Anything can happen in Omaha
Coaches prep players for all scenarios in College World Series
• Oregon State head coach Pat Casey knows a thing or two about winning NCAA championships as he has guided the Beavers to Omaha for the fourth time since 2005 and first time since winning back-to-back national titles in 2006 and 2007.
Even though Casey’s current group of players have never been to the College World Series, they certainly know what is expected of them.
“He definitely has tried to make a point there’s a way to come to Omaha and expect to win, and there’s a way to come to Omaha and just be happy to be here,” sophomore leftfielder Michael Conforto said. “I think he understands this because he’s been here and not won it and been here and won it twice. I think one thing he has really harped on is that we have the attitude we’re expecting to win. We’re here as one of the best teams in the country and here to show what baseball is all about in the Northwest.”
But while Casey expects he team to try to win a third title, he also wants the players to soak up the CWS experience.
“The one thing I’ve shared with them is I think coaches make the mistake of keeping everybody regimented and focused on not getting caught up in the activities,” Casey said. “I think you have to enjoy the things that go with it – the barbeque, going to visit a children’s hospital, the fireworks – all the things that happen outside the white lines.
“If you try to keep them from enjoying those, they never enjoy the whole experience. I tell them to enjoy it to the point when you cross the white lines, you think, ‘Okay, now I’m home. Now, I can play baseball.’
I think that’s the one key is learning how to separate those two, but not trying to avoid them.”
Casey has guided the Beavers to an 11-4 record in Omaha in three previous trips.
• Mississippi State head coach John Cohen will become the 14th person to play and coach in a College World Series when the Bulldogs face Oregon State on Saturday. He played for the 1990 Mississippi State team that advanced to Omaha. Cohen went 4-for-12 with a double and two RBIsin the 1990 CWS.
Cohen has been to Omaha during the 23 years since playing in the CWS, but never with a team. In 2005, he came to follow Florida, but as a fan. He had served as an assistant coach for the Gators in 2002 and 2003.
“I had a hand in recruiting so many of those players when I was at Florida and I wanted to hang out with [former head coach] Pat McMahon, who I consider to be one of my closest friends in the world,” Cohen said. “I went through their practices with them. It was really a tough experience because I knew when I left Florida they would play for a national championship – I knew it. I watched it from the stands and it was a surreal experience instead of being in the dugout with those guys.”
In the two-plus decades since Cohen has been an active participant, he admits a lot has changed, but still one part of the experience remains constant.
“When you [advanced to the CWS] in 1990, you didn’t get 450 texts in a 30-minute period,” Cohen said. “You felt like college baseball was on a little bit of an island. ESPN was starting to get a go on it, and there was some exposure, but nothing like what it’s become. Every little tiny detail is out there – not like the NBA or MLB, but it’s still out there. But what hasn’t changed is the same kids that were in our dugout in 1990 are the same kinds of kids that are there now. There are the same personalities.”
UNC’s Mike Fox and Louisville’s Dan McDonnell are also part of the elite group of men who have played and coached in Omaha. Fox played on UNC’s 1978 CWS team, while McDonnell was a member of The Citadel’s 1990 CWS squad.
• It may not the first thing that pops out when you look at Louisville’s stat sheet, but the fact the Cardinals are leading the nation in hit by pitch has definitely helped the program get back to Omaha for the first time since 2007. UofL has been hit 128 times this year, including 15 times in the NCAA postseason.
“It’s an important offensive category in college baseball because I think more times than not your better offenses get hit more because pitchers have to pitch you in,” Louisville head coach Dan McDonnell said. “The better you are as a hitter, the more the ball has to come in. It’s a battle between you and the pitcher.”
But McDonnell makes sure if his players get hit by a pitch, they do it in a safe way.
“College kids stand closer to the plate than big-leaguers, but we do practice it from a safety standpoint,” McDonnell said. “We have these incrediballs. After we throw batting practice in the cages, we use these incrediballs that look just like a baseball [but are soft] and we’ll throw it at their hip or their back. It helps with the muscle memory of turning and protecting yourself, but also sending a message to the pitcher that if you’re going to try to come in you better not miss because now you’re going to put a guy on base. And not just a guy on base -- but a guy who runs.”
Still, any time a player gets hit it can be a scary experience. Coco Johnson was hit on the helmet twice in the Super Regional against Vanderbilt.
“You’re never teaching kids to get hit in the head,” McDonnell said. “Fortunately, just a little bit of a muscle memory to turn enough allows the bulk of the helmet to stick out as opposed to getting hit in the cheekbone. Our kids do have good muscle memory habits to protect your hands and your face. Fortunately, the helmet did its job, so he was able to finish the game and play this weekend.”
• Indiana’s Kyle Schwarber leads all CWS players in home runs with 18 entering Saturday’s game against Louisville, but the ball just doesn’t travel at TD Ameritrade Park like it does other places.
In the two years the CWS has been played since the stadium opened in 2011, there have only been a total of 19 home runs hit. In 2011, there were nine in 14 games and in 2012, there were 10 hit in 15 games.
But Schwarber is not worried about TD Ameritrade’s tendency to keep balls in the park, even though the long ball is a big part of the Hoosiers game.
“It’s not going to affect anything as long as we keep our game plan and keep hitting the ball hard, the ball will eventually go,” sophomore catcher Schwarber said. “That’s what I think.”
Indiana leads all CWS teams with 53 homers on the year, and 0.85 per game.
• No. 1 national seed North Carolina has nine players who were on the Tar Heels’ 2011 CWS squad, and junior ace Kent Emanuel says the team is more focused on raising the trophy this time around.
“I think this team’s mindset is more on winning than the experiencing it,” Emanuel said. “I know that’s one thing Coach [Bryant] Gaines and I have really tried to tell our team -- there are still games going on and we want to win this thing. Hopefully, we’ll come out with that mentality of being aggressive and try to win as many games as we can.”
Gaines, a first-year assistant coach at UNC, pitched for the Tar Heels, helping them advance to four consecutive CWS appearances, including UNC’s last in 2011, which went 1-2 in Omaha. Emanuel was a freshman in 2011 and tossed a four-hit shut against Texas in the Tar Heels second contest in Omaha.
ACC Player of the Year Colin Moran, senior Chaz Fran and junior Brian Holberton all started for the Tar Heels in 2011, while relievers Chris Munnelly and Tate Parrish also made appearances.
• While their archrivals may be taking a more business-like approach, NC State is keeping it loose in the program’s first appearance since 1968. On Thursday night outside the team hotel, a couple of Wolfpack players spent their free time playing wiffle ball with a little league team from Colorado. Sophomores Jake Armstrong (red shirt) and Logan Ratledge (gray shirt) joined the 11-under team and NC State’s video folks caught it on camera.
“They probably showed me up, but it was a blast,” Armstrong said. “I felt like a little kid again.”
Looking out his hotel room window, head coach Elliott Avent saw the game and watched his players enjoying the moment and learned a little, too.
“I looked, and it was two of my players playing a pick up wiffle ball game on the lawn with a little league team from Colorado,” Avent said. “They were pretty intense. They played for like an hour. I watched 10 minutes from my room and went down and watched the last five innings, and ... I discovered one of my hitters is a better left-handed hitter than he is a right-handed hitter, [since] he was hitting left-handed wiffle ball. So, we may make a change now Sunday for that game.”
Wolfpack players have also ridden bicycles around town wearing their team shirts and caught the eyes of several fans.
“People would cheer as we were riding by,” Armstrong said. “It was great.”
• LSU is making its 16th appearance at the College World Series, but the Tiger faithful had their longest wait between trips since the program made its first one in 1986. The Tigers are back for the first time since winning the 2009 NCAA championship and head coach Paul Mainieri has definitely felt the pressure to return to college baseball’s biggest stage.
“Finally, finally got here, OK?” Mainieri said. “It's been a whole three years. That’s what you sign up for at LSU. Nobody pulled the wool over my eyes when I took this job at LSU. I knew what I was getting into, and that is the standard. If you're afraid, you don't go to LSU, I can tell you that right now as a player or as a coach.”
Mainieri led the Tigers to back-to-back appearances in 2008 and 2009.
“We won the championship in '09, and I think the first question in the post game press conference [was] 'Can you repeat next year?'” Mainieri said. “So, that is what you're used to around there.”
LSU will be vying for the program’s seventh NCAA title. They have won the most of any team in this year’s eight-team field (1991, 1993, 1996, 1997, 2000 and 2009).
• UCLA is the only team in the CWS field making a repeat performance, proving it is tougher than it looks to earn a trip to Omaha.
“We’ve been here three of the last four years and you never take anything for granted,” UCLA head coach John Savage said. “It’s never an easy road.”
Twenty-one players are back from the 2012 team, including 12 who saw action during the Bruins’ three-game stint. Senior Cody Regis is the only Bruin to have played in the 2010 and 2012 College World Series.
“It’s good to see familiar faces,” Savage said. “You’re comfortable. You’re comfortable being uncomfortable. Everybody is a little nervous, everybody has some butterflies. Coming here last year, it was like being on Mars. I think now they don’t feel that … they kind of feel like they belong.”