The Road to Omaha

Pitcher Alex Cunningham #18 tackled after Coastal Carolina wins the College World Series against Arizona in Omaha, Nebraska. (Photo by John S. Peterson/Icon Sportswire)

 

If you missed it two weeks ago, the Coastal Carolina Chanticleers earned their first College World Series title in a winner-take-all series against Arizona, 4-3. And your follow-up question may be “The Chanti-who?”

According to the school’s website, its kooky mascot comes from Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales—a rooster known for being “proud and fierce who dominates the barnyard.” You could say that the barnyard is an apt metaphor for the CWS and that being “proud and fierce” is also an accurate description of the Chanticleers’ postseason run, winning 15 of their last 18 games by plowing through a slew of national-seeded teams (#1 Florida, #5 Texas Tech, and #8 LSU) and decimating worthy opponents in a tough and ugly bracket (N.C. State and TCU), ending its season with an NCAA-high record of 55-18.

But despite the NCAA’s boneheaded decision to play the rained-out championship game the following afternoon—with a 12:08pm start time aired on ESPN3, no less—Coastal Carolina’s historic run was both enchanting and simultaneously unsurprising.

Why? As part of the Big South, a non-Power Five conference, the Chanticleers were consistently ranked in the AP polls throughout the season, won their conference title, and have entered the NCAA Tournament every year—with the exception of 2014—since 2007. With such consistent output and accolades (including “Coach of the Year”), it is no wonder that Gary Gilmore—Coastal Carolina’s alum and head coach of twenty-one years—finally earned his due with such a tiny baseball program.

For those unfamiliar with NCAA baseball, the tournament set-up is akin to what fans witness during March Madness. Like its counterpart, 64 teams enter the bracket on Selection Monday, held every Memorial Day. Vying for attention, teams attempt to make a run in double elimination regional games (think of it as the 1st and 2nd round) and then Super Regional best-of-three games (the “Sweet Sixteen”) in hopes of entering the bigger dance and Elite Eight of amateur baseball, the College World Series in Omaha.

So after G.K. Young, Coastal Carolina’s designated hitter, banged out a homer towards right field in Game 3, the youngster described what it’s like to experience that one particular shining moment: “I’m trying not to cry right now. Just dreaming of that in my head since I was 10 years old, hitting a home run in the College World Series. I never would have thought it would come in the championship game.” The equivalent to the Chanticleers’ Cinderella journey would be a #13 seed rolling through the Final Four and winning it all.

***

It is clear that the Chanticleers are one of many teams caught in a long line of remarkable tournament moments that don’t get the same attention as their basketball counterparts. And those traditions all start in Omaha.

The College World Series and its championship game originally began with hosting sites in Kalamazoo, Michigan (1947-1948) and Wichita, Kansas (1949). It wasn’t until 1950 when, in Omaha and Rosenblatt Stadium (as well as its replacement park, built in 2009 with MLB dimensions and which goes by the corporate-sponsored name, “TD Ameritrade Park”), it served as a focal point for every NCAA baseball program, both large and small. The CWS is stocked with bewildering facts and oft-forgotten tales: Warren Morris’s historic, full-count walk-off against Miami’s ace, Alex Cora, earned LSU their 3rd title and was my introduction to the CWS as an angsty Florida teenager. Then there’s USC, who captured its 12th CWS title under legendary coach Ron Dedeaux—the John Wooden of NCAA Baseball—shellacking their archrival Arizona State by a football score (21-14). And finally, FSU’s longtime coach Mike Martin who, since 1979, has a dismal combined CWS record of 0-22 (or, as I like to say, FSU is the Buffalo Bills of college baseball). And like most college sports, traditions always run rampant and these long-winded digressions explain what I admire so much about college baseball.

One privilege (or strange fact) about college baseball is that since 1974, there has been a long and valid divide on the NCAA’s decision to use metal versus wooden bats—a decision that infuriates the most rabid baseball purist. Later decisions also included a restriction on the weight of aluminum bats (1986) and recently the NCAA’s ruled to use flat-seamed baseballs, and not raised-seamed baseballs, in its title games (2015). Aerodynamics aside, wherever you stand on this divide (I’m unfortunately a latecomer to America’s pastime – Thanks LSU!), the ball’s force and sound off of a metal bat (Ping or Clank!) sounds a lot more soothing to the ear than a wooden one (Crack!). Sorry, David Ortiz!

But unlike MLB (and their wooden bats), college baseball begins its yearly affair—playing roughly 50 to 55 games per season—during the bone-chilling months of mid-February. Northern schools (with exception to the Ivies starting their season in Mid-March) zip out to warmer climates in the west or south to play teams from the Power Five conferences (i.e. SEC, ACC, Pac-12, Big 10, and Big 12).

Despite being media darlings in the college sports world, you may think the Chanticleers were the first unknown program to reach (and win) the College World Series. Since Fresno State’s title in 2008, a number of non-power five conference teams and smaller baseball programs have made a splash in Omaha by either winning (Wichita State, Pepperdine) or losing the title (Yale, Rollins College, Holy Cross).

One unusual moment occurred when, in 2009, the longest game in college baseball history between Texas and Boston College lasted 25 innings during the NCAA Regionals (the former won the contest, 3-2). The game lasted for a total of seven hours, a rarity in college sports. I doubt you’ll ever witness a seven-hour contest for a college basketball tournament game.

Although its fan base is largely situated in the south and west, teams from the north (namely Big 10 teams—Michigan, Illinois, and Indiana) are expanding the excitement and support through TV and social media coverage. Cable channels such as the SEC Network, Longhorn Network, ACC Network, and Big 10 Network are showing coverage of key conference games. ESPN’s “Bases Loaded” program, during the Regionals/Super Regionals rounds, features the expertise of D1 Baseball reporters Aaron Fitt and Kendall Rogers, plus Karl Ravech’s witty rapport with former Stanford pitcher and ESPN College Baseball analyst, Kyle Peterson. For next year and beyond, the coverage and excitement will only get better and larger for college baseball fans.

Win or lose, no excitement should go unnoticed in the tournament until the ride is over. When Arizona hired Jay Johnson last year, replacing Andy Lopez (a former Pepperdine coach who won the CWS title in 1992, and another with the Wildcats in 2012), the expectations were set pretty low at the beginning of the 2016 campaign. Entering the tournament as a #2 seed, the Wildcats blazed through the first rounds, upsetting an SEC and CWS early favorite, Mississippi State, in the Super Regionals. As Jay Johnson remarked on Arizona’s strange and unprecedented run to the CWS and title game, “This is the best five weeks of my life.”

It’s exquisite moments like these that make me love college baseball and show why the College World Series matters just as much as its collegiate counterparts.

And until next year, the road to Omaha starts now.

 

 

 

 

Tags from the story
Written By

Guy Anglade is a freelance writer on art, music, design, and culture who began his love affair with college sports while playing the now-defunct Super Nintendo game, NCAA Basketball. His writings and translations have appeared in Details, Interview, Surface.com, Print.com, Orlando Weekly, Jazz Times, Visura.com, and The Missouri Review. A New York native, he lives in Brooklyn.