OMAHA—The two College World Series brackets have distinct feels in 2017.
The “State” bracket, with Oregon State, Cal State Fullerton, Louisiana State and Florida State, has some all-time programs, with three that have won multiple Series titles and the Seminoles, with 22 trips to Omaha.
“I’m looking to my left,” Beavers coach Pat Casey said Friday at media day, gesturing toward the Titans, ‘Noles and Tigers coaches, “and there’s 59 World Series appearances between the three of them.”
But winning the CWS wouldn’t be quite the same for every coach or every program. That’s why we present the annual What It Would Mean column. What would winning it all mean for each of the eight participants?
Cal State Fullerton: The Titans have won four Series all time, but Rick Vanderhook is seeking his first as a head coach. Vanderhook played for the ’84 Titans and was an assistant on the 1995 and 2004 title teams.
Now, for the second time in three seasons, Vanderhook has the Titans in Omaha on his own as the head coach, and he finally has this year’s team at close to full strength, albeit with Ruben Cardenas (18 RBIs in 16 games) still sidelined.
“Everybody wants leadership,” Vanderhook said. “But leadership is the hardest thing I think we can teach. Guys either have it or they don’t. I’ve had some guys step up and take full possession of the team, and I don’t need to tell them anything. I tell those guys, they tell the team, they do what they want to do.”
A championship would etch Vanderhook’s name in Titans lore on his own, not merely as a complementary piece to coaching giants Augie Garrido and George Horton. (Can’t think it will be hard for Horton, now Oregon’s coach, to root for Fullerton and against Oregon State on Saturday, will it?)
Both of those men, whom Vanderhook assisted to those titles, will be in TD Ameritrade to watch Fullerton try to join elite company with its fifth title. Only Arizona State (last title in 1981), Texas (2005), LSU (2009) and Southern California (1998) would have won the Series more.
Florida: The Gators have become an Omaha staple, making their sixth trip in the last eight seasons under coach Kevin O’Sullivan. It’s the second time O’Sullivan has had a junior class get to Omaha three years in a row, with Alex Faedo, Mike Rivera, J.J. Schwarz and Dalton Guthrie turning the same trick that the Brian Johnson-Mike Zunino-Nolan Fontana-Austin Maddox crew did from 2010-2012.
O’Sullivan has done everything he can do at Florida, expect apparently stop it from raining at inopportune times in #Rainesville and excite Gators faithful. How differently would Florida fans feel after a national championship—excited enough to keep South Carolina from attempting to lure O’Sullivan to the Palmetto State?
O’Sullivan, who has a contract with a $500,000 buyout that pays him $1.25 million annually through 2025, already has earned that contract, as much as any college baseball coach can. His track record is hard to assail; a national championship would clinch it.
Florida State: Making its first trip to the Series since 2012 isn’t enough for Florida State. Considering this team was on the NCAA Tournament bubble five weeks ago, heading into a season-ending regular-season series at Louisville, it would be understandable if the Seminoles were just happy to be here.
“The key was they stayed together,” Martin said. “They trusted each other . . . We knew we were going to go through a rough stretch. Maybe not quite as rough as we had, but just very, very proud of what we saw happen with our club.
“And I agree totally with what Rick said about leadership. You don’t know what you’ve got. We found out late what we had in that leadership area. It surfaced. And that was the difference in our being here.”
What would it be like to be Taylor Walls, or Dylan Busby, or Quincy Nieporte, and to have been part of the team that brought Mike Martin his first championship after 22 CWS appearances, 16 under Martin? I’m not sure that even college baseball’s most quotable grandpa would have words to describe it.
Louisiana State: LSU is one of the few programs where getting to the Series is the expectation, not something to necessarily celebrate. But coach Paul Mainieri refuses to take that for granted.
“Look, we all have been here,” he said of the coaches on the dais. “Hopefully, we’ll come back in the future. But for these young kids, they might get one time here. They might get two times here, if they’re lucky. So they need to enjoy the experience.”
Mainieri was doing his best to do that Friday. When I ran into him in the ballpark, we exchanged pleasantries, and I said, “I’m sure you’re doing well, because you’re here.” And he replied, with his mouth somewhat full, “I’m going better because I’ve got a cookie.”
That kind of relaxed approach could help Mainieri become the 16th coach with multiple CWS titles, but of that group, only Miami’s Jim Morris and Casey remain active.
A seventh championship would push LSU past Texas alone into second place all-time behind Southern California’s 12. Of course the tally since Rod Dedeaux’s retirement at USC is 6-1 Tigers (and 6-2 vs. Texas in that span), so it would further cement LSU’s claim as the game’s top dynasty post-Dedeaux.
Louisville: This one’s simple, because just getting here, after two heartbreaking super regional losses, has helped ease the pain for the Cardinals. Plus, Brendan McKay—the most accomplished college player of the last 40 years—finally gets to play in the CWS.
If McKay can lead Louisville to its first baseball national championship, he’d make a very compelling case as the best college baseball player of the metal-bat era, going back to 1974, if not ever. Dave Winfield had an amazing career but didn’t win a national title. Mark Kotsay won a national title in ’95 and was a two-way player, but he closed. Robin Ventura, like McKay, was a three-time first-team All-American and had the 58-game hitting streak. Barry Bonds, Todd Helton, Pete Incaviglia, Jason Varitek, Jered Weaver . . . there are plenty of candidates. But McKay might just stand alone.
Dan McDonnell would get his first national title, but we already know he’s a heck of a coach. But for McKay, a singular place in history truly is at stake.
Oregon State: As McKay is aiming for history, so are the Beavers. Casey’s trying to join just six other coaches with three titles.
But his team is playing for higher stakes.
“Coach Garrido said to me, ‘You’re playing Oregon State?’ He said, ‘They lost four times. At least they can lose,’” Vanderhook said. “I said, ‘Coach, they won 54 games.’”
A perfect run or only one loss would allow Oregon State to lay claim to a national title and the best winning percentage of all time. Would the Beavers challenge the 1982-83 Texas teams or ’95 Fullerton for the title of Best Team Of All Time? It would seem that best winning percentage, at a time when more and more teams try to win, plus a CWS title would make the Beavers the GOAT.
Texas A&M: For the first-time winners, there’s nothing more significant than getting that national championship. Texas A&M has moved out from under Texas’ shadow via its move to the Southeastern Conference; Johnny Manziel sure didn’t hurt in that regard. Neither would a baseball national championship.
In fact, A&M’s national titles include nine in track and field, two in women’s softball (last in 1987), one in women’s basketball (2011) and one in men’s golf (2009). The football team won three before World War II, none consensus titles and all before integration. So winning it all in Omaha would lay a claim to be the biggest sports moment in A&M history.
Texas Christian: TCU was a college baseball non-entity, at least nationally, before Jim Schlossnagle arrived on campus. The man and the program have met, as evidenced by the 2016 Coach of the Year award. The Horned Frogs are making their fourth straight CWS trip. It’s not the most prospect-laden team; it has six players who were drafted, three in the first 10 rounds.
But it might be the best coaching staff in America. Schlossnagle has nailed the college coach as CEO gig; he’s a leader among his peers as well. Kirk Saarloos, a decorated player in his own right, has become a talented, tireless recruiter and excellent pitching coach. Bill Mosiello has helped lead another productive offense, even with Evan Skoug struggling with strikeouts and with Luken Baker hurt and out for the last month with a left arm injury.
A national championship would cement that legacy, the capstone on an amazing run.