OMAHA, Neb. -- This year's College World Series was guaranteed to be special because it features the debut of TD Ameritrade Park.
But the way the eight teams are bracketed makes for some intriguing possibilities for the championship series. It could be an all-ACC final if North Carolina and Virginia win their brackets. Or it could be all-SEC if defending champion South Carolina and either Florida or Vanderbilt come through. There's also the possibility of an all-Texas final with Texas and Texas A&M. Then there's Cal, which would be the most compelling story of all if they reach the finals.
•College World Series bracket, schedule
Here's a look at the eight teams in Omaha playing for the national championship:
The story will be told over and over and over again, as long as the Bears keep this magical season going. And the story should be told, about how Cal's baseball program was among those last fall that were to be eliminated amid budget cuts, about how alumni stepped forward at the 11th hour to raise $10 million to save the 118-year-old program and about how the team responded to adversity through it all. "With the hunger and fight that we have," outfielder Austin Booker said on the school website, "we feel there's no obstacle that can stand in our way." Good thing, because the Bears open the CWS against No. 1 national seed Virginia. The Cavaliers better watch out. Omaha loves an underdog.
One to watch: Sophomore 2B Tony Renda (.335, 3 HRs, 42 RBIs, 9 SBs), who may be used at DH, was the Pac-10 Player of the Year. He's a hard-nosed player listed at just 5-foot-8 who was among the team's offensive leaders. He slid home headfirst with the winning run in the Regional final against Baylor, injuring his quadriceps in the process. It limited him to DH duty in the Super Regionals, but he should be healthy enough to return to second base for the CWS.
How they got here: Won double-elimination Regionals, beating Baylor 9-8 in final with four runs in the bottom of the ninth; swept Dallas Baptist in best-of-three Super Regionals.
CWS history: The Bears won the very first national championship in 1947. That first year, eight teams were divided into two four-team, single-elimination playoffs with the winners advancing to a best-of-three series played in Kalamazoo, Mich. The event moved to Omaha in 1950 and Cal won its second title there in 1957. This is Cal's sixth CWS appearance, but its first since 1992.
Well-known alum: Jeff Kent.
The Gators and South Carolina have the distinction of being the two teams that closed out Rosenblatt Stadium. While South Carolina came away with a championship a year ago, Florida went home winless. If the Gators are to experience success this time, they likely will have to outslug teams to do it. Florida's 3.00 team ERA ranks behind every team here but North Carolina (3.27). The Gators do pack the most punch, with 67 team homers.
One to watch: Sophomore C Mike Zunino (.376, 18 HRs, 66 RBIs, 7 SBs) earned SEC Player of the Year honors in 2011. He's batting .458 in six NCAA tournament games with seven RBIs, three homers and three doubles. This year's bat restrictions haven't bothered him a bit. He doubled last year's HR total and ranks among the nation's top 10 in homers.
How they got here: Swept through Regionals, averaging more than 10 runs a game. Beat Miami in regional final; defeated Mississippi State in three games in Super Regionals.
CWS history: The Gators, who finished as runners-up to Texas for the 2005 title, are making their sixth trip to Omaha and their second straight. Last year, Florida left Omaha early with losses to UCLA and Florida State.
Well-known alum: David Eckstein.
The Tar Heels' 3.27 team ERA is the worst among the eight teams here -- although it is 2.00 during the postseason -- but it is minimized because of the defense (a school-record .979 fielding percentage) played behind the pitchers. A school-record 340 walks has helped fuel an offense that is averaging nearly seven runs a game. North Carolina is nearly unbeatable (44-1) when leading after seven innings, with Michael Morin (10 SVs) and Cody Penny (5 SVs) closing out many of the victories.
One to watch: Unlike many newcomers, freshman 3B Colin Moran (.335, 9 HRs, 69 RBIs) needed no adjustment with the jump from high school to college on the way to earning ACC Freshman of the Year. In fact, he led the conference in RBIs. It was something of a surprise because Moran's left-handed swing didn't produce many results in fall ball. Perhaps it was the contact lenses he got before the season. "Going to the eye doctor," Moran said on the school website, "was like going from regular TV to high definition TV."
How they got here: Swept through Regionals, winning twice with shutouts before beating James Madison 9-3 in final; swept Stanford in best-of-three Super Regionals.
CWS history: This is the ninth appearance for the Tar Heels, who made it four straight years from 2006-09 before missing out last season. North Carolina finished as runners-up to Oregon State for the national championship in both 2006 and 2007. The '06 loss was most painful. The Tar Heels won the best-of-three championship series opener 4-3 and they were closing in on the title in Game 2 with a 5-0 lead in the fourth inning. But Oregon State rallied for an 11-7 win, then won 3-2 the following night to clinch it.
Well-known alum: B.J. Surhoff.
The Gamecocks figured to have another solid team, but getting back to Omaha was something of a long shot after losing several key players -- including top starting pitchers Blake Cooper and Sam Dyson -- from last year's championship team. "We'll have a good team again," said South Carolina coach Ray Tanner before the season. "It's just too hard to predict how the season will end up." It helped that one of the returners was sophomore RHP Matt Price (5-3, 2.16 ERA, 18 SV, 67 Ks/15 BBs in 50 IP), who is one off the national lead in saves. 3B Christian Walker (.359, 10s HR, 60 RBIs) has led the offense in the absence of OF Jackie Bradley Jr. (.259, 6 HRs, 26 RBIs), who was sidelined midseason with a wrist injury. Bradley, last year's CWS Most Outstanding Player, was cleared to return this week, although his ability to swing a bat remains to be seen.
One to watch: South Carolina LHP Michael Roth (13-3, 1.02 ERA, 95 Ks/32 BBs in 123 IP) was one of the CWS heroes last year, bailing out a staff that was overtaxed. Roth's only starts of the 2010 season were in Omaha -- he pitched a complete game to beat Clemson and went the first five innings in the championship-clinching win over UCLA. Now he's the Gamecocks' first option instead of their last one.
How they got here: Challenged in their Regional opener -- a 2-1 win over Georgia Southern -- but still swept the Eagles, and then beat Stetson in final; swept UConn in Super Regionals.
CWS history: The Gamecocks had been bridesmaids many times (finishing third three times in 1975, 1977 and 2002) before winning last year's national championship against UCLA. This is the school's 10th appearance overall.
Well-known alum: Justin Smoak.
The Longhorns don't have the offense to steamroll opponents -- they averaged only .272 and hit a collective 17 home runs -- so they try to manufacture a few runs and then rely on a pitching staff that is among the nation's best (2.27 team ERA). It doesn't always go according to plan, especially when the defense falters as it did in a 3-1 loss to Arizona State in the opening game of the Super Regionals. In that game they wasted a good effort by ace RHP Taylor Jungmann (13-2, 1.38 ERA, 123 Ks/32 BBs in 136.2 IP), who took the loss despite allowing just one earned run in 7.1 innings. Texas is still playing because it has the depth behind Jungmann to overcome such setbacks. Longtime coach Augie Garrido recorded his Division I-record 1,800th victory during the season. He is the only coach to guide a team to a CWS title in four different decades (1979, 1984, 1995, 2002, 2005).
One to watch: Longhorns freshman RHP Corey Knebel (3-2, 1.15 ERA, 19 SVs, 60 Ks/12 BBs in 54.2 IP) leads the nation in saves and has tied the school record held by J. Brent Cox, who is now an assistant coach with the team. We'll see if he feels the pressure on college baseball's biggest stage. If didn't bother Texas' Huston Street as a freshman in 2002. Street earned Most Outstanding Player while helping Texas to the title.
How they got here: Fell into the loser's bracket with a 7-5 loss to Kent State in the Regionals, then won three straight games -- beating Kent State twice -- to advance; dropped first game of Super Regionals to Arizona State before winning two straight games to reach CWS.
CWS history: The Longhorns' 34 appearances at the CWS are more than any other team in the nation. Texas' six national championships -- the last coming in 2005 -- are second only to USC (12).
Well-known alum: Roger Clemens.
The Aggies and Cal are the only two teams in the field that were not national seeds, so they weren't expected to be here. Texas A&M is here because of a good balance between hitting -- led by OFs Tyler Naquin (.390, 2 HRs, 44 RBIs) and Krey Bratsen (.335, 36 RBIs, 31 SBs) and INF Matt Juengel (.309, 7 HRs, 49 RBIs, 14 SBs) -- and pitching -- namely starting RHPs Ross Stripling (14-2, 2.29 ERA, 107 Ks/17 BBs in 117.2 IP) and Michael Wacha (9-3, 2.12 ERA, 118 Ks in 123 IP). The biggest question is whether the Aggies have enough pitching without the presence of staff ace John Stilson, who has a torn labrum.
One to watch: Wacha, a sophomore, pitched the game against Florida State that clinched a CWS berth for Texas A&M. He has responded whenever asked, going 4-0 with a 1.76 ERA after Stilson was sidelined.
How they got here: Needed a second game in Regional final to put away Arizona; followed a 23-9 loss to Florida State with an 11-2 win in decisive game of Super Regionals.
CWS history: This is the Aggies' fifth trip to the CWS and first since 1999. Texas A&M has just two victories to show for its previous four appearances.
Well-known alum: Chuck Knoblauch.
The Commodores have been expected in Omaha for a few years now. In fact, they were the national No. 1 seed in 2007, but were upset in the Regionals. All that is forgotten now, with fans focused on a team led by RHP Sonny Gray (12-3, 1.97 ERA, 119 Ks/41 BBs in 114.1 IP) and LHP Grayson Garvin (13-1, 2.36 ERA, 92 Ks/24 BBs in 106.2 IP) on the mound and 3B Jason Esposito (.357, 9 HRs, 59 RBIs, 15 SBs) and 1B Aaron Westlake (.353, 17 HRs, 54 RBIs) at the plate. First-timers don't usually fare too well in Omaha -- five of the past 11 have gone home winless since 1990 -- but Vandy shouldn't be too wide-eyed after playing in the SEC.
One to watch: Westlake clubbed three two-run homers in the Super Regionals game that sent Vanderbilt to the CWS. His 17 homers are three more than he hit last season, making him one of the few players whose power numbers improved despite bat restrictions.
How they got here: Swept through the Regionals, allowing just three runs in three games; swept Oregon State in Super Regionals.
CWS history: First appearance.
Well-known alums: Pedro Alvarez and David Price.
The Cavaliers were bestowed with the No. 1 national seed, but needed a ninth-inning rally against UC Irvine to keep their appointment in Omaha. Virginia is averaging more than seven runs a game, with C John Hicks (.340, 7 HRs, 57 RBIs) and 3B Steve Proscia (.335, 8 HRs, 58 RBIs) acting as the team's top run producers. Couple that with a pitching staff that has compiled a 2.26 ERA and it's no wonder the Cavaliers have been successful. The question is how it translates at the CWS, where the team struggled in its first appearance two years ago. Knowing what to expect the second time around should be a huge help.
One to watch: Virginia LHP Danny Hultzen (12-3, 1.49, 151 Ks/20 BBs in 108.2 IP) was drafted No. 2 overall by Seattle for his pitching -- he has tremendous command to go along with a mid-90s fastball -- but is among the Cavaliers' top hitters as well with a .320 average and 35 RBIs.
How they got here: Swept through Regionals, allowing only three runs in three games; scored two runs with two outs in the bottom of the ninth for a 3-2 win over UC Irvine in decisive game of Super Regionals.
CWS history: This is the second appearance for the Cavaliers, who went 1-2 in 2009, losing to eventual national champion LSU and then Arkansas.
Well-known alum: Ryan Zimmerman.
Virginia over Vanderbilt.