and win a super regional on the road against top-ranked Arkansas. The position player group, led by outfielders Jonny Butler, Tyler McDonough and Terrell Tatum, first baseman Austin Murr and shortstop Jose Torres is the headliner for the Pack, but it’s also solid on the mound with a rotation led by righthander Reid Johnston and a bullpen anchored by lefthander Evan Justice. Getting back here is a massive achievement for an NC State program that has knocked on the door to Omaha time and again in recent years before kicking the door in this season.
For the Cardinal, this trip to Omaha is a very welcome return.
This is Stanford’s 17th trip to the College World Series. The school ranks among the top 10 in most trips to the CWS, but this is also its first trip since 2008. The school has made four more Super Regional appearances since then, falling just short of the team’s annual goal.
This also marks coach David Esquer’s return to Omaha. In his fourth year as Stanford’s head coach, he has brought the Cardinal back to the biggest stage in college baseball. He also took California to Omaha in the 2011 College World Series. And as a shortstop, Esquer was a key member of Stanford’s 1987 national championship squad.
Stanford’s second and final CWS title came the following year in 1988. Stanford has finished as runners-up three times since then, but a 2021 title would mark a thrilling return to the summit of college baseball.
A proud program that earned a spot in the CWS three times between 1995 and 2005, the Volunteers are in the CWS for the first time since that 2005 trip and for the fifth time ever. It’s the latest achievement in an impressive four-year tenure for coach Tony Vitello, who in 2019 took Tennessee to the postseason for the first time since 2005. The Vols go into the CWS as one of the most well-balanced teams in the field. With 98 home runs as a unit and a 3.42 team ERA, they are comfortable winning a slugfest or a pitcher’s duel, and as the season has gone on, they have developed a flair for the dramatic and a swagger that suggests they’re confident they can beat anyone. The next big step for this program is reaching the championship round of the CWS, as its best showing is a third-place finish in 2001.
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The Longhorns are making their record 37th appearance in the College World Series, 12 more than any other team has made in history, and at 5-0 in the NCAA Tournament so far, few teams are coming in hotter. Texas made its last trip in 2018 with a team led by Kody Clemens, but this is a completely different roster full of players ready to make their own mark. First baseman Zach Zubia, who was a key contributor on that 2018 team and this one, is one of a small handful of players around for both. As has so often been the case in Texas history, pitching leads the way. A rotation of Ty Madden, Tristan Stevens and Pete Hansen is one of the best in the country, and the bullpen is loaded with reliable options like Cole Quintanilla, Aaron Nixon and Tanner Witt. The Longhorns are seeking their first appearance in the CWS finals since 2009 and first national title since 2005. Texas is the highest-seeded team left in the tournament and it has a chance to break a tie with Louisiana State for the second-most national championships ever with its seventh, though that would still trail Southern California’s 12. David Pierce is trying to become the fourth coach to lead Texas to a national title.
The Commodores are the NCAA defending champions, so a repeat title here would immediately enter this Vanderbilt team into history as only the seventh program to win back-to-back titles.
South Carolina (2010-2011) was the most recent. The others are Oregon State (2006-2007), Louisiana State (1996-1997), Stanford (1987-1988), Southern California (1970-1974) and Texas (1949-1950).
But because of the coronavirus pandemic that cancelled the 2020 season, there are few regulars from the 2019 champs returning to Omaha in 2021. Kumar Rocker was a dominating member of the rotation for the 2019 champs. Key 2021 position players Jayson Gonzalez, Isaiah Thomas and Dominic Keegan filled back-up roles in 2019.
But for the rest of this year's team, this will be the first chance to experience what it's like to play in Omaha in the College World Series. And its their first chance to add to Vanderbilt's rich baseball history as the team looks to win its third national title.
After missing the last two NCAA Tournaments and getting off to a slow start this season – it lost its first five ACC series – Virginia finished the season strong to get back to the NCAA Tournament. The Cavaliers did things the hard way once they got there, losing their opening game of the Columbia Regional to South Carolina before coming out of the loser’s bracket to win it and then coming back from a game 1 loss to Dallas Baptist in super regionals. In the end, Virginia is headed back to Omaha for the first time since it won the national title in 2015. It’s been a long road back, but that will make it all the more meaningful for the Cavs. With their pitching depth – lefthander Andrew Abbott ranks third in the nation in strikeouts (152) and they rank 14th in the nation with a 3.61 team ERA – and a deep lineup, they can’t be counted out for a second title in seven years.