OMAHA, Neb. — UCLA captured the hearts and minds of everyone at the College World Series this June, using a dominant run through the NCAA postseason, and 5-0 record in Omaha, to win the program's first national title, the university's 109th overall national championship.
This Bruins team was first introduced to the college baseball world last June when we unveiled our Eight for Omaha for 2013. Well, once again, the Bruins are a team to watch and to potentially repeat as national champs, as we take an inside look at eight teams to watch, plus five more, in 2014.
UCLA isn't alone when it comes to '13 CWS teams expected to return next season. Mississippi State, the national runner-up, might lose shortstop Adam Frazier and outfielder Hunter Renfroe, but welcomes back several key cogs from this year's club, and should be back in Omaha. Meanwhile, Indiana and Oregon State also are expected back at TD Ameritrade Park.
The Hoosiers welcome back almost every key player from this year's club, including hard-hitting catcher Kyle Schwarber and first baseman Sam Travis, while the pitching staff again should be very good with the return of Joey DeNato, Will Coursen-Carr and plenty of others. Then there's Oregon State, which will have a good one-two punch on the mound with Jace Fry and Andrew Moore, while the top four hitters are back in the lineup, including hard-hitting outfielder Michael Conforto.
Without further ado, your Eight for Omaha, 2014 edition:
CAL STATE FULLERTON
The Titans fell short of the College World Series this season, dropping a tough NCAA Super Regional series to eventual national champion UCLA. However, this team is locked and loaded for a magical run in 2014. Though the Titans have some tough losses, such as two-way star Michael Lorenzen, catcher Chad Wallach and first baseman Carlos Lopez, they return the bulk of their strongest area -- the pitching staff. Sophomore right-handed pitchers Justin Garza and Thomas Eshelman are back after strong freshman campaigns, while Grahamm Wiest is also back in the rotation. In the bullpen, the Titans return several quality arms, including Willie Kuhl, J.D. Davis and Koby Gauna, among others. The offense is a bit more up in the air with the departures of Richy Pedroza, Michael Lorenzen, Carlos Lopez and Chad Wallach, but third baseman Matt Chapman is a prime candidate to take a huge step forward in 2014. With the departure of Pedroza, freshman shortstop Timmy Richards, a 40th-round pick to the Miami Marlins, could be an instinct impact guy for the Titans. Overall, the offense is a question mark, but the positives with this club significantly outweigh the negatives.
In what was perceived to be a rebuilding campaign with Mike Compton on the shelf because of an arm injury, head coach Mike Martin and his coaching staff did a phenomenal job with this year's club, earning a national seed and reaching the NCAA Super Regional round. But next season, with many pitchers, including Compton, and position players back, the Seminoles should take a step forward and get back to the College World Series. Luke Weaver, Brandon Leibrandt and a healthy Compton likely will once again formulate the weekend rotation, while the bullpen should be strong with the return of Gage Smith, Billy Strode, Jameis Winston, Bryan Holtmann and others. The offense should be potent with hard-hitting sophomore DJ Stewart, who had a great freshman campaign leading the charge at the plate. Meanwhile, keep an eye on senior Justin Gonzalez, who could choose to return for another season, though, Giovanny Alfonzo proved to be a serviceable replacement in 2013. There's little to not like about this FSU club going into the 2014 campaign.
The Cavaliers entered the 2013 campaign unranked, but coach Brian O'Connor and his coaching staff did a terrific job and almost guided UVa. back to the College World Series, dropping a tough NCAA Super Regional series to national runner-up Mississippi State. Now, the Cavaliers have a chance in '14 to be the team that wins their first national championship. The Cavaliers welcome back an outstanding offensive lineup, many key contributors from a lineup that finished last season with a .312 batting average, including Mike Papi, Brandon Cogswell, Joe McCarthy, Nick Howard, Brandon Downes, Derek Fisher, Kenny Towns, among others. The Cavaliers also should have a solid pitching staff despite losing left-handed specialist Kyle Crockett and Scott Silverstein. The staff returns lefty Brandon Waddell, Nick Howard, Josh Sborz, Austin Young, Nathan Kirby, and others. I'd also keep an eye on talented freshman right-handed pitcher Connor Jones, who opted to attend college instead of being a high draft pick, while Artie Lewicki is expected to return from an injury that sidelined him throughout the 2013 campaign. This club will have national title aspirations, and rightfully so.
Head coach Tracy Smith and his staff are doing a terrific job, but must adequately find a way to replace outstanding assistant coach Ty Neal, who's now the head coach at Cincinnati. With that said, the Hoosiers, who were the first team since Michigan in 1984 to reach the College World Series out of the Big Ten, should have yet another fantastic club in 2014. Though starting pitcher Aaron Slegers is fully expected to sign with the Twins as a fifth-round pick, as well as third baseman Dustin DeMuth, IU could very well welcome back reliever Ryan Halstead, who was a 26th-round selection of the Twins. Some close to the Indiana program even think there's a good chance DeMuth returns in '14. From a pitching standpoint, the Hoosiers welcome back several talented arms, including starting pitchers Joey DeNato, who starred in Omaha, Kyle Hart, who had a 3.01 ERA in 83 2/3 innings of work this past season, and plenty of others, such as Will Coursen-Carr, Scott Effross, Luke Harrison, Brian Korte and Evan Bell, among others. Indiana also will be loaded again at the plate with the return of PG First Team All-American catcher Kyle Schwarber, designated hitter Scott Donley, first baseman Sam Travis and plenty of others. From a newcomer standpoint, freshman catcher Brent Gibbs could be an early contributor from an offensive standpoint. As good as this Hoosiers team will be next season, it also is interesting to see how they perform with a massive target on their back.
Hey, remember these guys? The Gamecocks stole the show in Omaha for three years with back-to-back national titles, and national runner-up honors in 2012. However, the Gamecocks stayed at home this June after dropping a hard-fought, three-game series against North Carolina. With that said, look for the garnet and black to make the trek back to Omaha next June. The bullpen certainly is a concern for the Gamecocks without Tyler Webb and Adam Westmoreland, but keep an eye on a very talented crop of newcomers, including Cody Mincey, Wil Crowe, John Parke and Canaan Cropper, among others. The Gamecocks also will have a very good starting rotation with left-handed pitchers, junior Jordan Montgomery and sophomore Jack Wynkoop, back in the mix. Meanwhile, the Gamecocks should have a very good offensive lineup. The Gamecocks return six of their top seven leading hitters, but must replace hard-hitting first baseman LB Dantzler. Junior soon-to-be two-way player Joey Pankake is expected to have an All-American type of campaign, while catcher Grayson Greiner and outfielder Tanner English also are capable of having very good years at the plate, with Greiner making strides as a sophomore this past season. South Carolina is hungry again, and should return to Omaha after a one-year hiatus.
There's no greater motivator in college baseball than falling just short of winning the national title, so look for that to fuel the Bulldogs, who welcome back several key cogs next season. Though the Bulldogs have the extremely tough chore of replacing outfielder Hunter Renfroe and shortstop Adam Frazier, both high draft picks, with Renfroe the first-round pick of the Padres, they still welcome back a solid nucleus led by imposing first baseman Wes Rea and Alex Detz, who each had productive 2013 campaigns. Meanwhile, the Bulldogs once again will have a terrific pitching staff, though, as we saw against UCLA, the Bulldogs must develop the weekend rotation better next season. Left-handed pitcher Jacob Lindgren should develop into the dominant arm we all think he can be, while the Bulldogs can't wait for right-handed pitcher Brandon Woodruff to return from a tough injury. The Bulldogs welcome plenty more quality arms, including Ross Mitchell, closer Jonathan Holder, Ben Bracewell, Trevor Fitts, Will Cox and others. The Bulldogs also welcome in a very solid recruiting class with pitchers Dakota Hudson, Austin Sexton, Zach Houston, Avery Geyer and Glenn Irby leading the way, while shortstop Reid Humphreys, ranked No. 247 out of high school, is a potential instant impact position player. With the personnel he has coming back and coming in, there's a reason coach John Cohen all but guaranteed the Bulldogs would be back in the College World Series.
Those thinking the Bruins are going anywhere next season might be sorely mistaken. The Bruins, though, they'll lose a few key cogs, including starting pitchers Adam Plutko and Nick Vander Tuig, in addition to Zack Weiss, who logged over 40 appearances last season, are still expected to be very good in 2014. For instance, the Bruins plan to move reliever James Kaprielian, who has a big-time fastball and outstanding curveball to the starting rotation, where his stuff will play up even more, while hard-throwing sophomore pitcher Cody Poteet will make a seamless transition to the weekend rotation, and of course, sophomore left-handed pitcher Grant Watson, who was terrific in the College World Series, also is back. Meanwhile, in the bullpen, David Berg is back after setting the single-season NCAA saves record in 2013, while talented left-handed pitcher Hunter Virant finally gets a chance to show his stuff after injuries hampered him this past season. Offensively, the Bruins will lose the leadership of Cody Regis, Kevin Williams and shortstop Pat Valaika, but otherwise are in good shape with the return of their top four hitters, including Eric Filia, who was terrific in Omaha, Kevin Kramer, Pat Gallagher and leadoff hitter Brian Carroll. Sophomore Ty Moore is expected to take a big step forward next season, while the infusion of youngsters OF Kort Peterson, OF Luke Persico, OF Brett Stephens and C Dominic Miroglio should pay dividends. It's not remotely far-fetched to think the Bruins could win back-to-back national titles.
The Beavers fell short of a national title in Omaha this June, but should return to TD Ameritrade Park next summer. OSU will have some question marks entering the season. For instance, replacing veteran left-handed pitcher Matt Boyd won't be easy, but they welcome back several key cogs, both at the plate and on the mound. Offensively, the Beavers will welcome back their top four hitters in All-American outfielder Michael Conforto, Dylan Davis, Andy Peterson and Kavin Keyes. Additionally, the pitching staff will again be stout. Right-handed pitcher Andrew Moore is back in the saddle as the staff ace, while it would be a surprise if Jace Fry doesn't have a dominant campaign. The No. 3 starting spot is up for grabs, but reliever Max Engelbrekt could move to that spot if he gets stronger in the season. And get this, the Beavers are surprisingly confident left-handed pitcher Ben Wetzler, who was a fifth-round pick to the Phillies, returns to Corvallis, Ore., for his senior campaign. We're not counting that as a likely scenario at this point, but it's something to watch moving forward. Meanwhile, reliever Scott Schultz could very well be back for OSU, while newcomers on the mound such as Kevin Flemer, Chandler Eden and John Pomeroy are potential instant impact arms. In terms of newcomers in the field, catchers Logan Ice and Mason Fishback are talented backstops who will battle for Jake Rodriguez's vacated spot, while shortstop Trevor Morrison is expected to step in and take the place of departed middle infielder Tyler Smith.
OTHERS TO WATCH
North Carolina State: The Wolfpack will have the nation's elite starting pitcher in Carlos Rodon, along with fellow likely starting pitchers Brad Stone and Logan Jernigan. However, the Pack, at this point, has some significant holes to fill in the bullpen with the departures of several impressive arms. The offense also has some losses, though N.C. State returns shortstop Trea Turner and catcher Brett Austin, who we feel like will have a breakout junior campaign.
Oregon: The Ducks will have plenty of pitching, but the question with this club remains, will they hit? The lack of offensive production killed the Ducks in the NCAA postseason this year, and they'll move forward without first baseman Ryon Healy, who was by far their best hitter this past season. Tommy Thorpe, Jake Reed and Cole Irvin will formulate a very good weekend rotation, while with reliever Jimmie Sherfy likely to sign, sophomore left-hander Garrett Cleavinger would be a perfect type of arm to fill his shoes.
LSU: The Tigers will be a very intriguing team entering the 2014 campaign. Starting pitchers Aaron Nola and Cody Glenn give Paul Mainieri are a very solid one-two punch on the weekend, but the Tigers must replace relievers Nick Rumbelow and Chris Cotton, among others, so the bullpen is a definite question mark going into the offseason. Meanwhile, offensively, LSU has some serious holes to fill without Mason Katz, Raph Rhymes, JaCoby Jones and even catcher Ty Ross, who meant a lot to the Tigers in '13. The good news? LSU welcomes a great recruiting class in the fall.
North Carolina: The Tar Heels will have some holes to fill at the plate and on the mound with the departures of third baseman Colin Moran, first baseman Cody Stubbs and likely catcher Brian Holberton, while on the mound, Kent Emanuel and Hobbs Johnson likely are gone. The weekend rotation remains in good shape with the return of Trent Thornton and Benton Moss, while the offense should be fine with Skye Bolt, Landon Lassiter and others leading the charge, as well as the addition of several impressive young players.
Vanderbilt: There's no doubt the Commodores will have a tough time replacing Tony Kemp, Connor Harrell, Conrad Gregor, Spencer Navin and Mike Yastrzemski in the field, as well as ace left-handed pitcher Kevin Ziomek. However, the 'Dores will more than enough pitching to get the job done and perhaps get to Omaha. Right-handed pitcher Tyler Beede is back, along with Walker Buehler, Philip Pfeifer, T.J. Pecoraro, Steven Rice, Brian Miller and Carson Fulmer, among others. In other words, Vandy will have an elite pitching staff -- again.
THREE POTENTIAL SURPRISES: Texas, Kansas State, Clemson