OMAHA, Neb. –– They sat together at Florida’s post-game press conference, the father who coaches the Gators, and the little girl in his lap, as upset about the result as the players.
“Seeing the disappointment on their faces at the end of the game, that’s when reality really hits you right square in the face,” Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan was saying. “You see the kids are upset. My kids are upset. So many people that are invested.”
And so it ended too soon, for yet another No. 1 seed at the College World Series. History wasn’t much surprised.
The record is pretty definitive. Going into the NCAA tournament as the national No. 1 seed is like jumping into a lake holding a bowling ball. Florida is the latest example, ousted by Arkansas Friday night 5-2.
The top seed will not win the College World Series this year. Nor did it last year. Nor the year before that. Nor the 16 years before that. This is the 20th season the NCAA has awarded national seeds, and guess how many No. 1 teams were dogpiling at the end in Omaha?
One. Repeat. One. The first year they seeded, with Miami in 1999.
Since then, a shutout. From Vanderbilt to Virginia, from Arizona State to Florida State to Oregon State, from Texas to Tulane. And this June, Florida.
Of those 19 No. 1 seeds, six didn’t even make it to the College World Series. Only two made it to the College World Series final – Texas in 2004 and ’09.
Statistical fluke? Sure sign of college baseball parity? Meaningless? Meaningful? Maybe the Gators shouldn’t have been No. 1 seed after losing six of their last seven in the regular season. But that means No. 2 Stanford would probably have been No. 1. And the Cardinal didn’t even survive their own regional.
With Friday’s loss only minutes old, O’Sullivan addressed the plight of No. 1 seeds.
“I don’t think there’s a lot of separation between the No. 1 seed and the No. 8 seed. You’ve got to remember when these seeds come up that’s almost a month ago. I don’t think the number has much to do with it. This game is very fickle. It can change from game to game and week to week.”
The matter was taken to Ray Tanner, chair of the NCAA Division I baseball committee, athletic director at South Carolina. In 2010 and '11, Arizona State and Virginia were the No. 1 seeds. South Carolina won the College World Series both years. Tanner was the coach.
“I don’t think it has anything to do with a jinx or anything crazy,” he said. “I don’t think it has anything to do with pressure or guys trying not to lose. I don’t believe any of that. I just think the gap is so small between a top seed and a 16 seed. There are so many good baseball programs throughout the country. Look at the stadiums that have been built over time, the commitment, the fan bases. Even though you may be No. 1, it’s not like you’re so far ahead of everybody else.”
College sports are not that easy to forecast. Any sport. The No. 1 ranked men’s basketball team has won the national championship twice in 23 years. And baseball would seem especially changeable because so much – some nights, everything – depends on one player. The guy standing on the mound with the baseball in his throwing hand.
But still. Nineteen years is a long dry spell.
“You’d think eventually a No. 1 is going to win, but they’re equal,” Tanner said. “I think it’s great for the game. If every year the 1 seed was winning, the 2 seed was winning, you would say, I don’t know if it’s the game that it should be.”
Indeed, there is beauty in being unpredictable. Doesn’t feel so good to the victims, though.
Take the Gators. Who knew national player of the year Brady Singer would somehow go 0-2 in Omaha? Or that Arkansas’ Isaiah Campbell, with a 4-6 record and 4.19 earned run average, would take a perfect game into the sixth inning Friday? Or that three Razorback pitchers would shut them down so?
Friday’s Florida score line: Two runs, three hits, two errors, two losses. It has been a golden era, but this will sting, as a last bow for so many departing Gators who did so much.
“Most of the time, schools just dream about getting to Omaha, and we had four straight years,” O’Sullivan said. “I think they’ve set the standard. When we first got here 11 years ago, that was the goal, was to get to Omaha, have that expectation. And now I think it’s even a step further. I think the expectation is to win a national championship, and that’s not easy to do.”
And there’s a long line of disappointed No. 1 seeds to prove it.
“That’s what intrigues fans that are packing the stadium, because there’s no predetermined outcome,” Tanner said. “Anything can happen.”
It just did, to Florida.