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Omaha's storied regional rivalry

UCLA arrived at the College World Series on a West Coast specialty: pitching and defense. AP Photo/Eric Francis

West Coast vs. Deep South. Small ball vs. gorilla ball. Fish tacos vs. pulled pork.

Here we go again.

On Monday night, the College World Series best-of-three championship series will feature UCLA, the light-hitting, pitching-heavy, run-manufacturing elite defensive team from SoCal versus Mississippi State, the big-bat, short-starter, get-a-lead-and-get-to-the-bullpen squad from ... NoMiss?

When the teams met with the national media over the weekend, their cultural differences made for a bit of a yukfest, comparing bass fishing to beach trips amid much laughter. But to the broader college baseball world, this isn't about Starkville versus Hollywood, or even Pac-12 versus SEC. It's much deeper than that.

"You get a couple of college baseball coaches together in a bar and the first thing they do is start figuring out what the other guy's background is," explains Texas head coach Augie Garrido. "The first thing that does is establish mutual friends throughout the game. But the second thing it does is reveal a coach's approach to the game. And if you get a West Coast guy sitting across from a Southern guy, you might want to get ready for a fight."

For nearly a decade and a half, that rift has been on display in the CWS finals. A longtime regional and ideological baseball battle, played out on a patch of green grass in the nation's geographic center. Since 2000, a stunning 10 of the past 14 championship series have featured a classic West Coast team like Stanford, Cal State Fullerton, Fresno State, UCLA or Arizona against a Southern squad like Miami, LSU, North Carolina, South Carolina or Rice.

In the rare series that weren't so cartographically clear-cut, an SEC school squared off against Texas. The Longhorns are certainly a Southern stalwart -- for years they were the lone Southern school to spoil the Pacific time zone's CWS party. But they are also coached by Garrido, the undisputed trunk of the modern West Coast coaching tree.

"For so long, the Western teams owned college baseball, certainly Omaha," explains former LSU head coach and athletic director Skip Bertman. "When I was an assistant at Miami and we first started making it to Omaha in the 1970s, it felt like we were crashing their party. It was the same thing when LSU started becoming a regular visitor in the late '80s."

Indeed, schools from California and Arizona won 21 of the first 35 CWS titles, including 14 of 15 from 1967 to 1981. The next year, the Hurricanes won the first of their four championships. In the three decades since, California and Arizona schools have had to share the wealth, winning 10 titles. The SEC, which hadn't won a single baseball championship during the CWS's first 43 years, has won nine since 1990.

"At first, the West Coast guys couldn't have been nicer -- I think they thought we were kind of cute," joked former Miami head coach Ron Fraser in a 2008 interview (Fraser died in January). "But when we finally broke through and won the championship in '82, suddenly we weren't so cute and they weren't so nice!"

Over the years, particularly over the past decade, the dividing lines have become more blurred. More West Coast coaches are migrating to the Southeast, an act that would have been considered treasonous 30 years ago, lured there by nicer facilities and even nicer paychecks. Meanwhile, more cross-country matchups, more nationally televised games, cross-region recruiting and that little tool called the Internet have created cross-pollination.

"What we see now is a more hybrid game," explains Mark Marquess, Stanford's head coach since 1977. "The world is smaller now. Coaches and players have more access to learning about every style of play and are more willing to kind of mold that style around the personality of the roster. But I do also think there is still a distinction there."

Marquess goes on to make a comparison that many others repeat. They compare the college game to Major League Baseball, where free agency and interleague play have turned brick dividing walls into chain-link fences. It's possible for some crossover between the two sides, but there's still a barrier there.

"I've been on both sides," Arizona head coach Andy Lopez explained a year ago as his Wildcats were on the brink of their 2012 CWS championship victory over South Carolina. Lopez led Malibu, Calif.-based Pepperdine to its unlikely '92 title. He returned to Omaha during a seven-year stint at Florida, before taking over at Arizona in '02. "There is definitely more of a blending of West Coast 'small ball' with Southern 'big-hit ball' now, especially as teams have to adapt during the postseason."

Interestingly, that June metamorphosis has made a 180-degree flip over the past three years. At Rosenblatt Stadium, West Coast teams had to be willing to take on more of a big-swing philosophy to keep up with frequent high-scoring games. At TD Ameritrade Park, where run scoring has plummeted, Southern schools have had to embrace a move-the-runner-first mentality.

"The new park in Omaha isn't as dramatic of a difference as you might think, because the new bats have forced everyone to think more about manufacturing runs all spring," explains South Carolina head coach-turned-athletic director Ray Tanner. "But I think back on my approach to our championship series in '11 and '12 versus 2010 and certainly '02 at Rosenblatt. It certainly doesn't take a genius to realize that we had to be more bunt-and-run than trying to load 'em up and wait on a big hit."

So have we officially met in the middle? Does this year's West Coast versus Southeast matchup officially mark the decay of the great college baseball bisection?

"Um, no," says Bertman. "College sports will, at its heart, always be regional. The philosophies can change. The names can change. But Omaha will always be a bit of a showdown. We'll all be choosing sides, even if we don't admit it to you. I don't see that changing anytime soon."

Certainly not this week.