OMAHA, Neb. — South Carolina is going for three straight national titles and Florida is the No. 1 seed.
Yet all the talk at the College World Series is about Stony Brook and Kent State. Now that these upstarts have crashed the party, what will they do?
The Seawolves of Stony Brook have gotten the rock-star treatment since their stunning super-regional victory at LSU and undoubtedly will be the fan favorites when they open Friday against No. 2 national seed UCLA (47-14).
“People just want to hang out with us for some reason,” center fielder Travis Jankowski said Thursday. “I don’t know why. They just love us.”
With apologies to Kent State, the Seawolves have become the feel-good story of the summer in sports.
They’re the first team from the Northeast since 1986 to make it to college baseball’s biggest stage. They’re here as a No. 4 regional seed, the lowest of the low, even though they won a nation-leading 52 games against just 13 losses. The last No. 4 to make it was Fresno State in 2008, and the Bulldogs ended up winning the national title.
While Jankowski was preparing to take batting practice during the Seawolves’ public workout, staff ace Tyler Johnson was leaning against a wall between the clubhouse and dugout doing a photo shoot with ESPN.
“Pure craziness,” Johnson told a passer-by. “I’ve never had my picture taken so many times.”
Stony Brook coach Matt Senk has told his players to enjoy their new celebrity — and then be ready to show up and play ball Friday.
“We’re looking to strike a balance,” Senk said. “Today was just amazing — the autograph session was just blowing our minds. The people of Omaha since we’ve been here have been absolutely incredible. Our attention will be turning back to baseball. They feel very good about what they’ve accomplished to this point and more than anything they don’t want to disappoint each other and not go out there and play their very best.”
The Seawolves will send Johnson (12-1) to the mound against Adam Plutko (11-3).
UCLA coach John Savage, asked if the Bruins are a bit forgotten in all the fuss about Stony Brook, said the situation reminds him of 2010 when TCU was here for the first time. The Horned Frogs were the clear hometown favorite when they played UCLA, and Savage expects the same for Stony Brook.
“We hope the stadium is filled and if everyone is pulling for them, I think that’s what college baseball is all about,” Savage said. “We’ll embrace it and go play.”
Kent State (46-18), the first Mid-American Conference team to play in the CWS since Eastern Michigan in 1976, opens Saturday against Arkansas (44-20). David Starn (11-3) will start against Arkansas’ DJ Baxendale (7-5).
Golden Flashes coach Scott Stricklin said he doesn’t mind that Stony Brook seems to have gotten the most attention this week. Any other year, in a similar circumstance, the Flashes would be all the rage.
“We’re getting all the love we need, trust me,” he said. “Northeast Ohio and western Pennsylvania, we’re getting all the exposure we need. We don’t recruit nationally anyway. But I feel we’re getting a lot of respect. I’m thrilled for Stony Brook. The thing I’m most thrilled about is that they’re in the other bracket.”
Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said he’s not surprised to see Kent State at the CWS. The Flashes were on the losing end of a hard-fought regional at Texas last year with a team Stricklin believed was capable of making it to Omaha.
“It’s not like Kent State came out of nowhere,” Van Horn said. “They’ve been pretty good for a long time, and Scott has taken them to another level. Some great coaches go through there. He’s just taken it through the roof.”
The second game Saturday pits South Carolina (45-17) against Florida (47-18) in a rematch of the 2011 finals. The Gamecocks, trying to become the first team since the great Southern California squads of the early 1970s to win more than two national championships in a row, have lost three of four games against their Southeastern Conference rival this season.
Michael Roth (7-1), the winning pitcher in the title-clinching game against the Gators last year, will get the start against Brian Johnson (8-4). Johnson won both his previous starts against the Gamecocks this season.
South Carolina made it back to the CWS after overcoming a stretch in which it lost five of their first six Southeastern Conference games.
“I was a little anxious early and probably was a little hard to play for,” coach Ray Tanner said. “The older guys took the younger guys under their wings and helped them mature and develop. They got a little better, and we won some close games down the stretch and were able to win enough to be here.”
Gators coach Kevin O’Sullivan said he doubted the result of last year’s CWS finals would serve as motivation for his club.
“South Carolina beat us fair and square,” he said. “Bottom line: they played better, and there was nothing for our players to hang their heads about. Every time you play them, you have to play your best. Saturday night will be no different.”
Arizona (43-17) and Florida State (48-15) meet Saturday night in what could be a slugfest. The Wildcats are batting .333 — second in the CWS field to Stony Brook’s .335 — and scoring 7.5 runs a game. The Seminoles are scoring 6.9 runs a game and are coming off a two-game super regional in which they totaled 35 runs against Stanford.
Arizona will start Kurt Heyer (12-2) against freshman left-hander Brandon Leibrandt (8-2).
TD Ameritrade Park is not as friendly to home-run hitters as the old CWS venue, Rosenblatt Stadium, so UA coach Andy Lopez or FSU’s Mike Martin expect pitching and defense to decide things.
“It’s going to be a couple of big at-bats,” Lopez said, “maybe a ball in the gap.”