Inexperience won't slow Virginia, Vanderbilt at College World Series
Despite only three combined CWS appearances, Virginia and Vandy look tough
Reigning champions South Carolina are solid but lost too much talent to repeat
After flirting with extinction, the Golden Bears are Omaha's biggest underdogs
OMAHA, Neb. -- This year's College World Series was guaranteed to be special because it features the debut of TD Ameritrade Park.
But the way the eight teams are bracketed makes for some intriguing possibilities for the championship series. It could be an all-ACC final if North Carolina and Virginia win their brackets. Or it could be all-SEC if defending champion South Carolina and either Florida or Vanderbilt come through. There's also the possibility of an all-Texas final with Texas and Texas A&M. Then there's Cal, which would be the most compelling story of all if they reach the finals.
Here's a look at the eight teams in Omaha playing for the national championship:
The story will be told over and over and over again, as long as the Bears keep this magical season going. And the story should be told, about how Cal's baseball program was among those last fall that were to be eliminated amid budget cuts, about how alumni stepped forward at the 11th hour to raise $10 million to save the 118-year-old program and about how the team responded to adversity through it all. "With the hunger and fight that we have," outfielder Austin Booker said on the school website, "we feel there's no obstacle that can stand in our way." Good thing, because the Bears open the CWS against No. 1 national seed Virginia. The Cavaliers better watch out. Omaha loves an underdog.
One to watch: Sophomore 2B Tony Renda (.335, 3 HRs, 42 RBIs, 9 SBs), who may be used at DH, was the Pac-10 Player of the Year. He's a hard-nosed player listed at just 5-foot-8 who was among the team's offensive leaders. He slid home headfirst with the winning run in the Regional final against Baylor, injuring his quadriceps in the process. It limited him to DH duty in the Super Regionals, but he should be healthy enough to return to second base for the CWS.
How they got here: Won double-elimination Regionals, beating Baylor 9-8 in final with four runs in the bottom of the ninth; swept Dallas Baptist in best-of-three Super Regionals.
CWS history: The Bears won the very first national championship in 1947. That first year, eight teams were divided into two four-team, single-elimination playoffs with the winners advancing to a best-of-three series played in Kalamazoo, Mich. The event moved to Omaha in 1950 and Cal won its second title there in 1957. This is Cal's sixth CWS appearance, but its first since 1992.
Well-known alum: Jeff Kent.
The Gators and South Carolina have the distinction of being the two teams that closed out Rosenblatt Stadium. While South Carolina came away with a championship a year ago, Florida went home winless. If the Gators are to experience success this time, they likely will have to outslug teams to do it. Florida's 3.00 team ERA ranks behind every team here but North Carolina (3.27). The Gators do pack the most punch, with 67 team homers.
One to watch: Sophomore C Mike Zunino (.376, 18 HRs, 66 RBIs, 7 SBs) earned SEC Player of the Year honors in 2011. He's batting .458 in six NCAA tournament games with seven RBIs, three homers and three doubles. This year's bat restrictions haven't bothered him a bit. He doubled last year's HR total and ranks among the nation's top 10 in homers.
How they got here: Swept through Regionals, averaging more than 10 runs a game. Beat Miami in regional final; defeated Mississippi State in three games in Super Regionals.
CWS history: The Gators, who finished as runners-up to Texas for the 2005 title, are making their sixth trip to Omaha and their second straight. Last year, Florida left Omaha early with losses to UCLA and Florida State.
Well-known alum: David Eckstein.
The Tar Heels' 3.27 team ERA is the worst among the eight teams here -- although it is 2.00 during the postseason -- but it is minimized because of the defense (a school-record .979 fielding percentage) played behind the pitchers. A school-record 340 walks has helped fuel an offense that is averaging nearly seven runs a game. North Carolina is nearly unbeatable (44-1) when leading after seven innings, with Michael Morin (10 SVs) and Cody Penny (5 SVs) closing out many of the victories.
One to watch: Unlike many newcomers, freshman 3B Colin Moran (.335, 9 HRs, 69 RBIs) needed no adjustment with the jump from high school to college on the way to earning ACC Freshman of the Year. In fact, he led the conference in RBIs. It was something of a surprise because Moran's left-handed swing didn't produce many results in fall ball. Perhaps it was the contact lenses he got before the season. "Going to the eye doctor," Moran said on the school website, "was like going from regular TV to high definition TV."
How they got here: Swept through Regionals, winning twice with shutouts before beating James Madison 9-3 in final; swept Stanford in best-of-three Super Regionals.
CWS history: This is the ninth appearance for the Tar Heels, who made it four straight years from 2006-09 before missing out last season. North Carolina finished as runners-up to Oregon State for the national championship in both 2006 and 2007. The '06 loss was most painful. The Tar Heels won the best-of-three championship series opener 4-3 and they were closing in on the title in Game 2 with a 5-0 lead in the fourth inning. But Oregon State rallied for an 11-7 win, then won 3-2 the following night to clinch it.
Well-known alum: B.J. Surhoff.
The Gamecocks figured to have another solid team, but getting back to Omaha was something of a long shot after losing several key players -- including top starting pitchers Blake Cooper and Sam Dyson -- from last year's championship team. "We'll have a good team again," said South Carolina coach Ray Tanner before the season. "It's just too hard to predict how the season will end up." It helped that one of the returners was sophomore RHP Matt Price (5-3, 2.16 ERA, 18 SV, 67 Ks/15 BBs in 50 IP), who is one off the national lead in saves. 3B Christian Walker (.359, 10s HR, 60 RBIs) has led the offense in the absence of OF Jackie Bradley Jr. (.259, 6 HRs, 26 RBIs), who was sidelined midseason with a wrist injury. Bradley, last year's CWS Most Outstanding Player, was cleared to return this week, although his ability to swing a bat remains to be seen.
One to watch: South Carolina LHP Michael Roth (13-3, 1.02 ERA, 95 Ks/32 BBs in 123 IP) was one of the CWS heroes last year, bailing out a staff that was overtaxed. Roth's only starts of the 2010 season were in Omaha -- he pitched a complete game to beat Clemson and went the first five innings in the championship-clinching win over UCLA. Now he's the Gamecocks' first option instead of their last one.
How they got here: Challenged in their Regional opener -- a 2-1 win over Georgia Southern -- but still swept the Eagles, and then beat Stetson in final; swept UConn in Super Regionals.
CWS history: The Gamecocks had been bridesmaids many times (finishing third three times in 1975, 1977 and 2002) before winning last year's national championship against UCLA. This is the school's 10th appearance overall.
Well-known alum: Justin Smoak.
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