College Cinderellas ready to step onto big stage
Stony Brook, Kent State excited for chance to play in Omaha
OMAHA -- Stony Brook has already beaten two storied programs on its road to the College World Series. Now it's time to see if the Seawolves can continue their magical run.
Stony Brook, which began the 2012 NCAA Division I Baseball Tournament as the No. 4 seed in the Coral Gables Regional, opens the 66th College World Series at 5 p.m. ET on Friday against No. 2 UCLA at TD Ameritrade Park.
Arizona (43-17) and No. 3 Florida State (48-15) play the nightcap at 9 p.m.
Both games will be televised on ESPN2.
Stony Brook (52-13) has captivated fans on its way to Omaha, eliminating Miami in the Regionals before knocking out LSU in two straight elimination games in Baton Rouge. Stony Brook head coach Matt Senk said that beating the Tigers in the Super Regional at LSU's Alex Box Stadium gave his players the confidence to know they can compete in big-time environments.
"We could either be intimidated by the situation or embrace it," Senk said of playing at LSU. "And to my players' credit, I think they embraced it, and we're trying to do the same this week."
Stony Brook almost certainly will be the fan favorite on Friday against No. 2 UCLA (47-14), which is fine with Bruins head coach John Savage.
"It's baseball. You've got to go out and play. You've got two good baseball teams going at each other, and that's the way it should be," Savage said. "We hope the stadium's filled, and if everyone is pulling for them, that's what college baseball is all about."
Stony Brook isn't the only Cinderella at the College World Series, however.
Kent State, a No. 3 seed from the Gary Regional, also is in Omaha after beating Oregon in the Super Regionals. This is the first time in program history the Golden Flashes have advanced out of a Regional.
Although Stony Brook has been getting the majority of the national publicity, Kent State head coach Scott Stricklin said that his team is getting its fair share of love and is excited for the opportunity.
"Our goal coming into this season was to try to get out of a Regional, get to a Super Regional," Stricklin said. "Our motto is, 'Anything can happen once you get there.' To be in Omaha is a dream come true for our players, for our coaching staff, and we're trying to soak it in right now. That is probably the biggest question we're getting: 'What does it feel like?' It's very surreal right now."
Now that they're in Omaha, the Seawolves' and Golden Flashes' competition becomes even tougher.
Florida, UCLA and Florida State -- the tournament's top three seeds -- went undefeated in Regional and Super Regional action. Eighth seed and two-time defending champion South Carolina also hasn't lost, and the Gamecocks are going for the first three-peat since USC won five consecutive national titles from 1970-74.
Arkansas, which finished second in the South Eastern Conference's Western Division, is the third SEC team in Omaha, and Pac-12 co-champion Arizona is making its 16th College World Series appearance.
Right-hander Tyler Johnson, who was taken by the A's in the 33rd round of last week's First-Year Player Draft, will start the first game for Stony Brook against UCLA's Adam Plutko.
Florida State left-hander Brandon Leibrandt opposes Arizona right-hander Kurt Heyer in the nightcap.
Heyer, who was drafted in the sixth round by the Cardinals, struggled in the Super Regionals against St. John's, giving up 17 hits. Arizona head coach Andy Lopez is confident that the righty will rebound.
"He's really competitive, and he understands what he needs to do on a day-to-day basis," Lopez said. "He's been our Friday night starter. He understands what a Friday night starter has to do to give us chances."
Kent State (46-18) and Arkansas (44-20) play Saturday's opener at 5 p.m., with South Carolina (45-17) and Florida (47-18) facing each other at 9 p.m. in a rematch of last year's championship series.
Florida left-hander Brian Johnson, who was chosen 31st overall by the Red Sox, takes the mound against South Carolina left-hander Michael Roth, who was drafted in the ninth round by the Angels.
Saturday's games will be televised on ESPN.
"As far as the rivalry, I don't know," Florida head coach Kevin O'Sullivan said. "I've got a great deal of respect for [South Carolina head coach Ray Tanner] and his program. I will tell you that. Every time you play them, you have to play your best. It's never going to be easy. Obviously, Saturday night will be no different."
Florida catcher Mike Zunino, who was selected third overall by the Mariners, headlines 54 draftees who will compete in the College World Series.
Zunino is hitting .322 with 19 home runs and 28 doubles this season and is one of three finalists for the 2012 Dick Howser Trophy, presented by Easton Foundations, given to the top college baseball player.
Florida State outfielder James Ramsey (23rd overall, Cardinals) also was drafted in the first round, with Stony Brook outfielder Travis Jankowski (44th overall, Padres) and UCLA outfielder Jeff Gelalich (57th overall, Reds) selected in the first sandwich round.