ALSO SEE: College World Series central
OMAHA, Neb. -- This is finally the year in college baseball where we bucked the trend of the favored teams failing to reach the CWS Championship Series with Virginia and Vanderbilt playing for the national title beginning Monday night at TD Ameritrade Park.
Virginia has spent the entire season meeting expectations, lofty as can be, I might add. The Cavaliers were the preseason No. 1 in the Perfect Game College Top 25 rankings, and have only impressed every step of the way. Meanwhile, Vanderbilt was ranked No. 11 preseason, and despite some up and down moments throughout the spring, played its best baseball at the right time.
So, when the NCAA Super Regional results were finalized and we looked at the Omaha bracket, the expected title series was almost unanimous to those of us who cover the sport on the national stage. We thought it would be the Cavaliers and Commodores in the end. However, how often does that actually happen? Well, it hasn't happened in my 12 years of covering this sport, but that finally is the case with these two teams.
Virginia used timely hitting and an impressive barrage of pitching to go 3-0 in the CWS to advance to the title series. The Cavaliers enter the title series with an impressive 0.55 pitching staff earned-run average, while teams are hitting him at just a .147 clip. Meanwhile, the Commodores, too, have used timely hitting, clutch bullpen work, and much more to get to this point, going 3-1 in the tournament with heroics from plenty of key individuals, such as Tyler Campbell, Hayden Stone, Rhett Wiseman, and of course, righthanded pitcher Walker Buehler earlier in the tourney.
"This has been an exciting journey," Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin said during Sunday morning's press conference. "You get here and you tell the kids to pack for 12-13 days, but you never know if that's going to be reality or not. We're certainly glad to be playing with today being our last practice before we play a few more games here."
O'Connor echoed Corbin's sentiments about playing for the national title.
"We as coaches know how hard it is to get to Omaha, and how hard it is to advance," he said. "On behalf of our team, I'm humbled being here and being in this title series. We've got a great opponent ahead who's very talented. It's been a long season, we've been the No. 1 team in the country and I've been impressed with how we've handled our expectations throughout the year. It's been consistent baseball."
The storylines between those two teams are aplenty. You have Tyler Campbell stepping up in Xavier Turner's absence for Vanderbilt, you have Brian O'Connor trying to win a national title in his hometown and in front of all of his family, something he attempts to downplay, unsuccessful, I might add, and most importantly, you have that little factoid about both of these programs -- Virginia and Vanderbilt both are aiming for the first national title in school history, with the Commodores trying to win the first major sport national title in institution history.
"When I look at Vanderbilt, I see a lot of us in them," Virginia first baseman Mike Papi said. "They've got a lot of bullpen arms, and the offense has some real consistency to it."
The programs are more similar than they seem to the naked eye, too, dating back to the days when O'Connor and Corbin began their tenures at their respective institutions.
When O'Connor arrived at Virginia in 2004, he had some resources at his disposal and had an incredible left side of the infield with Ryan Zimmerman and Mark Reynolds, both current big leaguers. But he was seemingly working an uphill battle as the Cavaliers hadn't been to the NCAA postseason but only twice since 1972. O'Connor used the lessons he learned under LSU coach Paul Mainieri (then, at Notre Dame) and others, and wasted no time in building Virginia into first an ACC power, and then a national power. O'Connor went 44-15 in his first season at Virginia, and has since rattled off 11-straight postseason appearances, including now three CWS appearances.
"When I was fortunate enough to be at Virginia starting 11 years ago, I was blessed to inherit a brand new stadium. I don't think Coach Womack before me was given the same resources I had when I took over," O'Connor said. "When I met with the university 10 years ago, they were 100-percent committed to having a successful program. We did walk into a pretty good situation with Zimmerman and Reynolds on the left side of our infield.
"The first week of practice I had my hand over my mouth because I couldn't believe how talented these guys were," he continued. "But our defining moment was the first weekend series in the ACC. We went on the road to face Georgia Tech, I don't think we had ever beaten them in a series before, and we found a way to sweep them for the first time. I think that really opened the players' eyes and made them realize that if we put in hard work and dedication, we could be successful at the high level."
Corbin has traveled a very similar path in his coaching career to get to this point. Vanderbilt hadn't reached the NCAA postseason since 1981 when he took over the program in 2003. And unlike Virginia, it wasn't an overnight fix as Corbin and the Commodores went 27-28 in their first season at the helm.
"I remember our first game against East Tennessee State, it was raining 40 degrees and there was no one in the stands. My wife got there and said she thought the game started at 4 p.m.," Corbin said. "I said, yeah, that's right, and there's no one here. She jokingly asked if I wanted to go back to Clemson."
The type of approach from the fans to this Vandy baseball program since that point has been a stark contrast to that day against East Tennessee State. The Commodores have since rattled off 10 NCAA appearances and are playing for the national title in their second College World Series appearance.
As with Virginia, there indeed was a defining moment that turned the tide for the Commodores program. In a rivalry series against Tennessee in 2003, Vandy's Worth Scott hit a walk-off home run that lifted the Commodores to the SEC tournament. At the time, just getting to the conference tournament was deemed a huge success. But boy, how things have changed during the Tim Corbin era.
"I think the challenges we had. I didn't see them as challenges. I was handed off a new stadium and it became a lifestyle. You recruited and tried to build the program with visions of this someday happening," Corbin said. "Those visions seemed like they were so far in the distance at times."
For both O'Connor and Corbin, and Virginia and Vanderbilt, this is as good as it gets. Both of these head coaches, and their respective coaching staffs throughout the years, have done a terrific job of building two of the nation's premier programs, and the right way, I might add.
Two programs traveling similar paths now meet for the 2014 national championship in college baseball.
We couldn't ask for more.
THE PICK: Virginia
PRESEASON RANKINGS (By Perfect Game): No. 1, Virginia -- No. 11, Vanderbilt
DID YOU KNOW? The CWS Championship Series features a who's who of players from the high school ranks. The startling lineups/rotations/bullpens for the two teams feature three former Perfect Game High School All-Americans, including Vanderbilt's Rhett Wiseman, Tyler Beede and Carson Fulmer.
Tyler Beede, rhp (1st round, San Francisco)
Adam Ravenelle, rhp, (4th round, Detroit)
Vince Conde, ss (9th round, New York Yankees)
Jared Miller, lhp (11th round, Arizona)
Brian Miller, rhp (15th round, Tampa Bay)
Nick Howard, rhp (1st round, Cincinnati)
Derek Fisher, of (Compensation A, Houston)
Mike Papi, of (Compensation A, Cleveland)
Brandon Downes, of (7th round, Kansas City)
Branden Cogswell, 2b (7th round, Oakland)
Artie Lewicki, rhp (8th round, Detroit)
Whit Mayberry, rhp (21st round, Detroit)
Nate Irving, c (34th round, Arizona)