The men’s College World Series is now down to the final two teams.  The University of South Carolina Gamecocks versus the University of Arizona Wildcats.  The best-of-three series begins tonight.  The Gamecocks will be trying to win their third NCAA championship in a row.  It’s been 38 years since any college baseball team has won more than two championships in a row (the USC Trojans, led by arguably the greatest collegiate baseball coach of all-time Rod Dedeaux, won five in a row, 1970-74).  The rich tradition of the College World Series is something that ALL baseball fans can appreciate and enjoy!

 

Baseball is all about tradition, and the College World Series epitomizes that statement.  Since 1950, Omaha has been the annual host site for this Division 1 championship.  Johnny Rosenblatt Stadium for an incredible 60 years, now TD Ameritrade Park (in downtown) for the last two years.  The very first tournaments (1947-49) were held in Kalamazoo and Wichita.  I have to admit, 60 years of CWS tradition is hard to compete with, and in no way do the current grounds have the atmosphere of “The Blatt”…..but, give it some time to build those memories.  It’s a beautiful, state-of-the-art ballpark!  Format for the CWS tournament competition has changed several times over history…..since 2003 for example, the best-of-three finals has been in place.

 

Over the years, much like college football, there are perennial favorites and some Cinderella teams that “sneak” into the show every year…….the elite (final) eight teams.  Of the 293 D1 college baseball programs, Texas (82), Southern Cal (74), and Arizona State (61) have the most CWS wins.  Southern Cal (an amazing 12 titles in 21 visits), Texas (6), LSU (6), Arizona State (5), Cal State Fullerton (4) and Miami (4) have the most championships, although little known baseball schools like Pepperdine, Holy Cross, and Wake Forest have also captured a College World Series title.  Wake Forest is the only team from the mighty ACC to ever win it all…..they did it way back in 1955.  Another ACC team, Florida State, has gone the most times (21 after this year, with the venerable Mike Martin at the helm for 15 of those 21) without bringing home the trophy!  MVPs of the College World Series have included such MLB players as Sal Bando (Arizona State-1965), Dave Winfield (Minnesota-1973), Terry Francona (Arizona-1980), and Houston Street (Texas-2002).

 

This year, Florida, Arkansas, UCLA, Florida State, and first-timers Kent State and Stony Brook made it to the CWS show along with the two finalists.  The two-time defending champion South Carolina Gamecocks needed to work their way out of the loser’s bracket, beating Arkansas three times in five nights, to make it back to the finals.  Ironically, this year, it was also Arkansas who finally ended the South Carolina Gamecock 22-game win streak compiled over the last three years in the NCAA tournament.  The Arizona Wildcats have breezed through this year’s regional, super-regional, and CWS tournament play so far…….winning all eight games they have played, averaging 9.8 runs per game.

 

Every year, we tend to get very familiar with some of the “personalities” of the tournament, particularly those of the final two teams.  Whether it’s because of their style of play, sheer competitiveness, respect they command, or their personal stories of success over adversity, they pull us towards them.  This year is certainly no different.  For the South Carolina Gamecock team, senior left-handed ace Michael Roth (drafted in the 8th round by the Angels) is the team’s emotional leader on and off the field…..and he’s also an All-Academic student who keeps the team loose with his never-ending antics.  For the Wildcats, junior outfielder Robert Refsynder (selected by the Yankees in the 5th round) is the top slugger of this explosive offense.  He was also adopted when he was three and his adopted parents share a unique bond with him during every game.  Managers of each finalist are likewise very interesting and successful in their own right.  Andy Lopez, 58, the Wildcats head coach since 2002, has now brought THREE DIFFERENT teams to the CWS (Florida and Arizona twice each, and won the title with Pepperdine in 1992).  South Carolina Gamecock skipper Ray Tanner, 54, is now in his 16th season as head coach of South Carolina.  Besides leading his team to their third consecutive finals, his teams have also qualified for 13 consecutive NCAA postseasons……longest streak in the powerhouse SEC!  The crusty Tanner is more of an “in-your-face” vocal guy, whereas Lopez is a little more easy-going.  Both are skillful veteran leaders that bring a lot of class to the game.

 

Of all the things I regularly enjoy about the College World Series, mainstay NCAA baseball analyst Kyle Peterson is my favorite.  He’s covered the CWS for ESPN since 2003, and is an Omaha native.  The 36-year old former 3-time All-American standout pitcher at Stanford grew up watching many of these games (and actually played in the CWSs of ’95 and ’97).  In the 1997 MLB Draft, Peterson was the 13th overall pick of the Milwaukee Brewers, but his major league career was cut short after just two years due to injury.  Luckily, he migrated back home to the broadcast booth.  His knowledge and life-long love of the CWS comes through every telecast!  Peterson’s laidback, insightful (almost instructive) style just makes the whole experience that much more pleasurable.  Add high-energy, seasoned vet Mike Patrick doing the play-by-play, a couple of his famous catchphrases (e.g., “are you kidding me?”), and that’s as good as it gets folks!

 

Enjoy the final championship games and embrace the College World Series tradition….I guarantee you’ll be hooked!

 

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