Omaha! Omaha! College World Series moments we'll never forget
By now we would have known which 8 teams were advancing to Omaha, where the 2020 College World Series was set to begin Saturday.
The pandemic changed everything, of course, so we’ll never know whether the VandyBoys would have made it back to defend their crown or, perhaps, whether the SEC could have pushed 2 teams to the best-of-3 final for the 3rd time in 10 years.
What we do know is Omaha produces magic.
Without more to make this year, we looked back at some of our favorite College World Series moments of yesteryear.
Joe Cox, Kentucky, SEC baseball columnist
1982. The Grand Illusion
I was 1-year-old, so it’s not like I remember it first-hand, but this one is just too good to go unnamed. What makes the College World Series special? The fact that anything can happen. The spirit of the game lies in the utterly implausible and unexpected, and nothing could be more unexpected than the king of hidden-ball tricks on the biggest stage of the sport.
Miami knew it could use some extra help controlling the running game of Wichita State, and particularly star Phil Stephenson. Stephenson, the brother of Wichita State coach Gene Stephenson, had gone 86 for 90 on stolen base attempts in 1982, numbers that would make even Rickey Henderson turn green with envy. And so they worked up a play, and not just any play. Pitcher Mike Kasprzak stepped off the pitching rubber and made a phantom throw to first base, where Hurricane first baseman Steve Lusby dove desperately, as if a throw had eluded him and headed down the right field line. The Miami dugout (first base side, of course) yelled phantom direction and encouragement, and Stephenson, having slid back into the bag, leapt up and headed for second, probably expecting to reach third.
At which time Kasprzak, ball securely in his glove the whole time, lobbed an easy throw to shortstop Billy Wrona for the out at second on a stunned Stephenson. Miami won the game, 4-3, and also won a rematch with the Shockers for the title, the first major championship in any sport in school history. A hidden ball play for the ages, and in a game that was key in giving birth to the athletic rise of the U makes for an all-time Omaha moment.
Jon Cooper, SDS co-founder
Aside from Warren Morris’ heroics (and my inability to ever make past regionals at UCF), my favorite College World Series moment came in 2010. It was the 11-inning duel between South Carolina and UCLA in the national title game. The Gamecocks and Bruins were tied 1-1 with the winning run on 3rd base. Instead of walking or pitching around now-MLB star Whit Merrifield (and potentially now-MLB outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr.), UCLA decided to pitch to Merrifield. That was a big mistake, as Merrifield lined a 2-0 pitch into right field to give the Gamecocks the national title.
Relive the moment below:
Neil Blackmon, Florida columnist
There’s nothing harder in sports than a repeat.
That’s why for me, my favorite Omaha memory comes in 2011, when Ray Tanner’s South Carolina repeated as national champions. That team was loaded, with future Major Leaguers like Jackie Bradley Jr., Michael Roth and Tyler Webb all key contributors. (Whit Merrifield, the 2010 hero, already was in pro ball.) Scott Wingo and Matt Price were elite college baseball players, even if they couldn’t quite make the big league leap.
The team was dominant the whole season, ranked in the top 5 from February forward, despite playing with a huge target on their backs as defending champs. They shared the regular-season SEC championship with Florida, but after a 1-2 SEC Tournament, many wondered if the Gamecocks had the juice to repeat.
They answered that by going a perfect 10-0 in the postseason, including winning two tight games against Florida in the College World Series finals. The first of those games, a 2-1 win in 11 innings, is an all-time CWS classic. With impeccable, nation-leading defense and a deep pitching staff, the Gamecocks gave up only 10 runs in 5 games at Ameritrade Park in Omaha– as convincing a repeat as you’d ever see.
South Carolina also became the only team in the best-of-3 final CWS era to have a shot at a 3-peat in 2013, but fell just short against Arizona in Omaha.
That 3-year stretch, for me, is the most incredible span of dominance in SEC baseball history and the 2011 team’s sweep of SEC co-champ Florida is the defining moment of that run of excellence.
Connor O’Gara, Senior national columnist
As someone who admittedly didn’t grow up watching the College World Series, I’ve had somewhat limited personal connections with the event. But when my alma mater (Indiana), made it for the first time in 2013, I made the trip to Omaha for that.
That team was loaded with all sorts of talent. Kyle Schwarber was the stud that year, but that lineup was stacked. Sam Travis, who was a second-round pick for the Red Sox, and Dustin DeMuth was a fifth-round pick the following year.
The Big Ten isn’t exactly known for baseball, and Indiana only had 2 NCAA Tournament appearances before that 2013 run. That made it that much better to watch the Hoosiers take down Louisville in that opening game in Omaha. People might forget that Indiana swept Jameis Winston and Florida State in the Super Regionals to earn a spot in the CWS. Nobody expected that. It made Indiana the fun, dark-horse team in Omaha. If you’ve ever experienced the event, that’s a fun thing to be because the neutral observers root for them. At least that’s what it felt like watching Indiana that night against Louisville.
The fact that I witnessed my school’s lone program CWS win ever is something I’ll always appreciate.
Adam Spencer, Newsletter editor
I’m relatively new to watching the College World Series, but I have gotten into it quite a bit the past 3 years. The 2019 College World Series was definitely my favorite to watch so far, as I couldn’t get enough of the Vanderbilt Commodores. Tim Corbin is a heck of a coach, and watching Vandy roll to its second title was awesome.
It’s a shame we didn’t get to see them try to defend their title this spring, but I can’t wait to see what happens with star pitcher Kumar Rocker in 2021. He threw the first no-hitter in Super Regional history in 2019. But, for me, the defining moment of the 2019 CWS in Omaha was Rocker’s Game 2 performance in the final series against Michigan.
After losing Game 1 to the Wolverines, the Commodores handed Rocker, a true freshman, the ball with their season on the line. He responded by striking out 5 of the first 6 Michigan batters he faced and leading the Commodores to a 4-1 victory. That was impressive.
Chris Wright, Executive editor
I was on the staff at Baseball America in 1996, when Warren Morris shocked Miami with his 2-out, 2-run walk-off home run in the bottom of the 9th. It was cool to be a part of that season. In terms of one moment, it’s impossible to top what Morris did. LSU loses if he doesn’t come through.
For those who don’t know the back story, Morris was a stud who broke a bone in his hand during the fall and missed most of the year. He had surgery on it one month before the final game and couldn’t swing freely until he got to Omaha. For baseball folks, Morris’ moment is as memorable as Joe Carter’s home run to win the 1993 World Series — only far more unexpected.
— LSU Baseball (@LSUbaseball) June 8, 2020
As great as it was, it’s still not my favorite CWS memory, though.
That goes to Coastal Carolina, the little team that could, the Big South champ who stunned college sports by winning the 2016 College World Series.
Imagine Gordon Hayward’s halfcourt shot falling and Butler winning the NCAA Tournament in 2010. Or UCF getting invited to the College Football Playoff and beating Alabama to win it. That’s what Coastal Carolina did. I appreciated what I was seeing in real time.
There's no NCAA football equivalent to what Coastal Carolina just pulled off, doing what Butler almost did in basketball. P5s own football.
— Chris Wright (@CWrightSDS) June 30, 2016
The “how” was reminiscent of Jimmy Valvano’s unbelievable run to the 1983 NCAA Tournament championship. Valvano’s underdog Cardiac Pack could have been eliminated at almost every turn, but found a way.
Coastal’s path was just as perilous.
The Chants went on the road to win the Raleigh Regional, knocking out host NC State in the final game to advance to the Super Regional. They scored 4 runs in the top of the 9th to do so.
They swept host LSU in the Super Regional, scoring the winning run in the 9th to advance to Omaha.
The beat No. 1 seed Florida in the opening game but lost their next game. Facing elimination the rest of the way, the Chants beat Texas Tech and TCU twice to reach the best of 3 finals against Arizona.
They lost the first game of that series, too. Facing elimination for the 5th time that postseason, they rallied in Game 2 to set up a winner-take-all Game 3. The game wasn’t pretty, but the banner sure is. The Chants scored 4 runs — all unearned — and took a 2-run lead into the bottom of the 9th. Arizona rallied. They drew within 1 and had runners on 2nd and 3rd with 2 outs. A base hit would have won it. Instead, Alex Cunningham recorded the biggest strikeout in program history and the Chants became the biggest underdog winner in modern CWS history.