College | Story | 12/21/2015

2015 Year in Review: College

Mike Rooney        
Photo: Dennis Hubbard

2015 Year in Review: PG Events | MLB Draft | High School

10. Coaching changes of significance

2015 brought us several significant coaching changes.  Andy Lopez and Jack Leggett are the biggest names among the group of coaches leaving their previous posts and they are both Hall of Famers.  Sunny Golloway, who's run at Auburn ended controversially, and Steve Smith, who is no longer at Baylor, both took teams to Omaha at their high points.

The AAC saw the previous year's hires pay immediate dividends as David Pierce, Cliff Godwin and Mark Kingston all took their new programs to a Regional in year one.

Jay Johnson (Arizona), Butch Thompson (Auburn) and Marty Lees (Washington State) are all coaches who built strong reputations as assistant coaches and now are getting their first shot at leading a Power 5 program.  Johnson has Division I head coaching experience, as he made a big impact in two short years as the skipper at Nevada.

9. Vanderbilt has three first rounders

Dansby Swanson (1st overall by the D-Backs), Carson Fulmer (8th overall by the White Sox) and Walker Buehler (24th overall by the Dodgers) were all selected in the first round making Vandy the fifth school in College Baseball history to have three players taken among the first 25 picks. This trio led the 'Dores to a National Title in 2014 and a CWS Finals appearance in 2015.  During their three-year careers, Vandy averaged an incredible 52 wins per year and Fulmer was named Perfect Game’s 2015 College Baseball Pitcher of the Year.

8.  Year of the shortstop

It was a banner year for shortstops in College Baseball, and maybe the best year ever at the position.  An astounding five college shortstops were selected in the first round: Dansby Swanson of Vanderbilt (1st overall by the D-backs), Alex Bregman of LSU (2nd, Astros), Kevin Newman of Arizona (19th, Pirates), Richie Martin of Florida (20th, Athletics), and Kyle Holder of San Diego (30th, Yankees).

And that group doesn't even include David Fletcher of Loyola Marymount (6th round, Angels) who may be the best defender of this entire class.  Kevin Kramer of UCLA and Mikey White of Alabama were also selected among the first 63 picks giving this class of shortstops both high-end talent and unprecedented depth.

7. College baseball deeper than ever

If the 2015 NCAA Tournament taught us anything, it's that the new strength of college baseball may be in its depth.  For starters, four programs (Houston Baptist, Florida A&M, Radford, Cal State Bakersfield) advanced to Regionals for the first time ever.  Illinois and Missouri State earned Top 8 National Seeds for the first time as well.  UCSB was awarded a host site for Regionals, and even thought they were forced to host off-campus in Lake Elsinore, this was a first-time achievement for the Gauchos.

The increased depth in college baseball also applies to recent and historic super powers as USC made Regionals for the first time in 10 years while South Carolina had their Regional streak snapped at 15 years in a row.  Meanwhile, Omaha darling Cal State Fullerton ended its longest College World Series "slump" in program history by returning to the promised land for the first time since 2009.

The NCAA Tournament performances of several teams confirmed this concept of depth and it started with VCU as the Rams' senior-laden team won the highly competitive Dallas Regional.  Columbia also turned many heads, winning three games in the Coral Gables Regional, which set a new record for an Ivy League team in the Super Regional era.  Finally, surging programs Maryland and Louisiana both won Regionals for the second consecutive year.

6. Mayhem in the Lone Star State

When the Fort Worth and College Station Regionals were paired together for a Super Regional matchup, the potential of a TCU/Texas A&M winner-take-all series jumped off the page.  While we eventually got that marquee matchup, little did we know about the fireworks that were about to happen.

Upstarts Cal and NC State quickly threw these two Regionals into a tizzy by winning one run games to send the respective home favorites into the losers' bracket.  Cal beat Texas A&M in 14 innings while NC State hit a two-run home run in the ninth inning to beat TCU.  And the Regional dramatics did not end there as the Aggies needed 12 innings to beat Cal and force a Game 7 in College Station.

TCU then executed the coup de grace of these comebacks, roaring back from an 8-1 deficit in the eighth inning of their Regional final game to eliminate NC State in 10 innings and advance to the Super Regional round.

In a Super Regional that was only fitting, TCU advanced to the College World Series by eliminating Texas A&M in the 16th inning of their deciding game three.  All told, the Aggies played five extra-inning games in their two rounds of play while the Horned Frogs went to extra frames four different times.

5. Early Season Weather

Many believe that a mild winter leading up to the 2012 College Baseball season helped to lay the groundwork for the "Cinderella" Omaha runs of Kent State and Stony Brook.  Well, apparently Old Man Winter does not like the underdog because difficult weather played a big role in the first half of the 2015 season.

Virginia's miracle season almost ended around the halfway point, and the fact that the Cavs' initial 14 game homestand resulted in 13 games that were either postponed or moved to a neutral site may be a big reason why.  Louisville was forced to cancel an early season home weekend series and in its place ended up losing a neutral-site weekend series to Arkansas State played at the Perfect Game all-turf fields at LakePoint.

These are just a couple of examples of weather challenges that occurred and the argument to move the college baseball season back has never had more momentum.  Whether the ideal start date be March 1 or even something later, you can be sure that nothing short of a very mild winter can silence this discussion.

4. Big Ten goes big

The Big Ten Conference has a rich baseball tradition but the league hasn't been a big player on the national scene since the 1980s.  That changed in 2015 as the conference earned a Top 8 National Seed for the second consecutive year.

IIlinois earned that national seed and the Illini set the pace, winning the league going away and posting an incredible 27-game winning streak during the course of their season.  Michigan, Indiana, Iowa, and Maryland also earned Regional berths to set a new league record with five Regional teams.  Maryland punctuated the Big Ten's historic season by winning their second consecutive road Regional, this time knocking off No. 1 overall seed UCLA.

A Big Ten team has now hosted a Regional in four straight seasons and Indiana's magical run to Omaha in 2013 was clearly not an outlier in regards to the resurgence of this conference in baseball.

3. College impact in the MLB World Series, again

College Baseball continues to have a major and immediate impact on Major League Baseball.  For the second consecutive year we had a very recent college player make a big impact in the World Series at the MLB level as Michael Conforto (Oregon State) buoyed the Mets this year in similar fashion to the contributions of Brandon Finnegan (TCU) during the Royals’ 2014 World Series run.

Kris Bryant (San Diego) won NL Rookie of the Year just two years removed from his college career. Dallas Keuchel (Arkansas) won the AL Cy Young Award harking back to his days as the ace of the Razorbacks' 2009 run to the College World Series.

Speaking of the 2009 World Series, that eight team field alone has produced 33 big leaguers to date.  This historic group is high impact and includes the likes of Keuchel, Drew Smyly, Matt Harvey, Kyle Seager, Brian Dozier, Mike Leake, Kole Calhoun, Jason Kipnis, D.J. LeMahieu and Brandon Belt.

If this year's draft is any indication, the current trend will continue.  Seven of the first nine picks in the 2015 draft were college players, including four players from the SEC.

2. Offense is Back!

College Baseball went to a flat-seamed baseball in 2015 and the results were outstanding.  While batting average remained stagnant at .274, the changes in runs per game, home runs per game and sacrifice bunts per game were significant from 2014 to 2015.

Runs per game rose to 5.5 which was a 7.1 percent increase.  Sacrifice bunts decreased to 0.68 per game, an 8.5 percent decrease.  Finally, home runs per game jumped forward to 0.56 which was an astounding 41.8 percent increase.

The results at the College World Series were even more telling as 15 home runs were hit in total.  To put that in perspective, the combined total for the three years of 2011, 2013, and 2014 were 15.  The exclamation point was provided by Florida's Peter Alonso who launched the first home run ever to be hit to center field at TD Ameritrade Park.

1. Virginia Wins the National Title

Sometimes redemption comes when you least expect it.

2014 was going to be the year of destiny for Brian O'Connor's Virginia baseball program. He and his outstanding assistant coaches, Kevin McMullen and Karl Kuhn, had been building a national power since taking over in the fall of 2003. This team had experience and elite talent, with Nick Howard, Mike Papi, and Derek Fisher all being selected among the first 38 picks of the 2014 draft. It all went according to plan as the Cavs, while choppy for most of the year, were still able to go wire-to-wire as the No. 1 team in the country.

And then in Game 3 of the College World Series Finals, on the very last night of the college baseball season, John Norwood and the Vanderbilt Commodores happened. Virginia's magical 2014 season came up one pitch, one run and one game short of fulfilling this great program's destiny to be a national champion.

Fast forward one year to 2015 and the heartache was in endless supply for Virginia. Not only had the Cavs lost a truckload of talent, they seemed to have found negative momentum for the first time in O'Connor's tenure.

Horrendous weather led to cancelled home games. Injuries led to reliever Kevin Doherty starting in the outfield and freshmen second baseman Ernie Clement playing center field for the first time in his life. Ace lefty Nathan Kirby, who went on to be the 40th overall pick of the Brewers, was injured and seemingly lost for the year.  Veterans Kenny Towns and Daniel Pinero, who were supposed to be the rock solid foundation of this team, were making errors at an unprecedented pace.

On April 28 O'Connor's troops lost to Old Dominion and their overall record dropped to 27-18. This included being swept at Virginia Tech and a particularly disturbing home sweep at the hands of first-year ACC program Louisville. More importantly, the Cavs sat at 10-14 in the league, good for 10th place which would put them squarely out of the ACC Tournament. The impossible had finally happened: with just seven games remaining, Virginia was going to have a bad season under Brian O'Connor. The NCAA tournament wasn't even a possibility as even the ACC Tournament looked unlikely.

Well, the impossible did happen. Virginia got better and won five of their final six ACC games. Virginia got hot and won five straight games to win the Lake Elsinore Regional and Charlottesville Super Regional.  Virginia even got a little healthier and Nathan Kirby was suddenly available to pitch in the College World Series.

And the rest is history. Brandon Waddell and Josh Sborz turned into super heroes in Omaha.  Kenny Towns and Daniel Pinero regained their veteran form. Youngsters Matt Thaiss, Pavin Smith, and Adam Haseley came into their own right before our eyes.

The Brian O'Connor led Virginia program, in its 12th consecutive Regional appearance and fourth College World Series appearance since 2009, reached the top of the mountain and fulfilled its destiny. The Virginia Cavaliers were our 2015 National Champions.

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