College baseball embarks on a new adventure starting Saturday when the first wave of games in the 2011 College World Series get underway at TD Ameritrade Park.
While the dazzling new $131-million venue is one of the major themes to this year's CWS, there are – as always – plenty of subplots tied into this year's event.
With a tournament field regarded as one of the strongest that has ever advanced to Omaha – five teams have won 50 games or more and six of the eight national seeds are still alive – there's not a clear-cut favorite and every team has an interesting underlying story.
"It's a great field here," Gamecocks coach Ray Tanner said, who looks to join an elite cast of coaches to guide teams to consecutive championships. "I think anybody can win this thing if you're still playing right now."
Among the things to watch for the next 12 days:
- Vanderbilt is finally in the CWS after knocking on the door several times, the only first-time participant in the 2011 field.
- Commodores coach Tim Corbin and his Florida counterpart, Kevin O'Sullivan, coached together for six seasons at Clemson under Jack Leggett.
- Texas and venerable coach Augie Garrido are back in their postseason home away from home, as the Longhorns extend their NCAA record with a 34th CWS appearance, the seventh under Garrido.
Garrido won three national crowns at Cal State Fullerton and guided Texas to the mountain top in 2002 and 2005. Now he takes aim at joining USC legend Rod Dedeaux as the only coaches with at least six national crowns.
- North Carolina is the most experienced team in the CWS field, with the Tar Heels making their fifth appearance in six seasons. Bu UNC hasn't broken through, losing twice in the national championship series.
- Virginia is regarded as the favorite in the second bracket, but it took a miraculous ninth-inning comeback against UC Irvine in the decisive game of a Super Regional in Charlottesville, Va., for the Cavaliers to make their second CWS appearance in three seasons.
- Cal's appearance caps a tumultuous rollercoaster ride this season. The university called for the disbandment of the program during the season before a group of boosters generated $9 million to keep it alive. The Bears won the first College World Series championship in 1947 (beating a Yale team with future President George H.W. Bush as the starting first baseman) and are back in the field for the first time since 1992.
- Texas and bitter rival Texas A&M are both at the same College World Series for only the second time. Both teams got to Omaha in 1993 as well.
Coaches from all eight schools took turns talking about the CWS and their roads to get here Friday on a sweltering day in Omaha.
UVa coach Brian O'Connor called his team's stirring win to punch a ticket a "thrilling final game."
"You could probably sit there and say maybe they deserve to be here," O'Connor said of UC Irvine. "They were one strike away from (Anteaters coach Mike Gillespie) sitting in this seat instead of me, but sometimes that's baseball. I'm so proud of our guys that we were able to figure it out and win that ballgame and get back here to Omaha."
South Carolina is back to try and repeat and out together a strong season, tying Vandy and Florida for the SEC regular-season championship.
But the Gamecocks haven't always been spectacular on the way to their 50 victories. Carolina scored two runs or fewer 12 times, going 6-6, and was 10-9 in games decided by one or two runs. The Gamecocks rank second in the SEC in ERA (2.60) and tied for third in fielding percentage (.973).
"We just show up and play and try to get in position to win," USC coach Ray Tanner said. "We know we're not going to scare anybody and we're not going to blow anybody out. That's not who we are. We just play and try to stay in position and do the things we need to do and try to win in the end."
The marquee games of the opening round are the two night games, featuring the Big 12 Conference co-champions tangling with two of the three tri-champs from the SEC.
Texas and Florida are perennially as talented as any programs in the country and six years ago they met in the championship series with the Longhorns prevailing for Garrido's last national championship. He beat Tanner and South Carolina in 2002 for the other title.
Like the Gamecocks, the Longhorns haven't produced big offensive numbers as they enter the CWS hitting .272 as a team with 17 home runs. Only Virginia, with 15, has hit fewer long balls.
On the other hand, the UT pitchers are limiting opponents to .196 hitting and have allowed only 19 homers.
O'Sullivan was asked if his pitchers might look at Texas' pedestrian offensive stats and be fooled into a false sense of a confidence.
"No, our players know what Texas is all about," O'Sullivan said. "They know the history and the pride. A lot of these players know each other over the course of summer circuits and that type of thing. So our players are fully aware of how talented Texas is. They know we have our hands full, there is no doubting that."
After the first-round action, the series continues with two games each Monday and Tuesday, one elimination game each on Wednesday and Thursday, the semifinal rounds Friday and, if necessary, on Saturday and the best-of-three championship series starting Monday, June 27.