College : : Story
Thursday, December 21, 2017

Year in Review: College

Mike Rooney        
Photo: Courtney Culbreath


2017 was another banner year for college baseball and the collection of elite programs at the College World Series was the perfect punctuation mark. Here are 10 things that really caught our attention.


Toads to Omaha for the fourth straight year

In this age of parity in college baseball, earning a berth to the NCAA Tournament is harder than it has ever been. On top of that, winning the five or six games it takes to get to the College World Series feels nearly impossible at times. And that is exactly why TCU’s achievement of four straight trips to Omaha is truly amazing.

This feat has only been done two other times in the 64-team era of college baseball: Texas in 2002-2005 and Stanford in 1999-2003. The most remarkable part is that the 2017 Horned Frogs earned their trip to the promised land after losing star Luken Baker to injury. Jim Schlossnagle has built a dynamo in Fort Worth and you can be sure that TCU will be a preseason Top 5 team once again as we head into 2018.


Finally Florida

Over the last nine seasons, Florida has established an unparalleled level of dominance under Kevin O’Sullivan: the Gators have earned a Top 8 National Seed in eight of those nine years with trips to Omaha coming in six of the last eight years. That said, there have been some surprising missteps at the College World Series as three of those teams went 0-2 in Omaha. This includes the 2012 and 2016 teams, both of whom were the tournament’s No. 1 overall seed.

The 2017 team didn’t always win the beauty contest and they needed a Game 7 in the Regional round to eliminate Bethune-Cookman. The Gators also went to a Game 3 in their fiercely competitive Super Regional with Wake Forest. But in the end, the junior trio of Mike Rivera, Dalton Guthrie and Alex Faedo were not to be denied. This special group of juniors had each of their three Gator seasons end in Omaha at the College World Series. But this one ended differently: with a hoist of the National Championship trophy.


An Omaha to make Johnny Rosenblatt proud

2017 was a special version of the College World Series. Oregon State entered middle America with a gaudy 54-4 record, the always well-traveled LSU Tigers made it to the finals and TCU made a fourth straight trip to Omaha despite losing star Luken Baker for the postseason.

Hall of Fame skipper Mike Martin brought Florida State to the CWS for an incredible 16th time, Louisville showed up with the best two-way player in the history of college baseball in Brendan McKay and Texas A&M beat the tournament’s Cinderella (Davidson) to avenge two straight years of Super Regional heartbreak. National power Cal State Fullerton entered Omaha in its preferred role of underdog and the aforementioned Florida Gators won it all.

Most importantly, 23 home runs were hit, which shattered the CWS record since the event moved to TD Ameritrade Park, and ESPN’s ratings were through the roof.


The Darlings from Davidson

Dick Cooke has led a badly underfunded Davidson program for 27 years and his 2017 squad entered the 2017 Atlantic-10 Tournament seeded a nondescript sixth. In 115 years of baseball, this program had never reached the NCAA Tournament. So, when the Wildcats won five games in four days to win the league’s automatic berth, a well-deserved celebration ensued. Only the party never stopped as senior Durin O’Linger led Davidson to the Chapel Hill Regional championship and a date with Texas A&M in the Super Regional round.

The unlikely story really didn’t even end there as Cooke’s heavy underdog club took the Aggies to 15 innings in Game 1 and then held a 6-2 lead in the eighth inning of Game 2. While the Davidson season eventually did end there in College Station, this was one of the ultimate Cinderella stories. On top of it all, Cooke had survived a near-fatal car accident in 2012 and there were no guarantees that he would ever coach again. In the end, our game reminded us once again that amazing things do happen for the very best of people.


Brendan McKay wins the Brendan McKay award

Each year, the John Olerud Award goes to college baseball’s best two-way player. In 2017, Louisville’s Brendan McKay won the award for an incredible third consecutive season. McKay, who was taken fourth overall by the Rays, will go down as one of the greatest players in college baseball history. It was only fitting that, after heartbreaking Super Regional losses in both 2015 and 2016, McKay’s storied career ended at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha.


Beavers for the Ages

There is no doubt that Pat Casey has built a powerhouse program in Corvallis. Yet it would be more than fair to assume that the Beavers’ back-to-back national championships in 2006 and 2007 would be an already claimed pinnacle for this program.

Fast forward to 2017 and Oregon State was coming off a disappointing 2016 season that ended with Casey’s squad being left out of the NCAA Tournament. Well, the Beavers 2017 “Revenge Tour” got started early and never looked back. After two games at the College World Series, Oregon State’s record stood at a remarkable 56-4. That is not a misprint but it is in fact one of the greatest seasons in the history of college baseball.


NCAA Tournament to seed 1 through 16

As college baseball’s momentum continues to grow in strength, some (yours truly included) had questioned the ability of the NCAA to grow with our game. Rules have gotten stagnant and functional change was hard to come by. But as our game has grown, more and more baseball people have entered into administrative positions. This bodes well for our game and a recent rule change looks to be a sign of that.

Starting in 2018, the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee will seed one through 16, as opposed to seeding merely one through eight. Gone will be the automatic “regionalized” matchups in the Super Regional round. This rule change is certainly great for the game but the fact that an important change was actually executed may be the greatest victory of all.


Brent Rooker and the Triple Crown

There had been just one Triple Crown winner in the history of the SEC: Rafael Palmiero of Mississippi State in 1984. That is until last season when Brent Rooker of Mississippi State led the SEC in batting average (.387) and home runs (23) and runs batted in (82). Rooker was also the first player in Divison I Baseball to record 20 home runs, 30 doubles, and 75 RBI in a single season since Khalil Greene’s historic season for Clemson in 2002. Rooker also added 18 stolen bases for good measure.

Brent Rooker is also a tremendous college baseball development story. He redshirted in 2014, was drafted in the 38th round by the Twins in 2016 and then returned to Starkville for his magical 2017 season. Ironically, Rooker was taken by the Twins once again in 2017, only this time 35th overall.


Broken streak

As the parity in college baseball has accelerated, maintaining a streak of consecutive Regional appearances has grown increasingly difficult. Heading into the 2017 season, the top streaks in this category were held by Miami (44), Florida State (39), Fullerton (25), and Rice (22).

Rice entered the Conference USA Tournament with a sub .500 record of 27-29. The Owls basically needed to win the tournament to gain a Regional berth, and they did just that.

Florida State also appeared to be in jeopardy as the Seminoles took a 12-14 ACC record into their final weekend of conference play at Louisville. Mike Martin’s club not only swept those two games from Louisville, but they also went on to win the ACC Tournament and then advanced to Omaha.

Unfortunately for the Hurricanes, they did not wind up with a fairy tale ending. Miami’s streak ended at 44 consecutive Regional appearances. If you were confused as to why Miami is considered one of the iconic programs in College Baseball, that streak is the longest in NCAA history, for any sport.


Coaching Movement

The 2017 offseason was once again very active and several coaching changes from the season before certainly may have encouraged the activity. Steve Bieser took over at Missouri and led the Tigers to 36 wins, including a school record 20-game winning streak. Fellow SEC rookie skippers Andy Cannizaro (Mississippi State) and Nick Mingione (Kentucky) both led their respective programs to Super Regionals in year one.

The SEC had three more coaching transitions as highly regarded assistants Brad Bohannon and Tony Vitello were hired as the head coaches at Alabama and Tennessee respectively, along with former South Florida head coach Mark Kingston taking over at South Carolina. John Szefc, who had great success at Maryland, heads back to the ACC at Virginia Tech. Chad Holbrook and South Carolina parted ways but Holbrook ended up staying in state as he takes over at College of Charleston. 

Two of the more interesting changes took place at Oklahoma and Stanford. Skip Johnson takes over at Oklahoma after a season in which the Sooners earned a Regional berth and seemed to be turning the corner. After a long search for a successor to the legendary Mark Marquess, Stanford settled on one of their own in Cal’s David Esquer, who played for Marquess on the Cardinal’s 1987 national championship team. Cal recovered quite nicely by hiring Mike Neu of Pacific.


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