CSF/Nebraska CWS Preview

TitanCentral.com's special Omaha correspondants preview the 2001 College World Series and the Titans upcoming game against home-town favorite Nebraska.

OMAHA, Neb. -- If this were football, circa 1991, the point spread would be somewhere around 50, in favor of the large, corn-fed guys wearing red.

But this isn't one of Gene Murphy's money-making "body bag games." Nor is this a Troy State-like speed bump on former Coach Tom Osborne's grueling non-conference schedule. (FYI: Believe it or not, Troy State is on Nebraska's 2001 football schedule ... really)

This is baseball. So when No. 1-seeded Cal State Fullerton meets No. 8 Nebraska tonight in each team's College World Series opener at Rosenblatt Stadium, the favorites will be the guys with three NCAA baseball championship trophies sitting in Titan Gym.

If the Titans are to add a fourth title, they'll have to part the red sea, because a unique "home crowd" for Nebraska will greet Fullerton. Short of 300 traveling Titans devotees, virtually the entire 25,000 SRO crowd will be decked out in Huskers red.

Winning in front of hostile crowds is nothing new to Fullerton. This is a program that has won more road regionals (10) than any program in college baseball history -- in such pits as LSU, Texas and Mississippi State.

And of course, there was the Titans' historic three-game road sweep this season at Miami, the first such broom job in the 28-year history of Mark Light Stadium.

In other words, this is Titans baseball and we laugh in the face of hostile fans seeking to intimidate us. Even USC Coach Mike Gillespie said the Titans play with an aggressive us-vs.-the-world `tude.

Anger, yes. Fear, no.

"It (tonight's pro-Nebraska crowd) is going to be crazy when Nebraka plays. It's going to be electric beyond description," Gillespie said Thursday, adding that Fullerton doesn't care who or where it plays. "Fullerton is always ornery anyway, it's part of their swagger. I think they can deal with 200 people yelling for them and 25,000 screaming against them as well as anyone. But there's no doubt, it's going to be nuts."

Fullerton Coach George Horton and his staff are not taking any chances. Titans coaches have been talking about the hostile crowd to players all week, and have even have their team sports psychologist working overtime.

"Not only are they a very fine baseball team, but we also will be in the position of being the enemy," Horton said. "Instead of playing in front of a neutral crowd in a normal College World Series game, you have the added stress and challenge of playing in front of all but about 300 Nebraska fans."

You can bet that Fullerton will do whatever it takes to pounce on Nebraska early to silence the partisan crowd, and send those red-clad, pasty-faced fans scurrying to get in line for Rosenblatt funnel cakes.

And if Kevin Costner shows up as scheduled, perhaps the Husker faithful will be too distracted to pay attention to the game.

Fullerton (46-16) will send senior left-hander Jon Smith (10-2) to the mound against Nebraska (50-14), which advanced to Omaha with a Super Regional victory at home over Rice.

Smith had last weekend off thanks to the Super Regional sweep of Mississippi State, and Horton has supreme confidence in his academic All-American.

"He's a fast ball pitcher and having the weekend off will bring the crispness to his fastball back," Horton said. "It'll take a special effort from the opposing team to break him down."

The Huskers will counter with ace right-hander Shane Komine (14-1), who tossed a three-hitter last weekend against Rice.

Smith's selection (instead of ace Kirk Saarloos) was a brilliant stroke by Horton and pitching coach Dave Serrano.

Smith can shut down the Huskers' speed (124 stolen bases in 137 tries) - led by shortstop and leadoff man John Cole (.417 and 28 stolen bases).

And Smith should be able to battle an abundance of Nebraska left-handed bats -- center fielder Jeff Leise (.387, 7 HR, 47 RBI), left fielder Justin Seely (.362, 4, 28), catcher Jed Morris (.346, 6, 41), right fielder Adam Stern (.297, 5, 45) and backup third baseman Brandon Eymann (.307, 3, 31).

The Huskers' biggest bats are first baseman Dan Johnson (.360, 24, 85) and DH Matt Hopper (.387, 11, 84).

Starting Smith in the opener, also sets up Saarloos to put away the all-important second win of a four-team bracket and to pitch on Championship Saturday.

As impressive as Komine's numbers are, the Titans have hit good pitching of late, as evidenced by back-to-back three-homer games by shortstop Mike Rouse and first baseman Aaron Rifkin against Mississippi State.

If the Huskers have a weakness it might be defense, with 101 errors and a .959 fielding percentage. By comparison, the Titans made 73 errors for .970 fielding percentage.

So don't be surprised to see the Titans challenging an anxious Huskers defense with Augie-style little ball.

Nebraska third baseman Jeff Blevins (16 errors and .885 fielding percentage) might be tested by a few David Bacani bunts.

And if the Titans don't rush out of the gate, don't expect any nervousness coming from the third base dugout.

While the Huskers have never seen CWS action without buying a ticket, Fullerton has plenty of Omaha experience from the 1999 team. They include Smith, Rifkin, second baseman Bacani, third baseman Murph Norris, outfielders Chris Stringfellow and Robert Guzman and of course, The Man - Kirk Saarloos.

PROPS TO THE HUSKERS

As much as we hope that Nebraska goes two-and-out, you have to give it up for Coach Dave Van Horn and what his Huskers have done this season.

They've built a big-time program in the shadows of a football factory that made poor Danny Nee (who compiled a very respectable 254-189 record as NU basketball coach before his unceremonious dumping in 2000, after 14 seasons, 5 NCAA appearances and 6 NITs) look like a loser.

We might not have many resources at Cal State Fullerton, but it's clear that one program gets all the applause and attention -- and it ain't women's basketball.

So while George Horton rides first class in a Titans puddle jumper, Van Horn sits in the last row (you know, right next to the rest room - ewww) of his metaphoric Huskers DC-10.

The Huskers should also be commended for being the first superpower team from the quasi-North, since we all know these recent Notre Dame and Ohio State teams were total frauds exposed in the playoffs.

If college baseball is to ever spread beyond its current regional boundaries, it has to go north and Lincoln, Neb., could be the gateway.

FINAL MENTION OF TV

Nebraska's dramatic rise would have been a great story line for the CBS first-round game on Saturday. It would have been the Heartland (Nebraska) vs. Hollywood (Kevin Costner U.), overachieving local guys vs. big, bad No. 1.

Great TV, right? So of course, CBS drops the ball and went with USC-Georgia.

Sure, that game gives CBS two big names and a foothold into the Nos. 2 and 10 TV markets. Unfortunately, for CBS to make a blind grab for pure numbers over a good story is both short-sighted and par for the course.

Before CBS lucked into Survivor, the likes of network prez Les Moonves and his sports lackey Sean McManus wouldn't recognize an 18- to-49-year-old viewer if he skate boarded through their manicured front lawns.

While CBS won the overall 2000-2001 TV season, it finished a humiliating fourth (behind NBC, Fox and ABC in that order) -- even with Survivor -- among crucial 18- to- 49-year-old viewers.

How could a network do so poorly among young viewers (and thus be far less profitable) ? Because CBS lacks vision for any real story lines or quality programming.

As a result, USC-Georgia will be on Channel 2, while the Titans and Huskers are relegated to cable.

Sigh.

In the final analysis, this probably wasn't suprising. These CBS hacks have lost football, the Olympics and pro basketball in recent history. And event the network's sports crown jewel, the NCAA Basketball Tournament, is brutally butchered every season.

The consolation for Titans and Huskers fans is that ESPN will put on a better show than the minor leaguers at CBS ever could.