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June 12, 2008

SCS.comIs this finally going to be North Carolina's year? The Tar Heels have finished national runner-up to Oregon State each of the last two seasons, and they're back in Omaha with hopes that the third time is the charm. The Beavers aren't on the other side waiting for them this time, but there are three tough teams that the #2 national seed has to get by in order to make a third straight trip to the championship series. Number 6 national seed Rice is a familiar foe, as the Tar Heels defeated the Owls twice last year to get to the title series. Another familiar face to college baseball fans is back in Omaha, as the #7 national seed LSU Tigers go riding into Omaha as one of the hottest teams in the country. You've got to figure that one of those teams is a safe bet to make it to the championship series, but don't count out Fresno State, who made it through one of the toughest regionals and then went on the road and knocked off #3 national seed Arizona State to earn an unlikely trip to Omaha.


North Carolina Tar Heels
Hitting: The Tar Heels are hitting .324 as a team, with Dustin Ackley (.408) and Tim Fedroff (.398) leading the way in the average department. They've got some punch, with 56 homers, but this is a club that lives by the double, as they lead the nation with 166 doubles. Five UNC hitters have at least 20 doubles, with Kyle Seager's 27 leading the way. They also have a solid 23 triples on the season. Their most dangerous hitters are Ackley (.408, 20 doubles, 4 triples, 8 homers, 50 RBI, 18 steals), Fedroff (.398, 21 doubles, 4 triples, 12 homers, 69 RBI, 13 steals), and Seager (.355, 27 doubles, 5 triples, 9 homers, 73 RBI).
Pitching: North Carolina leads the nation in ERA, coming in at 2.83. Their primary starters are tough to beat, in Alex White (10-3, 2.75 ERA, 101 Ks), Adam Warren (9-1 this season, 22-1 career record), and Matt Harvey (7-2, 2.52 ERA), but their bullpen may be the best in the nation, led by Rob Wooten (6-2, 1.80 ERA in 39 appearances) and Brian Moran (1-1, 1.99 ERA in 35 appearances).
Coaching: Mike Fox is in his 10th season at North Carolina, and this is North Carolina's third CWS appearance in a row and seventh straight postseason appearance (9th in 10 seasons) in Fox's tenure. Fox is also one of a handful of people who have played in and coached in the College World Series, as he made the CWS All-Tournament team when he was a part of North Carolina's 1978 CWS team.
Game-Changers: UNC definitely has a few at the plate, but when the Tar Heels turn it over to their bullpen, whether it's to protect a lead, kill off a rally, or keep them in a game, it's usually lights out for the other team.
LSU Tigers
Hitting: It's no surprise that LSU is one of the top power-hitting teams in the country, as the Tigers come in off the heels of a seven-homer performance in their super-clinching 21-7 rout of UC Irvine, which gave them 97 homers on the season. The majority of those homers come from three sources - junior Matt Clark (.347, 26 homers, 61 RBI), who's tied atop the nation's homer charts, sophomore Blake Dean (.359/20/70), and sophomore Ryan Schimpf (.321/12/54). However, they're not all about power, as LSU has 144 doubles and 28 triples on the season. There's also plenty of speed on the basepaths, as six players have at least nine steals.
Pitching: The Tigers have a respectable 4.02 ERA as a team this season. Expect Ryan Verdugo (9-3, 3.90 ERA), Jared Bradford (10-4, 4.50), and Blake Martin (5-3, 4.83) to be the main starting arms, while Jordan Brown, who is 5-0 in 10 starts, to get a look if he's needed in a starting role at some point. Out of the pen, there are four well-used relievers with ERAs under 3.00, led by Louis Coleman, who is 7-0 with a 1.30 ERA in 20 appearances.
Coaching: Paul Mainieri is making his second trip to Omaha, with his previous trip coming with Notre Dame in 2002. He's quickly turned things around in Baton Rouge, going from 29-26-1 in his first season last year to 48-17-1 thus far this season, but it shouldn't be a surprise, given his track record at Notre Dame. In his 12 seasons at ND, Mainieri led the Irish to nine postseason appearances and 11 seasons with at least 40 wins.
Game-Changers: Clark and Dean are the two biggest names, but Schimpf is a name to remember over the net week-plus. He leads the team in doubles (18), triples (7), and steals (16), and as mentioned above, he has 12 homers and 54 RBI. In the rout of UC Irvine, Schimpf was 4 for 5 with two homers and five RBI.
Rice Owls
Hitting: Rice is hitting .307 as a team with 52 homers on the season. The Owls have six .300 hitters, led by J.P. Padron (.362, 5 homers, 41 RBI), Diego Seastrunk (.353/5/57), and Rick Hague (.347/8/52). Their top power hitters are Adam Zornes, who has 12 homers, and Aaron Luna, who has nine.
Pitching: The Owls have a 3.63 team ERA. Starting duties will be taken care of by Ryan Berry (8-4, 3.35 ERA), Chris Kelley (5-1, 3.28), and Matt Langwell (5-1, 4.35), while Mike Ojala (5-0, 4.97). The bullpen is a strength, led by senior stud Cole St. Clair (10-2, 2.62 ERA, 5 saves), Matt Evers (-1, 2.57), and Bryan Price (4-4, 3.66 ERA).
Coaching: Wayne Graham didn't get his first Division I coaching job until he was in his mid 50s, but he's certainly made the most of it. In his 17 seasons at Rice, Graham has had 14 40-win seasons (five with at least 50), 13 straight with a conference title (1 Southwest Conference, 9 WAC, 3 Conference USA), 7 CWS appearances, and a national title in 2003. Add to his five JC titles and 11 straight seasons with at least 40+ wins at San Jacinto (the last eight with at least 50), and Graham has a loaded resume.
Game-Changers: While Luna has only nine homers this season, he's got the power to change things with one swing of the bat--if teams want to pitch to him. He has 48 walks and has been hit by pitches 18 times, so while his .316 average may not wow you, he's a pretty key part of Rice's plate potential.
Fresno State Bulldogs
Hitting: Fresno State is hitting .298 as a team with 72 homers on the season. Their top three hitters are Alan Ahmady (.384, 12 homers, 84 RBI), Steve Susdorf (.345, 29 doubles, 11 homers, 81 RBI), and Erik Wetzel (.361/6/36).
Pitching: The Bulldogs' run to Omaha is all the more impressive due to the fact that they're without their ace pitcher, Tanner Scheppers, who's missed all of the postseason (and will miss the CWS) with a shoulder injury. Without Scheppers, the likely starters are Justin Wilson (7-5, 4.51 ERA), Clayton Allison (3-5, 4.07), and Justin Miller (6-3, 4.88), while Holden Sprague (5-2, 3.62, 29 apps., 9 starts) could start if Fresno State goes that deep. Out of the bullpen, the Bulldogs will rely on closer Brandon Burke (4-5, 3.15, 12 saves), Sprague, and a handful of other arms, like Sean Bonesteele and Kris Tomlinson, to come up big.
Coaching: This is the first CWS appearance in Mike Batesole's 13-year career as a head coach, but he's certainly had a successful coaching career up to this point. In six seasons at Cal State Northridge from 1997-02, he led the Matadors to two NCAA tournament appearances and three seasons with at least 40 wins. The last three seasons of his six at Fresno State have been the best, as the Bulldogs have won three straight WAC titles (regular season and tournament) and won 125 games.
Game-Changers: Outside of the guys already mentioned, sophomore Tommy Mendonca could be a big presence. Mendonca leads the nation in strikeouts with 90 in 266 at-bats, but he's also the team's leader in homers with 15 and has 55 RBIs on the season. On Monday night against Arizona State, Mendonca smashed a three-run homer in the top of the second that put Fresno State up 3-2 after the Sun Devis had taken the lead in the bottom of the first.


North Carolina vs LSU
Can North Carolina's arms slow down LSU's bats? UC Irvine did throughout most of the first two games of their super, but once the floodgates opened late in game two, it was all over. But, as much attention as LSU's bats will get, North Carolina has some hitting prowess as well, and if some runs get put on the board, the Tar Heels can keep up. The onus will be on LSU's pitchers to match North Carolina's, because while the Tigers have the firepower to overturn a deficit in the late stages, UNC has the arms to shut them down at that time as well.
Rice vs Fresno State
So, here the Owls are again. Getting over the hump after a 2-0 start has been the hurdle in the past two years, but they can't get caught ooking ahead to a meeting with North Carolina or being in the driver's seat come Monday night. Fresno State is here for a reason, and they know they can beat the Owls after knocking off the likes of Long Beach State, San Diego, and Arizona State. Rice may have to put up some runs in this one, and they're capable of doing so. However, pitching is going to be key for both teams, especially Fresno State, though getting behind early might bring the best out of them.


C: Tim Federowicz, UNC
1B: Matt Clark, LSU
2B: Kyle Seager, UNC
SS: Rick Hague, Rice
3B: Diego Seastrunk, Rice
OF: Steve Susdorf, Fresno St.
OF: Tim Fedroff, UNC
OF: Aaron Luna, Rice
UTIL: Dustin Ackley, UNC
SP: Alex White, UNC
SP: Ryan Verdugo, LSU
SP: Ryan Berry, Rice
RP: Rob Wooten, UNC
RP: Cole St. Clair, Rice


North Carolina
1. Strong pitching: The bullpen's deep and talented, but White, Warren, and Co. need to bring it so that the guys at the back end can come in when it's the final three innings, and not when it's still the middle of the game.
2. Put the past behind them: The last two years have been pretty painful for the Tar Heels, and many of the players on this year's squad were around for one or both of the disappointments. But, they don't let bad memories negatively affect them, they're on the right track.
3. Timely, smart hitting: UNC may not win by the home run in a slugfest against the likes of LSU (though there's more than enough pop in their lineup to), but if they continue to take advantage of their strengths, especially when it comes to doubles, they can score a lot of runs.
1. Strong starting pitching: Slugfests are fun to watch, but not when they take a toll on your pitching staff.
2. Put runs on the board: LSU has scored 8 or more runs in 20 of the last 28 games (25-2-1 record). They don't have to swing for the fences to put plenty of runs up, but you'd have to expect at least a homer or three in there somewhere.
3. Make the most of their speed: The Tigers have 92 steals and 28 triples this season, and optimizing their speed, may it be through steals, hit and runs, or smacking one into the gap and turning a double into a triple, will help them with #2.
1. Stepping up in crunch time: The Owls had a couple of close games in the super against Texas A&M, and if they get into some tight ones in Omaha, they need to rise to the occasion, and not wilt under the pressure like they've done over the last couple of seasons.
2. Cole St. Clair: St. Clair nailed down Rice's super-clinching win over A&M with 4.1 stellar innings, and the senior reliever has been the Owls' best out of the pen over the last four years. This is his last chance to get the title, and his team will need him to do it.
3. Good pitching and solid, timely hitting: The pitching wasn't at its best against the Aggies, but it was when it needed to be. As for the bats, the numbers aren't spectacular, but they can put up more than enough runs.
Fresno State
1. Strong starting pitching: In this kind of tournament, you don't want to go to your bullpen too early and too often.
2. Keep up the hot hitting: The Bulldogs scored 20 runs over the last two games in Tempe, and with some dangerous hitters in the lineup, they can keep that up at Rosenblatt.
3. Excellent relief pitching: The numbers aren't pretty, but the relievers came up big in the two wins over ASU, stopping one of the nation's most potent lineups short in comeback attempts on Sunday and Monday.


So, is the path pretty clear for North Carolina to make their third straight CWS championship series? The Tar Heels should be the favorite, with their pitching staff and solid hitting at the dish, but they'll have a fight on their hands to be in the final two. UNC will have to take their opener against LSU, who might be considered the second favorite in this bracket behind the Tar Heels. Will it be home sweet home for the Tigers, or will their hot streak finally come to an end in Omaha? If their bats get quieted by North Carolina's pitching, then they could be in trouble. On the other side, Rice has been at the cusp of the final two in each of the last two seasons, and the Owls who were a part of either team will no doubt be focused on finally sealing the deal. However, beware of Fresno State--it's no fluke that this team is in Omaha, and don't be surprised if they make some big noise on the big stage.

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