OMAHA, Neb. – The calendar says it’s June, and here are Indiana and Louisville playing for a national championship.
Yes, the sport is baseball this time, not the game played with the big orange ball for which both schools are traditionally known.
The Hoosiers (48-18) are making their College World Series debut as the first Big Ten team in 29 years to reach Omaha. They’ll open Saturday night against a Louisville team (51-12) that’s here for only the second time, and first since 2007.
“Maybe we should get a basketball and start a pickup game out here,” Indiana third baseman Dustin DeMuth said with a grin after Friday’s practice at TD Ameritrade Park.
The CWS begins Saturday afternoon with Mississippi State (48-18) facing No. 3 national seed Oregon State (50-11). Sunday’s openers in the opposite bracket pit No. 1 seed North Carolina (57-10) against rival North Carolina State (49-14) and UCLA (44-17) against No. 4 seed LSU (57-9).
The teams that make it through double-elimination bracket play will advance to the best-of-three finals that start June 24.
After the Hoosiers won their super regional at Florida State, basketball coach Tom Crean said Indiana was now a baseball state. Coach Tracy Smith said he appreciated Crean’s comment but that, as an Indiana native, he knows baseball’s place.
Right now, that place is Omaha. Like other teams that play in the CWS for the first time, they are sure to be the favorites of the locals who will fill up the stadium.
One of the Hoosiers’ preseason goals, as stated in big letters on a clubhouse wall back in Bloomington, Ind., was to get to Omaha even though they had never made it out of regionals in their only other NCAA tournament appearances in 1996 and 2009.
Now that they’re here?
“We’re definitely here to win,” DeMuth said. “We’ve talked about that a lot this week. One of our goals was to get to Omaha, and we didn’t really specify what we wanted to do in Omaha. We have good leadership, everybody has a good head on their bodies, and everybody is going to stay focused and try to win baseball games.”
Louisville is trying to finish what has been a spectacular run for the university. The Cardinals beat Florida in the Sugar Bowl, won the men’s national championship in basketball and were national runners-up in women’s basketball.
“You want to get on the train of success, as we like to call it,” Louisville coach Dan McDonnell said. “At this point in the year, we’re glad we’re able to do our part and hopefully cap off really a magical year in college athletics.”
Indiana won two of three regular-season games against Louisville and will start left-hander Joey DeNato (9-2) against Chad Green (10-3).
Mississippi State features All-America right fielder Hunter Renfroe, the No. 13 overall draft pick of the San Diego Padres who is batting .360 with 15 home runs. The only higher draft choice in the CWS is North Carolina third baseman Colin Moran, taken sixth by the Miami Marlins.
Kendall Graveman (7-5) will start for MSU against either Beavers lefty Matt Boyd (10-3) or freshman Andrew Moore (14-1).
Oregon State bounced back from a loss to Kansas State in Game 1 of super regionals to return to the CWS for the fourth time since 2005. The Beavers have tied a school record for most wins with solid offense and strong pitching.
“We’ve gotten consistent front-line pitching,” Beavers coach Pat Casey said. “We’ve played defense well enough to keep us in most games. We have some guys in the middle of the order that can hit but nothing that’s going to necessarily wow you.”
North Carolina and NC State are the Atlantic Coast Conference’s remaining hopes for winning the league’s first national championship in baseball since Wake Forest in 1955. The Tar Heels are at the CWS for the sixth time in eight years while the Wolfpack is making its second appearance and first since 1968.
The Tar Heels have won two of three meetings this season against the team whose campus is only 28 miles away from theirs. The last meeting was an 18-inning, 2-1 UNC victory in the ACC tournament.
“It’s good for our league, good for the state of North Carolina,” Tar Heels coach Mike Fox said. “It’s funny how it all worked out. But it’s no fun playing North Carolina State when Carlos Rodon is on the mound.”
NC State will start Rodon (9-2), its left-handed ace, for the third time against the Tar Heels. The projected 2014 first-round draft pick has a win and no decision in his previous outings against Carolina.
The Tar Heels will send out its star lefty Kent Emanuel (11-3), who won in his only start against the Wolfpack, allowing one run over eight innings.
It will be Emanuel’s second start at the CWS. The Houston Astros’ third-round pick pitched a four-hit, complete-game shutout against Texas as a freshman in 2011.
LSU, though the No. 4 seed, is the consensus top-ranked team in the major polls. The Tigers balance strong pitching and defense with an Alex Bregman- and Mason Katz-led lineup that’s one of the nation’s most offensive.
Had LSU not made it to Omaha, its seniors would have been part of the first incoming freshman class since 1982 to not make at least one trip to the CWS.
“That’s a legacy we didn’t want these kids to have,” coach Paul Mainieri said.
SEC pitcher of the year Aaron Nola (12-0) will get the start against UCLA’s Adam Plutko (8-3).
The Bruins returned to Omaha for a second straight year after sweeping No. 3 seed Cal State Fullerton. The Bruins lost five everyday players from last year and are batting just .251. But they have one of the best fielding teams in the nation and a dominant pitching staff that has a 1.57 ERA in the NCAA tournament.
“We’re one of those teams that people are a little surprised that we are here,” UCLA coach John Savage said. “We had a very good team last year, and we lost a lot of players. We went through one of the most difficult roads, which was Cal State Fullerton. We feel fortunate, but also feel like we’ve earned this trip.”