Image credit: Gonzaga 3B Brett Harris (Photo courtesy of Gonzaga)
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No. 1 Oregon vs. No. 4 Central Connecticut State (5 p.m. ET, ESPN3)
No. 2 Gonzaga vs. No. 3 Louisiana State (10 p.m. ET, ESPN3)
No. 1 Oregon (37-14)
All-Conference Honorees: TBA
Season in a sentence: Picked to finish seventh in the preseason Pac-12 coaches’ poll, Oregon has been one of the season’s biggest surprises and is back in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2015.
Best pitcher: Robert Ahlstrom, LHP—Ahlstrom this season has led Oregon’s rotation, going 8-3, 2.41 with 86 strikeouts and 15 walks in 82 innings. He’s been a consistent force on Friday night for the Ducks, throwing at least six innings in 10 of his 13 starts. Ahlstrom isn’t overpowering but throws a lot of strikes and has a good understanding of what he needs to do to be successful.
Best hitter: Aaron Zavala, OF—Oregon’s resurgence has been in no small part due to an improved offense. Zavala has been a big part of that, as he picked up where he left off in 2020, when he hit .418 in the shortened season. This year, Zavala is hitting .398/.538/.613 with seven home runs and 11 stolen bases. He’s also walked nearly twice as much as he’s struck out, drawing 49 walks to 27 strikeouts. Zavala will bring an 11-game hitting streak into regionals.
Outlook: Oregon has had an incredible rise under second-year head coach Mark Wasikowski. The Ducks have not hosted a regional since 2013 and their second-place finish in the Pac-12 matches 2013 for their best since the program was reinstated in 2009. Now, the Ducks are looking to make this their best season since 2012, when they last won a regional. The formula for Oregon is fairly straightforward—Ahlstrom and righthander Cullen Kafka form a strong 1-2 punch and closer Kolby Somers has been consistent at the end of the game. The offense has a powerful core of Zavala, first baseman Gabe Matthews and DH Kenyon Yovan and the Ducks play clean defense. It’s been a winning combination all season long and this weekend should be no different.
No. 2 Gonzaga
Season in a sentence: After a typically challenging non-conference schedule that included a series win at Texas Christian, Gonzaga won the West Coast Conference and was in the mix to host a regional before ultimately falling short.
Best pitcher: Alek Jacob, RHP—After an up-and-down start to the season, Jacob took off in WCC play. He threw a no-hitter against Pepperdine and was named WCC pitcher of the year, becoming the first Gonzaga player to win the award since Tyler Olson in 2013. Jacob is 7-1, 2.82 with 103 strikeouts and 17 walks in 76.2 innings.
Best hitter: Brett Harris, 3B—Harris is Gonzaga’s offensive leader and was also named the WCC defensive player of the year. He’s hitting .358/.483/.556 with six home runs and seven stolen bases. He’s a steady presence in the Zags’ lineup and leads the team in most offensive categories.
Outlook: Gonzaga annually challenges itself in non-conference play and this year was no different as it played 15 games against Big 12 and Pac-12 opponents and four at Dallas Baptist, the Missouri Valley champion. It went 10-9 in those games, all but one of which came away from home. So, the Zags won’t be overwhelmed by the task in front of them this weekend. They’re a solid, disciplined team that will be a tough out, but to win the regional, they’re going to need a couple pitchers to step up behind Jacob. In the last five games he hasn’t pitched (against Oregon and San Francisco and San Diego, which finished second and third in the WCC), Gonzaga has given up 45 runs.
No. 3 Louisiana State (34-22)
Season in a sentence: LSU did not meet its lofty expectations this season but was able to get on track late in the season and get one of the final spots in the NCAA Tournament, which will be coach Paul Mainieri’s final games before retiring.
Best pitcher: Landon Marceaux, RHP—Marceaux came into the year expected to team with Jaden Hill as one of the best 1-2 punches in the country. Hill, however, was lost to injury, leaving Marceaux to lead the rotation himself. He did so with aplomb and is 6-5, 2.26 with 107 strikeouts and 22 walks in 91.2 innings. Marceaux stands out for his pitchability and he’s given LSU a good chance to win every Friday, even in the rugged SEC West.
Best hitter: Tre’ Morgan, 1B—LSU’s offense has been led by a pair of true freshmen—Morgan and outfielder Dylan Crews. Morgan is the team’s leading hitter at .370/.462/.543 with five home runs and 14 stolen bases, while Crews leads the team with a 1.053 OPS and is hitting .350/.449/.604 with 13 home runs and 11 stolen bases. Morgan was named SEC freshman of the year and gets the nod here as well thanks at least in part to his defense at first base, which gets comparisons to Evan White and earned him a spot on the SEC all-defensive team.
Outlook: LSU will take the field this weekend for the first time since learning of Mainieri’s decision to retire. If it needed an emotional boost at the end of a long, challenging season, that should provide one. But to go on the road and win this regional, LSU is going to need to get a big weekend out of its starters behind Marceaux. How well the Tigers offense fares in the spacious PK Park is also something to watch. They hit 80 home runs this season, 12th most in the nation. If the ball isn’t flying as well as they’re used to, they’ll need to find other ways to score runs.
No. 4 Central Connecticut State (28-13)
All-Conference Honorees: SP Andrew Braun (first), 2B Dan Covino (second), 3B Jay Devito (first), OF Buddy DeWaine (second), SP Brandon Fox (second), C Sam Loda (first), 1B Noah Martinez (second), OF Dave Matthews (second), RP Jake Neuman (second), DH Jeff Nicol (second)
Season in a sentence: CCSU finished second to Bryant in the Northeast Conference standings, but the Blue Devils reversed that result in the NEC Tournament, beating the Bulldogs twice in the championship round to reach their second straight NCAA Tournament.
Best pitcher: Andrew Braun, LHP—After working out of the bullpen in his first two seasons, Braun moved into the rotation in 2020 and pitched well in the shortened season. He took a further step forward in 2021. He went 9-1, 3.26 with 71 strikeouts and 12 walks in 80 innings this season.
Best hitter: Jay Devito, 3B—Devito has showcased incredible on-base skills this season, drawing 44 walks and reaching base in all but two games. He’s hitting .333/.500/.374 and his on-base percentage ranks 24th nationally.
Outlook: CCSU faced just one NCAA Tournament team this year—a 2-0 loss to Connecticut in March—so this weekend will be a big step up in competition. The Blue Devils will be leaning on their pitching staff this weekend—their 3.64 team ERA ranks 17th in the nation—and the dimensions of PK Park should play to that strength. But the Blue Devils are facing a challenging task this weekend.