OMAHA, Neb. -- Considering that this NCAA tournament has featured perhaps more upsets than ever before, maybe it shouldn't be a surprise that Arizona and Coastal Carolina will play for the national title.But at the start of the season, it would have been hard to imagine the Wildcats and Chanticleers
OMAHA, Neb. -- Considering that this NCAA tournament has featured perhaps more upsets than ever before, maybe it shouldn't be a surprise that Arizona and Coastal Carolina will play for the national title.
But at the start of the season, it would have been hard to imagine the Wildcats and Chanticleers meeting in the three-game College World Series championship series that begins tonight. Arizona had a new head coach in Jay Johnson after finishing in last place in the Pac-12 Conference the previous two years and failing to qualify for the NCAA playoffs since winning the 2012 CWS. Coastal Carolina was coming off its worst three-year run since coach Gary Gilmore's first three seasons running the program in 1996-98.
"There are a lot of talented teams, possibly more talented than Jay's team and my team," Gilmore said. "But the two teams that have played the best are here and there's a tremendous amount of similarities between us. It should be a great series before it's over with."
Arizona (48-22) and Coastal Carolina (53-17) both had strong regular seasons but faced tough roads to Omaha in the playoffs. They had to come out of the loser's bracket as No. 2 seeds in the regionals, with the Chanticleers trailing North Carolina State by two runs heading into the ninth inning of the final game in Raleigh. They pulled off two-game sweeps at two of the toughest places to play in college baseball in the super-regionals, Arizona at Mississippi State and Coastal at Louisiana State.
Both teams lost their second-round games at the CWS, yet survived the loser's bracket again to reach the finals. They're the first clubs to do so since South Carolina in 2010, and two teams hadn't done it in the same Series since the first year of the two-bracket format in 1988.
Slick-fielding Wildcats junior shortstop Louis Boyd said overcoming difficult odds was nothing new for a club that Pac-12 coaches picked to finish ninth in the 11-team league at the outset of the season.
"We've kind of played that role all year that we're the underdog, and we've totally embraced that," Boyd said. "Whether or not we're the underdog going into Monday, it doesn't matter. It's just another game. We're playing the game of baseball and we're going to play it well."
Neither Arizona nor Coastal Carolina is particularly loaded with pro prospects. Wildcats junior third baseman Bobby Dalbec (fourth round, Red Sox) and Chanticleers junior shortstop Michael Baez (fourth, Mets) and senior third baseman Zach Remillard (10th round, White Sox) were the only players drafted in the top 15 rounds earlier this month. Arizona senior right fielder Zach Gibbons lasted until the 17th round (Nationals) despite winning the Pac-12 batting title (.387) and leading NCAA Division I in hits (103),while Coastal junior right-hander Andrew Beckwith went unpicked even though he tops D-I with 14 wins, including two complete-game victories in Omaha.
Nevertheless, both are talented and resilient college teams that have proven adept at finding ways to score at stingy TD Ameritrade Park, either by driving balls to the gaps or by playing small ball. They both have deep pitching staffs that pound the strike zone and let sound defenses make plays behind them. That formula has put them both in position to make history this week.
Coastal Carolina seeks its first D-I national title in any sport. The first Big South Conference squad ever to get to Omaha, the Chanticleers are the first club to reach the finals in their initial CWS appearance since Georgia Tech in 1994. Bidding to become the first team to win a championship in their Omaha debut since Minnesota in 1956, they have looked anything but overwhelmed playing on college baseball's biggest stage.
"I think that's where character comes in," Remillard said. "This team has a bunch of talented ballplayers but also a lot of good people. It's a testament to Coach Gilmore getting us prepared all season. Kind of getting us in the right mindset and all the leadership we have on this team to get the guys focused and staying in the moment."
Arizona can capture its fifth national championship after previously winning in 1976, 1980, 1986 and 2012. Johnson can become the first coach to win the CWS in his first season with his team, and he's just the fifth coach ever to have that opportunity. While he admitted that he wouldn't have thought reaching the finals would have been an attainable goal for much of the year, he also said he was focused more on preparation and effort than actual results.
"I just believe in doing it that way and throwing yourself into it, ripping your heart out, throwing it on the field and going for it on a daily basis," said Johnson, who joined the Wildcats after two seasons as Nevada's head coach and eight as San Diego's top assistant. "And I just think if you do those things over a long period of time, you don't have to put any type of limitation on what you can accomplish. With that being said, I don't think there was ever a time I said, Hey, this team's going to Omaha. I feel like our players' ability to embrace only what's right in front of them is why we're here."
Arizona at Coastal Carolina, 7 p.m. ET
Coastal Carolina at Arizona, 8 p.m. ET
Coastal Carolina at Arizona, 8 p.m. ET (if necessary)
Jim Callis is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow @jimcallisMLB on Twitter and listen to him on the weekly Pipeline Podcast.