No better place to be for eight CWS teams

Posted: Friday, June 08, 2001

OMAHA, Neb. -- For the eight teams in the College World Series, Omaha is a college baseball paradise.

Some -- like Nebraska and Tulane -- are experiencing the event for the first time, while others -- like Stanford, Southern California and Miami -- have been here many times. They all agree there's no place they'd rather be.

''Something I hear at practice from our players is the word 'Omaha' at least once every day,'' Miami coach Jim Morris said. ''It's something our players talk about and think about from Day 1.''

The road to the College World Series has gotten increasingly difficult, with teams having to win a double-elimination regional and best-of-three super regional to get to Omaha.

''This is the pinnacle,'' Southern California coach Mike Gillespie said. ''It's been our experience that it's hard to get here. This is not a given. This is not easy. This is not to be taken for granted. This is special.''

The event will also have a special fan, as President Bush will throw out the first pitch in Friday's College World Series opener between Stanford (46-16) and Tulane (55-11). Opening ceremonies and the home run challenge were Thursday night.

Tulane, the nation's winningest team, spoiled retiring Louisiana State coach Skip Bertman's bid for a sixth national title in 11 years by beating the Tigers in the super regionals. Now, the Green Wave are having their own Omaha experience.

''To have the opportunity to advance and get to the College World Series is a thrill for me, but a feeling of euphoria for our fans,'' Tulane coach Rick Jones said.

Stanford won four elimination games during the first two rounds to get to the College World Series. The Cardinal lost their top three starting pitchers and have no seniors on their roster, making this year's trip unexpected -- even to coach Mark Marquess.

''This is probably the biggest surprise that we've ended up in Omaha,'' Marquess said. ''It's the youngest team I've ever had in my 25 years at Stanford.''

The second game Friday night pits local favorite Nebraska (50-14), also in the CWS for the first time, against Cal State-Fullerton (46-16).

Huskers fans have firmly made their presence felt. A sea of red T-shirts, hats and shorts dominated the huge ticket line outside Rosenblatt Stadium on Thursday. Nebraska's campus in Lincoln is located about 50 miles from Omaha, and the Huskers are in the College World Series for the first time in the program's history.

''We get to take this road to Omaha a lot, but it's usually to catch a plane to head South to play,'' Nebraska coach Dave Van Horn said.

The Titans, the tournament's top seed, started the season 8-8 but have gone 38-8 since.

''I was kind of wondering if we'd even get to the playoffs,'' coach George Horton said. ''But something happened with this group of young men. They got better, they got confident. But the one constant we've had is very solid pitching.''

Right-hander Kirk Saarloos has won 15 straight decisions, struck out 150 and walked just 23 in 144 2-3 innings as the ace of the staff.

In Saturday's games, Southern California (44-17) plays Georgia (47-20) and Miami (49-12) takes on Tennessee (46-18).

The Trojans are no strangers to the College World Series. Their 21 appearances rank second to Texas' 28. Right-handers Mark Prior and Rik Currier give USC perhaps the best starting duo in the nation.

Prior, the No. 2 pick by the Chicago Cubs in Tuesday's draft, is 14-1 with a 1.50 ERA and has a school and Pac-10 season record 189 strikeouts. Currier is 12-2 with a 2.39 ERA and is the school and conference leader with 444 career strikeouts.

Georgia coach Ron Polk is just the second coach in NCAA history to bring three schools to the College World Series. He brought Georgia Southern to Omaha in 1973, Mississippi State five times and is back in only his second year at Georgia.

Polk retired from coaching after Mississippi State lost in the College World Series in 1997, but was convinced by Georgia's athletic department to give college coaching one more try.

''After we lost here at Omaha, I turned it over to my good friend Pat McMahon, never dreaming that I would return as an active coach,'' Polk said. ''But lo and behold, this team got here in two years time, not because of what I did but because I inherited some very fine players who bought into a new plan and a new system.''

Miami enters the CWS riding a 13-game winning streak, longest among all participants. The Hurricanes lead the country with 215 stolen bases, led by Javy Rodriguez's Division I-leading 66.

''We're built by speed,'' Morris said. ''We try to run whenever we have a chance to.''

Tennessee has won 10 times in its last at-bat, including both super regional victories. The Volunteers, like the Hurricanes, also rely on their speed to put runs on the scoreboard.

They led the Southeastern Conference with 148 stolen bases, including 43 each by shortstop Chris Burke and second baseman Stevie Daniel.

The College World Series is a double-elimination format tournament that runs through June 16.

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