By Arnie Leshin
Kudos to the women, congratulations to UCLA junior right-hander Rachel Garcia’s masterful accomplishment from the circle. Hip, hip hurray to the hit parade the Bruins rang up at the NCAA Division I Softball World Series played at the USAHall of Fame Stadium in Oklahoma City.
Great show put on by the 64-school field at the 48thannual tournament. This includes the ones performed in the dugouts by the players. Chatter, dancing, singing, and leading the supporters in the stands, Joyous scenes at home plate to pound on, hug, high-five a teammate, and the packed-house record turnout of 9,137 on Tuesday night.
Now it’s the men taking the field for the NCAA DI Baseball Tournament that has reached the Sweet 16 Super Regional that begins double-elimination play Friday, and continues Saturday, Sunday and Monday. From 64 to 32 to 16, to reach the Elite Eight at the CWS at Ameritrade Stadium in Omaha, Neb., and conclude with the best-of-three championship final.
The road to Omaha lies ahead, and has officially become a superhighway, paved and ready to travel. In the express lane at eight campus sites, there’s 10th seeded East Carolina at 7th seeded Louisville; 9th seeded Oklahoma State at 8th seeded Texas Tech; unranked Duke at 2nd seeded Vanderbilt, and unranked Michigan at top-seeded UCLA.
That’s Friday. Saturday, it is 12th seeded Ole Miss at 5th seeded Arkansas, unranked Auburn at 14thseeded North Carolina, 11th seeded Stanford at 6thseeded Mississippi State, and unranked Florida State at 13th seeded Louisiana State.
From there, it becomes the first two tests that can bring winners or if necessary games.
UCLA, the PAC 12 champions trying to link theirown title and bring the Bruins a gender sweep. They are riding a 10-game winning streak and have the nation’s lowest earned run average. They are led by outfielder Garrett Mitchell, and will probably have Jackie Robinson Field reserved for their softball champions.
VANDEBILT, too, has a talented outfielder in JJ Bleday. It also has probably the nation’s most balanced team, are crazy good in every aspect of the game. Runs are scored in bunches, and the SEC champions knocked off LSU in the tournament semifinals, and Ole Miss in the title game. Most teams get by with two good pitchers, but Vanderbilt runs nearly 10 deep on the mound.
MISSISSIPPI STATE is another power out of the SEC. The Bulldogs sport the land’s ninth best offense and fifth best batting average, and their number one hurler is southpaw Ethan Small, the SEC Pitcher of the Year. They also roll out the nation’s most entertaining dugout antics. Lost two out of three in the conference tournament and still grabbed the No. 6 national seed.
LEGIT TITLE THREATS
ARKANSAS has won a handful of SEC divisional titles is making its 15th NCAA tournament appearance, five of which ended with trips to Omaha. The only jewel missing during this amazing run is a national championship. The Razorbacks came close last year before losing in the finals to Oregon State. Their top pitcher is right-hander Isaiah Campbell.
TEXAS TECH hasn’t been in Omaha since losing in the final to Fresno State in 2008. The Red Raiders have a stellar infielder in Aaron Schunk and, while starting their baseball program in 1954, didn’t make the NCAA tournament until 1995. Now they make their 15th appearance, but hadn’t been to the CWS until 2014, now they’ve been there three times in five years and led by third baseman Josh Jung.
LOUISVILLE won the Atlantic Coast Conference regular season, but had a shockingly quick exit from the conference tournament, and it was the last stumble of a shaky 4-6 regular-season finish. The Cardinals, who have a real good left-handed hurler in Reid Detmers and have made it to Omaha three of the last five years and feature a run-machine offense that is streaky.
THE DARK HORSES
This has nothing to do with Saturday’s Belmont Stakes, the last of the Triple Crown races, but does relate to EAST CAROLINA trying to track down its first CWS since 1962 when it was the NAIA World Series until the Pirates relocated to the NCAA and have made 30 tournament appearances. They always have had plenty of talent, and now feature right-handed pitcher Jake Agnos.
LSU, led by outfielder Antoine Duplantis, quite literally limped through much of the season. But as the postseason arrived, many of these nagging injuries have healed. The Tigers won three-straight late in the season, and that included avenging a 17-inning heartbreaking setback to Mississippi State. Plus, it has a tournament-tested program.
THE DEFINITE MAYBES
OKLAHOMA STATE tripped through the latter stages of the Big 12 regular season, but rallied in the conference tournament and won the title over West Virginia. Led by outfielder Trevor Boone, the Cowboys played one of the country’s most aggressive non conference schedules that included a sweep over defending champion Oregon State in early May.
STANFORD is in its first season under head coach David Esquer. It has been a team that has had some tough tests, but worked hard to win 41 times. At times the Cardinal pitching has been very good, and in hitting it is patient at bat to coax walks, clout the long ball, and righty pitcher/designated hitter Will Matthiesen is equally adept on the hill and at bat.
NORTH CAROLINA hadn’t been to Omaha in four years until returning last season. Now the Tar Heels are trying to make it back there via a big push from late-season momentum. They have a big bat in designated hitter Aaron Sabato, and he powers the offense while the pitching and fielding has been rising to the occasion. They won the ACC tournament by surprisingly routing Georgia Tech.
SCHOOLS THAT WERE IN AND THEN OUT
They were all nationally ranked and included Georgia, Georgia Tech, UC Santa Barbara, Oregon State, West Virginia, North Carolina State, Texas A & M, Miami, Baylor, Tennessee, and Creighton, which would love to play in the CWS in hometown Omaha.