Can anyone stop S. Carolina from College World Series three-peat?
The Gamecocks are trying to join USC as the only schools to win three straight
Stony Brook and Kent State are likely to be the crowd favorites in Omaha
Florida State coach Mike Martin is looking for his first title in 15 trips
A lot of intriguing storylines are in play as the 66th College World Series gets underway Friday in Omaha, Neb. Among them:
South Carolina could win its third straight national championship, joining Southern California (1970-74) as the only schools to accomplish the feat.
Florida could avenge its 2011 championship loss to the Gamecocks.
UCLA could avenge its 2010 championship loss to the Gamecocks.
Arizona could become just the seventh school to win at least four national championships -- joining USC (12), LSU (6), Texas (6), Arizona State (5), Miami (4) and Cal State Fullerton (4).
Newcomers Stony Brook and Kent State could meet for the national championship, although no first-time participant has reached the finals since Georgia Tech in 1994 (the Yellow Jackets lost to Oklahoma).
At least one definitive matchup worth watching comes in the first round when South Carolina and Florida square off in a game that is not only a rematch of last year's finals but one that should go a long way in determining one of this year's finalists.
The Gamecocks and Gators aren't the only squads in the field to pay attention to, of course. Here's a look at all eight of the teams playing for the national championship:
Bracket I: Arizona, Florida State, Stony Brook, UCLA
Bracket II: Arkansas, Florida, Kent State, South Carolina
The Wildcats are something of a sleeper. They weren't given a national seed by the selection committee and they didn't have a glamorous storyline coming into the CWS. They do have a coach in Andy Lopez who guided one team to a national championship (Pepperdine in 1992) and another (Florida) to the CWS before raising Arizona to the same level (he also brought the Wildcats to Omaha in 2004). The secret to Arizona's success may be an offense that is batting a collective .333 (fourth in the nation) and producing 7.5 runs per game (third in the nation). The Wildcats have hit just 20 home runs this season, but that could work to their advantage playing in TD Ameritrade Ballpark, which isn't conducive to hitting homers.
One to watch: Junior RHP Kurt Heyer (12-2, 2.28 ERA, 102 SO) doesn't have the velocity that takes a pitcher to the top of the draft, which explains why he was selected in the sixth round by the Cardinals. But Heyer has a bulldog mentality, which is why Lopez sticks with him when times are tough -- like in the Super Regionals against St. John's. Arizona trailed 5-0 through four innings, but Heyer remained in the game. He would stay until one out in the 10th inning -- allowing 17 hits -- as the Wildcats rallied for a win.
How they got here: The Wildcats collected 47 runs in regionals victories over Missouri and Louisville (twice). The pitching took over in 7-6 and 7-4 Super Regionals wins over St. John's.
CWS history: The Wildcats rank among the top 10 schools in all-time appearances, reaching the CWS on 16 occasions now. This is their first time here since 2004. They join South Carolina as the only schools in this year's field to have won a national championship. Arizona won its titles in 1976, 1980 and 1986 and also finished runner-up three times.
Well-known alum: Trevor Hoffman
The Seminoles could be considered the sentimental favorites, given that coach Mike Martin has made 14 previous trips here without winning a championship. Martin's 1,721 career wins ranks third behind Texas' Augie Garrido (1,817) and Wichita State's Gene Stephenson (1,742). This is one of Martin's most balanced teams. The Seminoles have a 3.52 team ERA while the offense is averaging 6.9 runs per game.
One to watch: Senior OF James Ramsey (.382, 13 HR, 57 RBIs, 11 SB), a first-round draft pick by the Reds, is a contact hitter whose numbers this season suggest power. It will be interesting to see how that translates to spacious TD Ameritrade, where the left-handed hitting Ramsey will be advised to go for the gaps rather than the fences.
How they got here: The Seminoles edged Alabama-Birmingham 2-1 in their regional opener before beating Samford twice to advance. They totaled 35 runs in lopsided Super Regional wins over Stanford.
CWS history: This is the Seminoles' 21st appearance in Omaha, by far the most without winning a championship (Clemson is second with 12 trips). Florida State finished as runner-up in 1970, 1986 and 1999.
Well-known alum: Buster Posey
The Seawolves are certain to be adopted by the fans in Omaha, who annually embrace the underdog. Stony Brook is just the second No.4 seed to reach the CWS, joining the 2008 Fresno State team that went on to win the national championship. While first-timers usually don't dominate, the boys from New York have the confidence that ensures they will not be intimidated by the stage they're on. That has something to do with winning two straight regionals on the road and owning the nation's winningest record.
One to watch: Junior OF Travis Jankowski (.422, 5 HR, 46 RBIs, 36 SB) will never forget his 21st birthday. He will celebrate it in centerfield for the opening game of the CWS. Jankowski uses the whole field, taking advantage of the gaps whenever possible. He uses his speed to take the extra base or steal one. The Padres used a supplemental first round pick to draft him.
How they got here: The Seawolves opened the Coral Gables Regional with a win over host Miami (Fla.) and closed it out with two straight wins over Central Florida. They overcame a potentially devastating opening-game loss in the Super Regionals with two straight wins over host LSU. The series began with a heart-breaking 5-4, 12-inning loss in a game that required two days to complete. Stony Brook stormed back with 3-1 and 7-2 wins that had even Tigers fans applauding them at the end.
CWS history: First appearance
Well-known alum: Joe Nathan
The Bruins are an example of a team that seems to come together the year after two of its top players have departed. RHPs Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer led UCLA to the CWS two years ago and were expected to bring the Bruins back last season. It didn't happen, although Cole and Bauer were the first and third picks, respectively, in the 2011 draft. The pitching load this season has been dispersed throughout the staff, which allowed more than two runs just once in five postseason game. The offense has certainly done its part, averaging with a batting average significantly better than last year's mark (.309 to .263). Five 2010 CWS veterans -- OF Beau Amaral (.313, 4 HR, 45 RBIs, 13 SB), 2B Trevor Brown (.328, 3 HR, 51 RBIs), OF Jeff Gelalich (.365, 11 HR, 46 RBIs, 15 SB), 1B Cody Regis (.247, 25 RBIs) and RHP Scott Griggs (3-1, 2.70 ERA, 15 SV, 64 SO in 36.2 IP) -- should provide a steadying influence.
One to watch: Sophomore RHP Nick Vander Tuig (10-3, 4.35 ERA, 69 SO) has stepped into the rotation from the bullpen to help fill the gap left by Cole and Bauer. Vander Tuig had success in the regular season, but he's taken another step forward in the postseason. He took a no-hitter into the eighth inning in a victory over New Mexico in the regionals, then clinched the CWS berth by beating TCU in the Super Regionals. Vander Tuig isn't overpowering, his fastball perhaps touching 90 mph, but has been very effective locating his pitches in his past two starts.
How they got here: The Bruins beat Creighton (twice) and New Mexico to win the regional they hosted, then added two home wins over Texas Christian to return to Omaha for the second time in three years.
CWS history: The Bruins are making their fourth appearance. They had not won a game here before 2010, when they finished runner-up to South Carolina.
Well-known alum: Jackie Robinson