Amy Farnum, NCAA.com
It’s too early to tell which squads will make a run to the 2011 College World Series, but here is a look at some of the serious contenders. Opening day is Feb. 18 as each team’s journey on the Road to Omaha begins (rankings according to Collegiate Baseball):
No. 1 TCU (54-14)
After making their first appearance in the College World Series, the Horned Frogs return a talented, experienced club that boasts its full starting rotation and seven position starters. Sophomore left-hander Matt Purke, last season’s National Freshman of the Year, is the ace of the pitching staff, after posting a 16-0 mark with a 3.02 ERA and 142 strikeouts in 116.1 innings. Last season’s Mountain West Conference Pitcher of the Year Steven Maxwell (11-2, 2.70 ERA) and Kyle Winkler (12-3, 92 Ks) round out the rotation. Purke, Maxwell and Winkler garnered first-, second- and third-team All-America nods from the NCBWA. Offensively, Jason Coats will look to build upon last year’s school-record 99 hits. Coats batted .361 with 13 home runs, while leading the Frogs with 69 RBI and 68 runs scored. TCU’s biggest loss from the 2010 squad was All-American catcher Bryan Holoday, who threw out 23 of 50 runners on stolen-base attempts, and batted .355 with 17 homers, 24 doubles and 53 RBI.
• Opening Up: Feb. 18 vs. Kansas
No. 2 Florida (47-17)
After arriving in Omaha as a very youthful squad in 2010, the defending Southeastern Conference champions are now considered veterans with eight position starters and 11 pitchers returning to the program in 2011. Five players that earned Freshman All-America honors last season are now sophomores — shortstop Nolan Fontana, LHP/DH Brian Johnson, infielder Austin Maddox, RHP Hudson Randall and catcher Mike Zunino. Maddox, the 2010 SEC Freshman of the Year, is coming off a season in which he led the team with 72 RBI and 17 home runs, and earned NCBWA second team Preseason All-America for his efforts. He is joined by junior teammates Alex Panteliodis and Preston Tucker as preseason honorees. Panteliodis, a lefty from Tampa, Fla., went 11-3 with a 3.51 ERA last season, while Tucker batted .331 with 50 runs scored, 49 RBI and 11 homers, spending most of his time at first base, earning a spot on the SEC’s All-Defensive Team.
• Opening Up: Feb. 18 vs. South Florida
No. 3 UCLA (51-17)
With their first CWS appearance in the history books, the Bruins will be seeking a return trip to Omaha behind a wealth of experienced players that includes two weekend starting pitchers and six position players that logged at least 40 starts last season. Junior right-handers Trevor Bauer (12-3, 3.02 ERA) and Gerrit Cole (11-4, 3.37 ERA) played a big part in helping the Bruins compile a school-record 51 wins, and are both Louisville Slugger Preseason All-America honorees. Sophomore centerfielder Beau Amaral is the team’s top returning hitter with a .354 average, while junior designated hitter Dean Espy is the Bruins’ RBI-getter with 52 last year.
• Opening Up: Feb. 18 vs. San Francisco
No. 4 Clemson (45-25)
The Tigers look to continue their tear in 2011 with a solid core of returning players, including seven position starters. Three preseason All-Americans highlight the group — junior third baseman John Hinson, junior shortstop Brad Miller and senior leftfielder Jeff Schaus. Hinson batted .351 with 17 home runs, 75 RBI and a team-high 25 steals last year, and was a member of the All-CWS team after hitting .438 in Omaha. Miller led the Tigers with a .357 batting average in 2010, along with 19 doubles and 49 RBI, while Schaus topped the Tigers with 87 RBI last year, as well as contributing 15 homers and 14 doubles. On the mound, junior right-hander Scott Weismann will lead the Tigers’ staff after posting a 9-2 mark and 4.90 ERA last season.
• Opening Up: Feb. 18 vs. Eastern Michigan
No. 5 Vanderbilt (46-20)
The Commodores welcome back 21 letter-winners from last year’s squad that narrowly missed making the program’s first College World Series appearance. Junior pitcher Sonny Gray will anchor Vandy’s pitching staff, and earned NCBWA Preseason second team All-America recognition on the merits of a 10-5 record, 3.48 ERA and 113 strikeouts last year. Junior third baseman Jason Esposito was selected to the third team following a 2010 campaign that included .359 batting average, 12 homers, 64 RBI and 65 runs scored. First baseman Aaron Westlake led team with 14 home runs last year, and also contributed 61 RBI.
• Opening Up: Feb. 18 at San Diego
No. 6 Oklahoma (50-18)
The Sooners are hoping to continue their resurgence as a national contender with all but one position starter and three pitchers returning from last year’s squad that advanced to Omaha. It was the program’s first CWS appearance since winning the 1994 NCAA championship. The Sooners return five players that blasted double-digit home runs last year, led by junior third baseman Garrett Buechele, who belted 17 round-trippers along with a .359 batting average and 65 RBI. Oklahoma boasts a veteran pitching staff with senior right-handers Michael Rocha (8-2, 3.53 ERA) and Bobby Shore (10-5, 4.12 ERA), along with senior reliever Ryan Duke, who posted 12 saves last season.
• Opening Up: Feb. 18 vs. William & Mary
No. 7 Texas (50-13)
Pitching will be the story for the Longhorns as they try to get back to Omaha in 2011 after falling to TCU in last year’s Austin Super Regional. Right-handers Cole Green (11-2, 2.74 ERA) and Taylor Jungmann (8-3, 2.03 ERA) were selected to the NCBWA Preseason All-America team. Green, a first team honoree, was the 2010 Big 12 Pitcher of the Year, and returned to Texas despite being drafted in the fourth round of the MLB Draft. Jungmann, a second team pick, struck out 129 batters in 120 innings, and held foes to a .209 batting average. The Longhorns are not known for the offensive prowess, however they do return senior first baseman Tant Shephed, who led last year’s squad with a .337 batting average, 64 runs scored, and 19 doubles. Expect the Texas defense, which ranked No. 1 nationally with a .980 fielding percentage, to be among the best once again.
• Opening Up: Feb. 18 vs. Maryland
No. 8 Texas A&M (43-21-1)
Like their instate rival Texas, the Aggies’ pitching staff will be expected to be among the nation’s best with 12 hurlers returning from last year’s team that ranked 13th nationally in ERA (3.70) and second in strikeouts per nine innings (9.3). Junior John Stilson headlines the staff after posting a 9-1 record with a school-record 0.80 ERA, along with 10 saves and 114 strikeouts in 79 innings pitched. Sophomore Michael Wacha (9-2, 2.90 ERA 97 Ks), a Louisville Slugger Freshman All-American, is also expected to be a key contributor. Offensively, junior Matt Juengel leads the Aggies after posting a .359 batting average with 11 homers and 39 RBI, while senior catcher Kevin Gonzalez also is back following a .318 campaign with nine homers and 38 RBI.
• Opening Up: Feb. 18 vs. LeMonye
No. 9 Oregon (40-24)
In just their third season since being reinstated as a program, the Ducks look to have a bright future after advancing to the finals of NCAA Regional action last year. The Ducks’ record in 2010 was a 22-game improvement on 2009. Oregon’s pitching staff, which ranked third in the nation with a 3.29 ERA in 2010, again should be the strength of the team. Junior left-hander Tyler Anderson struck out 105 batters, while compiling a 7-5 record and 2.98 ERA. Offensively, the George Horton-led club most likely will rely on small ball for run production. The Ducks ranked first in sacrifice bunts last year with 78.
• Opening Up: Feb. 18 at Hawaii
No. 10 Stanford (31-25)
With just a handful of seniors, and a bevy of young talent, including the top-ranked recruiting class by Baseball America, the Cardinal will look for their stock to rise in 2011. The group is led by last year’s Pac-10 Freshman of the Year, infielder Kenny Diekroeger, who became the first freshman in school history to pace the Cardinal in batting (.356) and RBI (41). Sophomore leftr-hander Brett Mooneyham (3-7, 5.07 ERA, 99 Ks) most likely will be the ace of the pitching staff after spending the summer competing with Collegiate National Team, and posting a 2-0 record and 0.82 ERA during the stint.
• Opening Up: Feb. 18 at Rice