After the regional round knocked out a number of national seeds and regional hosts, we weren't sure what to expect in the super regional round. But last weekend, every host team won but one, and each of the remaining national seeds was victorious.
On Friday, the College World Series kicks off in Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha, Neb., and we'll see a field that includes some familiar faces (defending champ Oregon State and '06 runner-up North Carolina) and more than a few surprises (first-time participant Louisville and lone SEC representative Mississippi State). What did we learn from the super regional round? And what can we expect in Omaha?
Most surprising super regional result: UC Irvine. As the only nonhost to win, the Anteaters take the prize. But it was their regional win that was most surprising, as they knocked off a talented Texas team many thought was a lock for the College World Series.
Most dominating super regional performance: Louisville. The series against Oklahoma State went three games, but the Cardinals' performance in Game 3 was as impressive as we saw anywhere. Louisville had never won an NCAA Tournament game before this season and after losing Game 2, many would have understood if Louisville went into a hole. But the Cardinals came out and put up 20 runs against a very explosive Oklahoma State team.
Most fun to watch super regional: Chapel Hill Super Regional. I'm biased, since I was there. Every game had you on the edge of your seat. North Carolina found new ways to come back against the Gamecocks. The setting was great, and you got to see two teams with Carolina on the front of their jerseys fighting it out. If you're a fan of great pitching, the Wichita Super Regional was the one to watch.
Best performance in the super regional round: The crowds. Starkville's first time hosting a super regional set attendance records, and at Chapel Hill, people were scalping tickets in the parking lot. I'm not used to seeing that, but it backs up what we all thought -- that college baseball's popularity is growing nationwide.
Best performance by a conference: Big West. We talked the conference up during the season, and UC Riverside and Long Beach State didn't do a whole lot in the tournament. But Cal State Fullerton's and UC Irvine's performances speak volumes for the conference. Because the Big West schools play such challenging schedules, it's often hard to figure out just how good they are. Teams know now how talented Fullerton and Irvine are.
Most surprising performance by a conference: SEC. Only five teams made it into the tournament, but if you had to pick one team to make it to Omaha, it would have been Vanderbilt. Then Arkansas, South Carolina and Ole Miss. In other words, no one would have guessed that the perennially dominant SEC would be sending only Mississippi State to carry the conference's flag at the College World Series.
Biggest CWS surprise: Louisville. We knew a little bit about UC Irvine entering the tournament, based on its schedule. The Beavers are the defending champs; they know how to win in June. But Lousiville? The Cards finished third in the Big East and didn't even make it to the final of the conference's tournament. They weren't even sure they'd make the tournament -- yet I've been as impressed with them as any other team in the field.
Under-the-radar team: Rice. It's weird to say that about the No. 2 overall seed and a team that seemingly makes the trip to Omaha annually. Everyone is talking about the surprises, and the Owls aren't getting much press. I'm sure that's fine with them. Rice has been in the top five all year, breezed through conference play and the postseason and never lost a series at home -- yet no one is talking about the Owls. They have experience and talent in Cole St. Clair, Joe Savery and Brian Friday.
Biggest obstacle to overcome: Louisville and UC Irvine. These teams remind me of Oregon State two years ago. The '05 Beavers were a wonderful team, but they came in and went 0-2 because they were overwhelmed by the setting. It's easy for that to happen when you've never been there. Regardless of what situations teams have experienced up to now, walking onto the field in Omaha blows everyone out of the water. Fast starts are important for every team, but especially for those two teams.
Biggest advantage: North Carolina. The Heels played for the national title and lost last season; for many of these guys, this run is about redemption. They've won games the way teams will have to win to do well in Omaha -- they've come from behind and they've relied on their closers and their lineup. They've shown the different pieces that you need to win.
What type of play can we expect to see: I expect a shift toward pitching. We have a few great staffs here: North Carolina, Louisville, Oregon State and UC Irvine. Anteaters ace Scott Gorgen might be the best pitcher in the field. His ERA for the last month and a half is under 1.00. But we've also got some good offenses, particularly Arizona State. For the most part, though, the teams that got through beat very good offenses with even better pitching staffs.
Players to watch: North Carolina's Chad Flack, Cal State Fullerton's Wes Roemer, Louisville's Chris Cates. Flack struggled all year, but when the Heels needed him most, he hit a home run to knock out South Carolina. Flack did the same thing last year to beat Alabama. Roemer is in a similar situation. He put up absurd numbers last year -- there's almost no way he could have duplicated them. From a stuff/mentality perspective, Roemer is the guy you would want on the mound in the postseason. At 5-foot-3, Cates is the shortest Division I ballplayer in the country. But the Cardinals' shortstop (and recent draft pick) is a spark plug at the top of the lineup and is very solid defensively. You don't see many players his height playing major college baseball -- and he's usually one of the best on the field.
CWS championship series prediction: Arizona State and North Carolina. The Tar Heels have depth; their arms set up well; their starters are good, and their bullpen is really good; and the team's big players this season played a lot here last year. Arizona State is swinging the bats so well; the Sun Devils have experience; they've been pounding people; and they've been pitching a bit better than what most people expected. However, with UNC and Oregon State on opposite sides of the bracket, we could have a repeat of last year's championship series -- and that would be really fun to watch as well.
Kyle Peterson was a three-time All-American at Stanford, is the voice of "MVP 06 NCAA Baseball" and is a college baseball analyst for ESPN.