r1183483 608x342 16 9 - Replay Madness

Excuse me, but could you please hand me a Trenta double espresso and some eye black?

To say that the opening weekend of the 2023 NCAA men’s baseball tournament was “a marathon” is like saying that the Roy family from “Succession” has “trust issues,” or that Taylor Swift tickets are “difficult to come by.” From noon last Friday until midnight Monday, 64 teams slugged and slid and shocked their way through 101 games, all of which were televised on some sort of ESPN platform, from the cable box to the app to my friends on the set of ESPN Squeeze Play, who managed to cram as many as six games onto one screen so many times that from our couches it felt like we were in a Dr. Strange-powered hardball multiverse.

Now, we get to do it all over again, as the remaining 16 teams throw down in an octagon of super regional sites, beginning this Friday at noon ET with an old school ACC faceoff between Duke and Virginia. But before we start the process of determining this year’s Omaha Octet, let’s take one more glance into the regionals rearview mirror. Hey … over there napping by the side of the road … is that Kris Budden, Matt Schick, Mike Rooney and Chris Burke? No, sorry, my bad, that’s the mascots of Arkansas, Clemson, Vandy and Miami, curled up in a fetal position still gripping their single-digit national seeds.

Best sudden Aaron Judge impersonation: Tre Richardson, INF, TCU. Richardson, who transferred to TCU from Baylor, had all of two homers during the Horned Frogs’ first 60 games. Then, in the 61st game, he had three knocks, two of which were grand slams, and drove in an NCAA tourney record-tying 11 RBIs while going 5-for-6 at the plate. In TCU’s three Fayetteville Regional games, he went 9-for-15 with four homers, 14 RBIs, six runs and only two strikeouts. Continuing with our understatements theme, afterward TCU head coach Kirk Saarloos said, “Tre had a pretty good game.” Yeah, coach. So good, he even did a Michael Jordan shrug as he rounded the bases.

The George Strait “Good News, Bad News” award: Indiana State. The Sycamores are the No. 14 seed and just successfully hosted a four-team regional but for the supers will travel to TCU, one of college baseball’s smartest and most intense home crowds. Why? Because of an embarrassment of sports riches in Terre Haute. After hosting the Missouri Valley Conference tournament and a regional in back-to-back weekends, the school and stadium were already thin staffed, but those same people and facilities are preparing to host the Special Olympics Indiana Summer Games, which has eaten up the local workforce and hotel rooms. It will be worth it if ISU can make its second-ever College World Series appearance and first since 1986, played just a week after Sycamore Larry Bird won his third NBA title with the Boston Celtics. TCU fans, feeling for the Sycamores, have rallied to support the cause and Monday night started the hashtag #FrogsforSycs to raise money for Special Olympics Indiana.

Best snatch, stab or grab: Payton Eeles, 2B, Coastal Carolina. The Chanticleers couldn’t hold off Duke at home in the Conway Regional, but it wasn’t for lack of effort from the guy they call SuperEeles, who made this, ahem, electric near-double play.

Honorable Mention: Richie Sica, CF, Rider. Coastal’s weekend never really recovered after starting off behind the eight ball when the No. 10 national seed was upset by Rider in the opener. The 11-10 victory, snapping a 15-game NCAA losing streak that dated back to 1987, was iced by this diving snag from Broncos centerfielder Richie Sica, robbing Caden Bodine’s would-be game-winning flare with the bases loaded.

Best Turn-Back-The-Clock Effort: Oral Roberts vs. Oregon. ORU has long been a great baseball school. This is the 29th NCAA tourney appearance for the Golden Eagles and their 21st since 1998. That’s a lot. But when they outlasted Dallas Baptist in the sword drill Stillwater Regional final (fellow Vacation Bible School alums know what I’m talking about) it marked just their third regional title and second super regional appearance. That’ll happen when you win 21 straight games. The last and only time Oral Roberts made it to the College World Series was 1978, when the school was only 15 years old and Oral Roberts himself was still in charge. ORU won its opener that year vs. North Carolina but was eliminated after losses to powerhouses Arizona State and Miami. Now the Golden Eagles will travel west to Oregon to face the Ducks, who also emerged from a tough road assignment, holding off Vandy and a pesky Xavier squad. The last and only time Oregon went to Omaha? When the Ducks went 0-2 in 1954.

Speaking of ORU … It became only the eighth 4-seed to advance to the super regionals since 2006. Of the previous seven, two made it all the way to the Men’s College World Series. The most recent of the pair was Stony Brook, when the Seawolves charmed Omaha but went 2-and-a-BBQ in 2012. The standard bearer was and shall always be the first team to pull it off, the 2008 Fresno State “Underdogs” who had to win the WAC conference tourney to even make the NCAAs, then faced elimination at every level before winning the title. Someone should write about a book about that Series … oh wait … I did!

Easy team to root for: Wake Forest. When the Demon Deacons won the 1955 College World Series in an Omaha ballpark, it was still so new it wasn’t yet named Johnny Rosenblatt Stadium and Rosenblatt himself was still mayor of the city. Wake hasn’t been back since. For decades, the wackiest college baseball stat was that the baseball-obsessed ACC hadn’t won a MCWS title since the Deacs in ’55, a drought that lasted until Virginia won it all 60 years later in 2015. Now the wildest MCWS statistic is that the national No. 1 seed hasn’t dogpiled in Omaha since Miami in 1999! (It was still in the Big East back then.) No matter what you think of those numbers or even how you might feel about Wake Forest in general (we see you shaking your heads, Duke, UNC and NC State fans), it’s tough not to root for head coach Tom Walter, and not just because he has somehow constructed a top-ranked team where there was seemingly no foundation to do so. Why? Because he’s the coach who in 2011 donated a kidney to save the life of one of his players, outfielder Kevin Jordan. Today, Jordan is a healthy adult, teaching and coaching at a middle school just up the road from Wake Forest, and he and Walter have co-founded an organization to help kids learn about social justice and race relations in the United States. I covered the transplant news a dozen years ago and it’s still one of the most remarkable stories I’ve ever seen.

Oh, and the team they’re playing: Alabama. It was barely a month ago that Crimson Tide baseball, another surging longtime underachieving program, had its world turned upside down when news broke that head coach Brad Bohannon was fired because of his ties to an ongoing gambling investigation. But instead of giving in, the Bama dugout circled its crimson wagons, hosted its first regional in 16 years and is in its first super regional since 2000. Now the Tide have a chance to advance to their first Men’s College World Series since 1999 and perhaps win their first-ever MCWS title. To do it, they’ll have to win at No. 1 Wake Forest, but that’s old hat for the Tide. They’ve faced top-eight-ranked teams 13 times this year, including a midseason trip to then-top-ranked LSU. They were swept in Baton Rouge but bounced back to take two of three from No. 5 Vandy one week later. As interim head coach Jason Jackson said, “No one’s going to throw anything at us we haven’t seen, certainly not this year.” For more on how this team has turned the Tide amid a scandal not of their doing, here’s an excellent piece from Alex Scarborough.

The Lando Calrissian “I wonder what those star destroyers are waiting for” award: S-E-C! S-E-C! (and one who is about to join the S-E-C!). But, for all of what has just been written about underdogs and Cinderellas and feel-good stories that are both still going on (Southern Miss!) and have already ended (Sorry, Quakers), the bracket is still packed with college baseball superpowers. The SEC took some big losses in regionals but still has six teams remaining and can match last year’s headline-making tally of producing a record-tying half the Men’s College World Series field. The land of “It Just Means More” will have a minimum of two teams in Omaha, thanks to the South Carolina-Florida and Kentucky-LSU matchups. All but one of those four already owns multiple titles, the exception being the Wildcats, who have never been to the MCWS. Meanwhile, LSU is aiming for its seventh MCWS title, which would break a tie for second all time with Texas, which is also still in the running. Should the Longhorns make it to Omaha, it would extend their all-time MCWS appearances record to 39, which is nearly double that of the next-closest program, Miami, which Texas knocked out in the Coral Gables Regional. But to do that, UT must beat another classic program, Stanford, which is aiming to make its 19th MCWS appearance. The Cardinal are currently tied at 18 with … LSU. Five of the top 12 all-time Men’s College World Series participants — Texas (38), Stanford (18), LSU (18), Florida (12) and South Carolina (11) — are still in this year’s field. The SEC has won the past three MCWS and eight of the past 13. Since 2008, the conference has also had the runner-up finisher eight times.

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Best of NCAA baseball regionals, previewing super regionals