When Kent State hit that famous bloop single to clinch their spot in the CWS, we all rejoiced. Not just as MAC fans, but as fans of "the little guys". We all felt like we did when Ohio made the NCAA tournament, and it's a feeling that tends to come few and far between now.
So that made me wonder, what is this group of little giants up against? What exactly awaits them in Omaha. We'll break down the Golden Flashes side of the bracket, as the 8 teams are split into two sides, with double elimination to determine the two teams for the Finals. Let's start with the heroes themselves.
Kent State Golden Flashes (46-18, 3-seed in Regional)
Conference (w/ record): Mid-American (21-3)
CWS Appearances (Last Appearance): First Appearance
Best CWS Finish: -
Record in CWS: 0-0
We all know Kent State fairly well now. They are one of the best hitting teams, hitting .302 (23rd in NCAA) and scoring 6.8 runs per game (17th) while leading the nation in doubles. Their pitching is pretty solid as well led by David Starn (11-3, 2.21 ERA) who is 8th in K's this year with 123. They beat Kentucky twice, including the 21-inning marathon to open the tournament, Purdue, and #5 Oregon twice to get to Omaha. Do we really have to continue?
For the other opponents, follow me past the jump!
Florida Gators (47-18, #1 overall seed)
Conference (w/ record): SEC (18-12)
CWS Appearances (Last App.): 7 (2011)
Best CWS Finish: 2nd (2005, 2011)
Record in CWS: 11-15
While we were all geeked up over the 21-inning game to open the NCAA tournament, Florida fans were doing some rejoicing themselves. Jonathan Crawford pitched a no-hitter in a 4-0 win over Bethune-Cookman and Florida hasn't looked back since. The Gators beat Georgia Tech 6-2, then 15-3 to head to Super Regionals. There, they beat NC State 7-1, followed by a 9-8 waterlogged, extra inning win for their first back-to-back-to-back CWS appearance.
Florida bases their success off pitching. Their 2.90 ERA is 8th in the country, and their walk numbers are even better. The Gators walk 2.03 per nine innings (2nd) and have a K/BB ratio of 3.7 which is tops in the country. Offensively they boast the 3rd overall pick in the MLB draft this year, Mike Zunino. The catcher has hit .322 for 19 HRs and 64 RBIs. Overall, the Gators average 1.2 HRs per game, which is scary good.
Probably the biggest thing to watch is revenge. The Gators were swept last year in the CWS final, and will look to finally win their first title this year. To do that though, they must face a familiar foe..............
South Carolina Gamecocks (45-17, #8 overall seed)
Conference (w/ record): SEC (18-11)
CWS Appearances (Last App.): 10 (2011)
Best CWS Finish: 1st (2009, 2010)
CWS Record: 28-17
If Omaha has been a second home to anyone lately, it would be SC. How good are the Gamecocks? They have the NCAA Record in consecutive CWS wins (11) AND NCAA tournament wins (21), both are active. The last time South Carolina lost a NCAA tournament game? 2010 CWS opener against Oklahoma, their Super Regional opponent. Shoot, this is their 2nd back-to-back-to-back appearance in the last 11 years (2002-2004 as well). The added pressure this time being the champions. Should they win this year, they will become the first team since Southern Cal to win 3 or more straight CWS (USC won 5 from 1970-1974)
But no matter, South Carolina opens against last year's runner-up, and fellow SEC East foe, Florida this year. Clemson gave SC the most trouble in a pair of 1-run losses in regionals, but so Florida should give SC a nice challenge.
Besides past, the Gamecocks have a fairly decent pitching and hitting corps. They don't hit that well (.271), but their pitching really helps balance things out. SC only allows 7.3 hits per nine innings, which is 3rd in the nation, meaning you have to score on them when you get the chance. Tyler Webb has been stellar out of the pen, going 6-1 with a 1.91 ERA this year.
Arkansas Razorbacks (44-20, 2-seed in Regional)
Conference (w/ record): SEC (16-14)
CWS Appearances (Last App.): 6 (2009)
Best CWS Finish: 2nd (1979)
CWS Record: 9-12
If you are keeping track, that is 3 SEC teams on the Flashes side of the bracket. Ouch. However, the team Kent State will open against (5 pm Saturday, ESPN) is arguably the easiest team the on their side of the bracket. To get here, Arkansas needed a pair of 1 run wins over Sam Houston St. and Rice before winning their regional 5-1 against SHS. In the Super Regional, after dropping their first game 8-1 to #4 Baylor, the Razorbacks survived in a true miracle, as the Bear pitcher hit back-to-back players with the bases loaded in the bottom of the 9th to tie, then lose the game 5-4. Arkansas won the last game 1-0 in 10 innings, with a 2-out hit barely beating the Baylor short-stop.
Arkansas is the lowest scoring team to make the CWS this year, scoring only 5.3 runs/game. They are batting just .272, and no one player really stands out. However, the offense is just good enough due in part to the pitching. The Razorbacks thrive on the mound. Their 2.90 ERA is tied with Florida for lowest in this year's CWS, with a 0.33 ERA in Regionals. Who UA sends out to start against KSU will be interesting. They have righties DJ Baxendale (7-5, 3.18 ERA) and Ryne Stanek (7-4, 2.91 ERA) and lefty Randall Fant (2-2, 3.00 ERA), so it looks like the bullpen will be key no matter what, as no Razorback has thrown a complete game this season.
Some notes for the other side of the bracket:
- Fellow Cinderella Stony Brook is near the top of most NCAA statistical categories. They have #2 UCLA to open against
- Arizona is the only other team to enter unseeded, though we can determine from the set-up that they would be the #11 overall seed (matched-up with #6 UNC in Super Regionals. UNC never made it). Arizona beat the last MAC team to make a CWS (EMU) to win the 1976 National Title.
- Speaking of EMU, Kent State and Stony Brook will be trying to defy history and become the first "Northern" team since that Eastern squad to even make the title game. Imagine if they play each other.
- Florida State will be looking to finally get over the hump in Omaha. They have finished runners-up 3 times.
- UCLA is making only their 3rd appearance in the CWS. They finished runners up to South Carolina in 2010. The pressure is on, as cross-town rivals USC holds the record for most CWS titles, an astounding 12 titles. Next closes to USC is LSU and Texas with 6 each.