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OMAHA—Arizona and Coastal Carolina, the last two teams standing in college baseball this season, aren’t quite mirror images of each other, but there are many similarities between the two programs that will meet in the College World Series finals this week. Both have athletic, aggressive offenses. Both have been piecing together their pitching staffs much of the year, and especially during the NCAA tournament. Both have seniors playing key roles. Both were No. 2 seeds, and overcame difficult tests on the road to reach Omaha. Both survived the losers’ bracket at the CWS.
And, in ways that will be readily apparent to anyone that watch the best-of-three championship series, which begins Monday at 7 p.m. ET, both teams love playing together.
“I think that’s going to be the most exciting thing,” Coastal third baseman Zach Remillard said. “Watching their dugout (on TV) before we get to the ballpark, they’re a pretty emotional team and like to get after it. I think that’s going to be the most fun part of it, aside from the actual game itself, is both teams like to get after it.”
Though both teams played three must-win games in Omaha to reach this point, they have remained remarkably loose in very public ways. Coastal has carried Rafiki, a stuffed monkey, with the team for the last two months. In Omaha, an inflatable shark has joined the Chanticleers in the dugout. Both routinely video-bomb coach Gary Gilmore during his midgame ESPN interview.
Arizona also has a dugout mascot (a Spider-Man action figure), but the Wildcats express their relaxed attitude more through their dugout antics. They mime drinking a shot of espresso after big hits, they dance in the dugout, on a whim, they grew “rally ‘staches.” And, off the clock, the Wildcats shoot playful videos at the direction of infielder Sawyer Gieseke. Just last week, ESPN commissioned them to make an air guitar music video of “This Town” as a CWS trailer.
Arizona’s players credit coach Jay Johnson for fostering an environment where they can have fun, even while playing on the sport’s biggest stage. Johnson, however, is even impressed by his players’ creativity.
“I’m at a loss for words with our guys sometimes and some of the stuff they do,” Johnson said. “I just respect how much they do to prepare and the professionalism that they’ve played with. And so, my feeling on it is they should have fun. They earned the right to have our dugout be the place they want to be worse than anywhere in the world.”
A few years ago, Coastal coach Gary Gilmore could never have imagined leading a team that brought a stuffed animal into the dugout. But, after Coastal was swept at Georgia Tech at the end of April, the Chanticleers were looking for a way to shake things up. They found Rafiki at a truck stop on their way back to Conway, S.C., and haven’t lost much since. Gilmore said he knows better than to mess with a good thing.
So Rafiki goes wherever Coastal goes, wearing a Chanticleers uniform and strapped onto righthander Bobby Holmes’ backpack.
“Rafiki has become a part of who we are, to be honest with you,” Gilmore said. “Heck, those kids, they’re not going to the park, they’re not getting on the bus, they’re not doing anything without that monkey going with us. It’s incredible.”
In isolation, dugout dances and stuffed animals may not seem like things that help a team play better or turn around a season. But in the highly pressurized environment of the NCAA tournament, there is value in playing relaxed and unburdened.
“I think, if anything else, it just keeps the moment in perspective,” Gilmore said. “Listen, anybody tells you every now and then it isn’t hard to breathe out there, they’re not being truthful with you. I mean, we all put a lot into it. And it can be nerve-racking at times. It’s just great to have a moment to laugh or whatever in between a lot of all that stuff going on.”
On the field, Arizona and Coastal will likely provide an entertaining series. Both coaches said they were still trying to figure out their pitching after having to use their best pitchers in order to reach the finals. Monday’s opener seems likely to be a matchup of Arizona lefthander J.C. Colney and Coastal righthander Jason Bilous, the teams’ Game 3 starters in Omaha, but both Johnson and Gilmore declined to name a starter.
With the availability of the teams’ top pitchers uncertain, more focus will shift to their offenses. Both have shown the ability to score in TD Ameritrade Park. Though Coastal leads the country in home runs neither team is particularly dependent on power.
Instead, both teams will look to hit the ball in the gaps, be aggressive on the basepaths and move the runners. Gilmore compared the approach to that of the Kansas City Royals or Tampa Bay Rays.
With so many similarities between the two teams, the coaches are expecting a close, entertaining finals.
“I’m very proud to say, when I look at their team, just initially, I see a lot of characteristics I see in our team,” Johnson said. “I think it’s going to be a great series.”
“There are probably a lot of talented teams here, possibly more talented than Jay’s and my team,” Gilmore said. “But the two teams that have played the best are here, and there’s a tremendous amount of similarities between us. Should be a great series before it’s over with.”