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June 28, 2007

SCS.comThe last pitch has been thrown, and the curtain has been closed on the 2007 college baseball season. It started with a bang, and finished with the last team standing from a year ago standing at the end once again, as Oregon State became the first team since LSU a decade ago to win back-to-back titles.

Vanderbilt staked their claim as the best team in the nation from the start by defeating preseason #1 Rice, Arizona State, and Baylor in the Houston College Classic, and then ascending to #1 during a 20-0 start. The Commodores, led by hard-throwing strikeout-machine David Price and the slugging duo of Pedro Alvarez and Dominic de la Osa, had a school-record regular season, winning their first SEC regular-season title and the SEC tournament while being ranked #1 for all but a couple of weeks up until the postseason.

The ACC had another banner year, with Florida State, North Carolina, and Virginia all having excellent seasons. The Seminoles were led at the plate by scorching second baseman Tony Thomas, Jr. - who hit .430 and ranked among the nationís leaders in hits, doubles, runs, while posting good totals in homers, RBI, and total bases - and on the mound by pitcher Bryan Henry.

North Carolina won a second straight division title, despite the losses of pitchers Andrew Miller and Daniel Bard. Virginia, meanwhile, posted a 4th straight 40-win season, led by ACC Pitcher of the Year Jacob Thompson.

Elsewhere, a couple of teams resurfaced onto the national scene. Arizona had a 15-game win streak on the way to 40 regular-season victories and a second-place finish in the Pac-10. Texas A&M was the nationís top turnaround story, rebounding from two subpar seasons to have a 40-win year as well.

There were also several other standout teams. San Diego broke Pepperdineís string of West Coast Conference titles, and moved as high as #4 in the polls. Missouri finished a surprising second in the Big 12, and their 40-win regular season included a series victory at Texas. Coastal Carolina was another squad that was hot all season, as the Chanticleers started off 27-3 and swept the Big South regular-season and tournament titles.

Conference USA was quite topsy-turvy. Rice, after starting off slowly, ran away with the league for the second straight year. But below them, several teams jostled for position. East Carolina was hot early, swept Cal State-Fullerton, and survived an up-and-down late season to finish second. Memphis started hot as well but struggled late, and both Tulane and Houston faded down the stretch after starting strong.

It was a banner year in the Big West, even with Fullerton struggling to a below-.500 finish in the league. Long Beach State, UC Riverside, and UC Irvine went into the home stretch as the three title contenders. It would be Riverside who would claim its first Big West title, taking the league lead with a sweep at Long Beach with a week to go, and then holding off Irvine on the final weekend. The Anteaters had a big regular-season, finishing second in the league, winning 40 games, and moving into the top 10 for the first time. The Dirtbags finished third, but were rewarded with a home regional and #1 seed.

Several preseason favorites and big names struggled. Miami and Clemson were favorites in the ACC, but both finished well back in the standings, along with Georgia Tech. In the Big 12, Nebraska and Oklahoma struggled, though the Cornhuskers did finish over .500 in conference play. In the Pac-10, Stanford and USC, who were touted to potentially make a run in the league, finished in the bottom two spots. UCLA had a fantastic middle of the season, but struggled at the start and at the end. Oregon State, meanwhile, faltered down the stretch, losing three straight series to put themselves on the bubble with time running out.

When selection time came, there were a few eye-catchers. Memphis and Troy were surprise inclusions, while Georgia Tech, Oklahoma, and College of Charleston were left out. The Cougars and SoCon runner-up Western Carolina both went 0-2 in the SoCon tourney, but the Catamounts made it into the field, while the regular-season champs missed out. The Big West got four teams in, but fell short of getting a fifth in, as Cal Poly, who finished fourth, was left squarely on the bubble for the second time in three seasons. And the defending national champs got it together just in time to sneak into the postseason, having to win 2 of 3 at UCLA on the final weekend to likely earn an at-large berth, despite going only 10-14 in the Pac-10 and finishing in a tie for sixth.

The SEC, after making a habit out of getting seven, eight, and nine teams in the last several seasons, got only five bids. Alabama and Tennessee barely missed the cut despite making the SEC tourney. The same was the case for Florida, whose 15-15 conference mark would usually be good enough to get into the field, but a losing overall record kept the Gators out. LSU and Kentucky just missed out on the SEC tourney, and were left out as well. The Gators and Volunteers have since made coaching changes, while the Tide is looking for a new coach after Jim Wells stepped down last week.

The postseason was the wildest and most upset-filled since the tournament went to a 64-team format in 1999.

Five of the eight national seeds didnít even make it out of their regionals, including top ranked Vanderbilt, who was the first #1 national seed to fall short of the supers. In addition, #4 Texas, #6 Florida State, #7 Arkansas, and #8 San Diego all were eliminated early.

All in all, nine of the sixteen #1 seeds didnít make it out of the regionals. Another notable absence that wasnít a #1, but was missing from the supers was Miami, who failed to win a regional for the first time in 14 seasons.

There were several first-timers in the supers. UC Irvine swept through the Round Rock Regional, knocking off Texas to make its first super. Louisville, who hadnít won a postseason game until beating Miami in their regional opener in the Columbia (MO) Regional, came through the loserís bracket to advance to a first-ever super. Wichita State was actually a super first-timer as well, along with UCLA.

Michigan made its first super appearance after shocking #1 Vanderbilt (and the college baseball world), and had the fortune of going to Corvallis to face Oregon State. The Beavers had snuck into the postseason, but woke up in the regionals, staving off elimination three times to advance in the Charlottesville Regional. And the Beavers stopped the Wolverinesí surprising run while continuing their own to earn a third straight trip to Omaha.

Mississippi State hosted its first super and set a super regional attendance record, putting over 26,000 fans in the park to see two wins over Clemson, booking their first Omaha trip since 1998. The Bulldogs went 2-8 down the stretch, but overcame those late-season struggles to make the final eight.

The three remaining national seeds remained unscathed. Rice and North Carolina booked their second straight trips to Omaha, while Arizona State knocked off Mississippi, marking the third year in a row that the Rebels were stopped just short of Omaha.

Louisville and UC Irvine were the two members of the first-time club. The Cardinals beat Oklahoma State at their own game - power, power, and more power - outscoring the Cowboys 31-5 in three games. That number is a little inflated by the third game, a 20-2 thrashing reminiscent of their 16-6 win over Missouri in a winner-take-all game a week prior.

Cal State-Fullerton rounded out the Omaha bracket. The Titans, like Oregon State, stumbled into the postseason, but went 3-0 in San Diego, and then took two straight from UCLA to book yet another Omaha ticket.

The CWS wasnít about to let the first two rounds be the best, and what resulted was the best offensive display in Omaha in several seasons.

Rice scored 29 runs in two games, including 15 in a come-from-behind win over Louisville in their opener, to start 2-0 for the second year in a row. In the other bracket, it was the Beavers who kept things going, knocking off Cal State-Fullerton and Arizona State to start 2-0.

The Owls fell a win short of the championship series for the second year in a row, this time at the hands of North Carolina, who took two in a row just as Oregon State did last season. Meanwhile, the Beavers beat UC Irvine to book an unlikely championship series rematch.

And unlike last season when the teams played a tight, three-game series, the Beavers dominated from the outset, securing a second straight title in just two games.

There were several great individual performers this season. Vandyís Price was far and away the nationís top pitcher, as the junior lefty went 11-1 and led the nation with 194 strikeouts, and was drafted #1 overall in this monthís draft. Charlotteís Adam Mills led the nation in wins, ERA, and shutouts, and ranked fifth in strikeouts, which helped the 49ers have a school-record, 49-win season. Arizonaís Preston Guilmet and San Diegoís Brian Matusz were the best out West, with Fullertonís Wes Roemer recapturing last seasonís All-American form as the season went on. UC Irvineís Blair Erickson became the NCAAís all-time career saves leader during the season, and finished his career with a mark of 53 saves.

Texasí Kyle Russell led the nation with 28 homers, while Arizona Stateís Brett Wallace and FSUís Thomas were arguably the top all-around hitters. Wallace led a hard-hitting Sun Devils club with a .404 average, 16 homers, and 78 RBI. Thomas posted great all-around totals - .430, 111 hits, 91 runs, 33 doubles (1st in nation), six triples, 11 homers, 45 RBI, and 31 steals.

Other top hitters were Texas A&Mís Blake Stouffer (led the nation in RBI), Western Carolinaís Kenny Smith (.390/20/84), Woffordís Brandon Waring (.401/27/73), Rutgersí Todd Frazier (.377/22/65/87 runs/25 steals), and Oklahoma Stateís duo of Tyler Mach (.386/16/81) and Corey Brown (.335/22/71/23 steals), who were all keys to their teams making the postseason.

The nationís top freshman was undoubtedly North Carolinaís Dustin Ackley (.402/10/74), who won the ACCís regular-season batting title over Thomas, Jr., but slumped for most of the postseason before picking it up when it mattered to lead the Tar Heels to the CWS championship series. Other top freshmen were Arizona State pitcher Mike Leake and Mississippi State infielder Brandon Turner, who both had a big hand in their teams making it to Omaha. Oregon Stateís Jordan Lennerton was a key part of the Beaversí run to the title, and drilled homers in the two championship series victories.

With such an exciting season and postseason, you canít help but look ahead to next year. Oregon State will definitely have a team capable of becoming the first team since Southern Cal (1970-74) to win three titles in a row.

Of the other CWS participants, Rice has the pieces for a third straight deep run in Omaha, and so does Arizona State. UC Irvine looks like theyíre here to stay too, as the Anteaters have plenty of talent coming back next year, and they wonít be surprising anyone. You canít look past UNC and Fullerton, who are going to be fielding excellent teams as well. Mississippi State is a team with great potential, as they return several of this seasonĎs contributors, and have a lot of players waiting in the wings to step up, along with a solid recruiting class. Louisville will be a program to watch, as Dan McDonnell is one of the top young coaches in the country, and has the ingredients in place to build a program that will be on the scene for years to come.

Next year could be a big one for teams like Long Beach State, UCLA, and Baylor, who have a load of young, talented players. The same can be said for Miami, who doesnít have too many off-years, and Georgia Tech, who was one of the last teams left out of the postseason, but wonít do so in í08.

And you know the usual suspects will be sniffing around as well, like Vandy, who loses David Price, Casey Weathers, and potentially Dominic de la Osa, but will have Pedro Alvarez, Ryan Flaherty, and rising sophomore pitcher Mike Minor, who will be a great one in the next two seasons. And, you can expect to see the likes of South Carolina, Clemson, Texas, Florida State, Virginia, Mississippi, and others in the mix. The Big Ten will be worthy of some preseason recognition, as Michigan and Ohio State will both have extremely talented teams, and donít be surprised to see one crash the party again next year.

I know Iím leaving out plenty of teams, but this is only a preliminary list of contenders. By the time preview season rolls around next winter, Iíll have plenty more teams to add to the list.

And, as a final note, Iíd just like to say thank you to all whoíve followed the season on, and college baseball fans everywhere. I hope that youíll continue to follow our baseball coverage next season and beyond. And thank you to all the teams and players whoíve given me plenty to write and be excited about this season.

Iíll be checking in every now and then during the off-season, on the blog and on the site, so you wonít have to go through withdrawals too much.

Itís been a great season, and next season will no doubt carry on where this one leaves off. Itís a great time to be a college baseball fan, and hey, itís never to early to look towards next season, because it is only eight months away.

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