A lot of intriguing storylines are in play as the 66th College World Series gets underway Friday in Omaha, Neb. Among them:
• South Carolina could win its third straight national championship, joining Southern California (1970-74) as the only schools to accomplish the feat.
• Florida could avenge its 2011 championship loss to the Gamecocks.
• UCLA could avenge its 2010 championship loss to the Gamecocks.
• Arizona could become just the seventh school to win at least four national championships -- joining USC (12), LSU (6), Texas (6), Arizona State (5), Miami (4) and Cal State Fullerton (4).
• Newcomers Stony Brook and Kent State could meet for the national championship, although no first-time participant has reached the finals since Georgia Tech in 1994 (the Yellow Jackets lost to Oklahoma).
At least one definitive matchup worth watching comes in the first round when South Carolina and Florida square off in a game that is not only a rematch of last year's finals but one that should go a long way in determining one of this year's finalists.
The Gamecocks and Gators aren't the only squads in the field to pay attention to, of course. Here's a look at all eight of the teams playing for the national championship:
The Wildcats are something of a sleeper. They weren't given a national seed by the selection committee and they didn't have a glamorous storyline coming into the CWS. They do have a coach in Andy Lopez who guided one team to a national championship (Pepperdine in 1992) and another (Florida) to the CWS before raising Arizona to the same level (he also brought the Wildcats to Omaha in 2004). The secret to Arizona's success may be an offense that is batting a collective .333 (fourth in the nation) and producing 7.5 runs per game (third in the nation). The Wildcats have hit just 20 home runs this season, but that could work to their advantage playing in TD Ameritrade Ballpark, which isn't conducive to hitting homers.
The Seminoles could be considered the sentimental favorites, given that coach Mike Martin has made 14 previous trips here without winning a championship. Martin's 1,721 career wins ranks third behind Texas' Augie Garrido (1,817) and Wichita State's Gene Stephenson (1,742). This is one of Martin's most balanced teams. The Seminoles have a 3.52 team ERA while the offense is averaging 6.9 runs per game.
The Seawolves are certain to be adopted by the fans in Omaha, who annually embrace the underdog. Stony Brook is just the second No.4 seed to reach the CWS, joining the 2008 Fresno State team that went on to win the national championship. While first-timers usually don't dominate, the boys from New York have the confidence that ensures they will not be intimidated by the stage they're on. That has something to do with winning two straight regionals on the road and owning the nation's winningest record.
The Bruins are an example of a team that seems to come together the year after two of its top players have departed. RHPs Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer led UCLA to the CWS two years ago and were expected to bring the Bruins back last season. It didn't happen, although Cole and Bauer were the first and third picks, respectively, in the 2011 draft. The pitching load this season has been dispersed throughout the staff, which allowed more than two runs just once in five postseason game. The offense has certainly done its part, averaging with a batting average significantly better than last year's mark (.309 to .263). Five 2010 CWS veterans -- OF Beau Amaral (.313, 4 HR, 45 RBIs, 13 SB), 2B Trevor Brown (.328, 3 HR, 51 RBIs), OF Jeff Gelalich (.365, 11 HR, 46 RBIs, 15 SB), 1B Cody Regis (.247, 25 RBIs) and RHP Scott Griggs (3-1, 2.70 ERA, 15 SV, 64 SO in 36.2 IP) -- should provide a steadying influence.
The Golden Flashes are the first MAC team to reach the CWS since Eastern Michigan in 1976. It has been suggested that success is at least partially due to unseasonably warm whether this winter that allowed teams in the north to get on their fields in February, more than a month earlier than usual for many schools in the area. Perhaps that did allow Kent State pitchers to warm up their arms. The staff ERA was a sparkling 3.49. They were supported by an offense averaging 6.8 runs per game.
The Razorbacks have been more dramatic than dominant in recent weeks, collecting four one-run victories in postseason play. The drama comes from batting .272 as a team and averaging just 5.3 runs per game, the fewest among the eight teams in Omaha. Arkansas, which boasts a 2.90 team ERA, must continue to pitch if the team is to stick around for an extended period. The staff has 10 shutouts on the season, including a 1-0, 10-inning victory over Baylor in the Super Regional clincher.
The Gators were installed as the team to beat this year virtually from the moment they lost to South Carolina in the finals last season. And, in fact, they received the No. 1 national seed in the postseason. There's just one problem with that: The No. 1 seed has not won the national championship since 1999, when Miami did it in the first year of the 64-team format. The Gators can make a strong argument for ending the No. 1 drought. They return last year's weekend rotation intact. Florida also packs the most punch on offense. The Gators were the leading team in home runs among those in Omaha with 67 homers last season. They're at it again this year with 75 home runs, again the most among the eight teams remaining.
The Gamecocks earned the school's first championship two years ago by beating a UCLA team that had a decided edge in starting pitching. South Carolina won again last year against Florida with a team that wasn't even expected to reach Omaha, let alone defend its title. Four key players from those championship teams -- LHP Michael Roth (7-1, 2.50 ERA, 79 SO in 115 IP), RHP Matt Price (4-4, 3.47 ERA, 11 SV, 82 SO in 70 IP), 1B Christian Walker (.315, 11 HR, 54 RBIs) and OF Evan Marzilli (.288, 2 HR, 30 RBIs 12 SB) -- are still on the roster. They have displayed an uncanny knack for rising to the occasion at the CWS and their confidence has spilled into all corners of the clubhouse.
South Carolina over Florida State