It was fitting South Carolina played such a huge part in the opening of TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Neb., the new home of the College World Series.
The Gamecocks captured the program’s first national title in 2010, the final season at Rosenblatt Stadium. Now they have the first national title at the new ballpark.
South Carolina’s heroics and the ushering in of college baseball’s new crown jewel headline college baseball’s top 10 stories for 2011.
In our previous Year in Review piece, we took an inside look at the MLB Draft’s top 10 stories for 2011. We review the year in travel baseball Tuesday, January 3.
10. Coaching changes hit high gear
It was an incredibly busy offseason for several programs, as 22 of them made coaching changes following the 2011 season.
The headliners were Tennessee, Cal State Fullerton and Nebraska.
The Volunteers parted ways with Todd Raleigh, who was unable to gain traction in the SEC. Some intriguing candidates surfaced, but the Vols landed Dave Serrano, formerly an assistant with the program and most recently the head coach at Cal State Fullerton.
Serrano already is turning some heads on the recruiting trail at UT. Former UCLA associate head coach and hitting coach Rick Vanderhook replaced Serrano at Cal State Fullerton. Vanderhook was a long-time assistant for the Titans before accepting a position on John Savage’s staff at UCLA. Vanderhook is a hard-nosed coach and a perfect fit for a Fullerton program searching for some stability.
The Huskers didn’t surprise anyone by parting ways with long-time head coach Mike Anderson after they finished the ’11 campaign with a 30-25 overall record, and more importantly, a next-to-last finish in the Big 12 Conference. However, what garnered headlines is the fact the Huskers hired former big-league and NU star Darin Erstad. Erstad has no head coaching experience at the Division I level, making his inaugural season with the program much anticipated.
Other coaching changes also caught our attention. For instance, former Wake Forest head coach Rick Rembielak landed the Akron job, Bethune-Cookman’s Mervyl Melendez surprised everyone by moving to Alabama State, Hartford landed talented Connecticut assistant Justin Blood, Old Dominion reeled in Western Kentucky’s Chris Finwood, UC Santa Barbara hired talented Oregon assistant Andrew Checketts and Sam Houston State is now directed by former Rice assistant David Pierce, taking over for long-time and successful head coach Mark Johnson.
9. ESPN continues to step up television coverage
Before last season, ESPN always did a tremendous job producing the College World Series. However, the network always lacked quality television coverage of the college baseball regular season.
That’s no longer the case.
ESPN took a huge step forward last season when it announced an 18-game SEC television schedule, including eight Thursday night telecasts and the unveiling of an hour-long SEC baseball television show.
Those telecasts were in addition to other broadcasts throughout the season, including the production of a pair of NCAA Regionals, all NCAA Super Regionals and the CWS.
ESPN is taking things a step further in 2012. In addition to another eight SEC games of the week, the network will televise six ACC games of the week.
Get used to more college baseball on ESPN. The network and the NCAA recently signed an agreement guaranteeing a host of championship events, including baseball, being televised through 2024.
8. Vanderbilt finally reaches College World Series
Life for Commodores baseball fans has been vastly different and much better during the Tim Corbin era.
Corbin has established an impressive tradition of success the past few seasons. But the ‘Dores seemed to reach their climax in 2007 when they assembled one of the decade’s best teams. Interestingly, that team failed to reach even an NCAA Super Regional after getting upset by Michigan in the Nashville Regional.
Fortunately, the program has since rebounded in impressive fashion.
The program took the ultimate step forward last season with a phenomenal campaign. The Commodores won the Nashville Regional before cruising past Oregon State in the Nashville Super Regional to punch their first-ever ticket to the College World Series.
Vanderbilt’s success under Corbin certainly won’t end after a magical 2011 campaign. But for those who witnessed the ’07 debacle, the program getting to Omaha last season was a moment to remember.
It was the Commodores’ official welcoming to elite status.
7. Conference affiliation changes
There’s absolutely no doubt the massive conference realignment movement over the summer had to do with football, money, and well, football. Under no circumstance was baseball part of the equation. However, baseball certainly will feel the effects.
Nebraska got the conference realignment movement started last year when it declared it was leaving the Big 12 for the Big Ten. The Huskers officially joined the Big Ten this past summer, and will compete in their first baseball season with the new conference in 2012.
NU’s move only was the tip of the iceberg. Many teams have made similar decisions the past few months.
The Pac-10 became the Pac-12 with the inclusion of Colorado and Utah. The Utes, of course, are the only of the two to play college baseball – for now at least.
In the SEC, Virginia Tech, Florida State and others were rumored to be heading to the perceived nation’s best conference. However, Missouri and Texas A&M – both from the Big 12 – were the only two additions when the dust settled.
Speaking of the Big 12, the league replaced the Tigers and Aggies with West Virginia and TCU, respectively. The Mountaineers certainly leave something to be desired in the baseball department, while the Horned Frogs are a solid addition.
In the ACC, Pittsburgh and Syracuse joined the league. The Panthers have made some significant facility renovations the past few seasons and are ready to take the next step, while the Orange don’t have baseball and don’t have plans to soon add the sport.
In the Big East, the league put a plan in motion after the departures of West Virginia, Pittsburgh and Syracuse. As a result, Houston, UCF and SMU joined the league in all sports, with the Mustangs the only institution not playing college baseball.
Also worth noting, Nevada and Fresno State are moving to the Mountain West, BYU will play baseball in the West Coast Conference and Hawaii and San Diego State will soon join the Big West for baseball.
6. Elite junior pitchers showcase themselves
The 2011 college baseball season was known for a lot of things, including an amazing influx of junior-level talent, particularly on the mound.
UCLA had arguably one of the top – if not the top – one-two punch in college baseball history in its weekend rotation with Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer leading the charge. Cole was drafted No. 1 overall in the MLB draft by the Pirates, while Bauer third overall by the Diamondbacks.
Cole and Bauer weren’t alone. Virginia left-handed pitcher Danny Hultzen had an incredible campaign and led the Cavaliers to the College World Series. He signed for $6.35 million as the No. 2 of the draft to the Mariners.
There were plenty of other talented arms on display.
Texas right-handed pitcher Taylor Jungmann earned All-American honors and signed for $2.52 million as the No. 12 pick to the Brewers, Georgia Tech left-handed pitcher Jed Bradley had a solid campaign and signed with the Brewers for $2 million, Stanford’s Chris Reed signed with the Dodgers for $1.589 million and Connecticut’s Matt Barnes signed with the Red Sox for $1.5 million.
Also worth noting, Vanderbilt All-American right-hander Sonny Gray earned All-American honors and signed with the Athletics for $1.54 million, Oregon’s Tyler Anderson had a great campaign despite going a little under the radar. He inked with the Rockies for $1.4 million. Additionally, Kentucky’s Alex Meyer inked a deal worth $2 million with the Nationals, and Florida State’s Sean Gilmartin had an incredible season, which led to him signing with the Braves for $1.134 million. Kent State’s Andrew Chafin also had a banner campaign.
The upcoming college MLB draft class features some talented players, but in terms of pitchers, it won’t come close to this amazing crop of arms.
5. California’s emotion-filled season
In September of 2010, California coach Dave Esquer wasn’t sure what his future held. The long-time Golden Bears head coach only knew one thing – that his baseball program, one with 100 years of history, was getting cut as a result of massive budget changes.
There was significant outcry in the college baseball community. Many thought if a huge university like the University of California could drop baseball, who else with budget issues would jump on the bandwagon?
In the months following the decision, financial supporters, particularly the Save Cal Baseball group, raised money to keep baseball and other sports the university cut afloat for the long haul.
The group was successful in their quest for monetary pledges, and the university reinstated the baseball program after $9.7 million of an expected $10 million was raised by June.
Adding to this incredible drama was California’s actual baseball campaign. The Golden Bears compiled a .500 record in the Pac-10, earning a trip to the Houston Regional, where they defeated Baylor in amazing fashion to advance to an NCAA Super Regional. The Bears then defeated Dallas Baptist to advance to Omaha for the first time since 1992.
It’s safe to say Cal had a year to remember.
4. New Collective Bargaining Agreement good for college baseball
College coaches have long argued that professional baseball has done absolutely nothing to help the game of college baseball over the years.
The professional ranks finally threw the sport a bone.
Two aspects of the new CBA – the new signing deadline and Signing Bonus Pool/draft tax – definitely work to college baseball’s advantage.
The MLB draft-signing deadline previously was mid-August, causing many college coaches to scramble for replacement players with only a couple of days to spare. The new signing deadline is set for between July 12-18, giving coaches more flexibility.
The Signing Bonus Pool and draft tax are best explained here.
3. New BBCOR bats transform college baseball
As fall workouts approached last year, college coaches and players were getting to know the reality of brand new bats, BBCOR bats to be exact.
As fall workouts began and continued, many players complained the new bats simply had no power, with some even opting to go through practices with wood bats. Many college coaches such as LSU’s Paul Mainieri and Virginia’s Brian O’Connor were outspoken against the bats, while others such as Florida’s Kevin O’Sullivan thought the new sticks would put the truly elite hitters on display.
Production was down a great deal last season. For instance, at midseason of the 2011 season, home runs were down .94 per game per team, batting averages had dipped (on average) from .305 to .279 and scoring fell about 1.3 runs per game. Pitchers’ earned run averages decreased from 5.83 to 4.62.
Also worth noting, the length of games was greatly reduced, something that ultimately will continue to lead to better television deals with excessive game length being an issue of the past. For instance, this year’s NCAA postseason games (pre-Omaha) averaged 2 hours 44 minutes as opposed to 3:03 in 2010.
Coaches such as Mainieri and plenty of others will continue to claim college baseball was better when there was more scoring, essentially distinguishing itself from professional baseball. However, other coaches view the BBCOR bats as displaying the truly solid hitter and developing a more marketable media product.
Either way, the NCAA stated in Omaha this past June it was pleased with the results and feedback regarding the BBCOR bats.
In other words, they’re not going away anytime soon.
2. South Carolina wins back-to-back national titles
It’s incredibly difficult to win the national title in modern college baseball. It’s even tougher to accomplish back-to-back championships.
We were dazzled a few seasons ago when coach Pat Casey’s Oregon State Beavers captured back-to-back national titles with a team full of gritty characters leading the charge.
South Carolina captured its first national title in 2010 with a magical run through Omaha that included two wins over rival Clemson and a national title series win over UCLA. The Gamecocks are the last team to win a national title at Rosenblatt Stadium.
They’re also the first team to win the title at TD Ameritrade Park.
The 2011 Gamecocks, as with the ’10 squad, used clutch pitching and timely hitting to storm through the College World Series. Scott Wingo’s walk-off home run propelled them to a victory over Texas A&M in the opener, while more heroics were put on display in a pair of wins over Virginia and a national title series win over SEC rival Florida.
Interestingly, the Gamecocks welcome back stud pitchers such as Michael Roth, Matt Price, Forrest Koumas and Colby Holmes, among others, in 2012.
South Carolina has a great chance to become just the second team in college baseball history to win three-straight national titles.
1. Rosenblatt closes down, TD Ameritrade welcomes CWS
Much of the college baseball community was against the closing of Rosenblatt Stadium as the home of the College World Series, while others welcomed the arrival of the sparkling, new TD Ameritrade Park.
As fans flocked to Omaha, Neb., this past summer, Rosenblatt Stadium was relegated to an empty park with grass growing through the parking lot cracks. However, downtown was a thriving area with a new 24,000-seat ballpark, which cost the City of Omaha $131 million.
The new ballpark features a spacious seating arrangement, large concourse, more concessions and an incredible infrastructure.
We’ll always remember Rosenblatt Stadium as a venue that symbolized college baseball. However, TD Ameritrade Park passed its first test in glowing fashion.
College baseball has a new, beautiful home, with its luxurious feel serving as a constant reminder of just how much the sport has evolved.
Kendall Rogers is the college baseball managing editor for Perfect Game USA and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org