OMAHA, Neb. — All those SEC and ACC heavyweights are long gone from the NCAA Tournament, and the last two Big 12 teams went home this weekend. The College World Series championship comes down to two teams that were not expected to even make it to Omaha, let alone the finals.
Coastal Carolina and Arizona had to go through demanding regionals and super regionals on the road to make the CWS, and each had to come back from an early loss here to win three straight in bracket play and reach the best-of-three finals starting Monday night.
Even more impressive, the Chanticleers (53-17) have made it this far in their first CWS appearance. The Wildcats (48-22) are here in Jay Johnson's first season as coach after having not even made the national tournament in the three years following their 2012 national championship. They were picked ninth in the Pac-12 and ended up tied for third.
"There are a lot of talented teams, possibly more talented than Jay's team and my team, but the teams that have played the best are here," Coastal Carolina coach Gary Gilmore said Sunday. "There are a tremendous amount of similarities between us."
Coastal Carolina and Arizona have had no trouble adjusting to TD Ameritrade Park, with its spacious outfield and the prevailing south wind that knocks down balls that would be home runs in other stadiums.
The Chanticleers lead the nation in homers, but they've hit just one here. They have a CWS-leading 11 doubles, relied on the bunt to move runners over, played strong defense and gotten two complete games from Andrew Beckwith.
The Wildcats have ridden the hitting of Zach Gibbons (.474, seven RBIs), Jared Oliva (.375, six RBIs) and JJ Matijevic (.353), a defense that has committed just one error in five games and the pitching of Bobby Dalbec, Nathan Bannister and reliever Cameron Ming.
Some things to know as the finals begin:
WHO'S PITCHING? Neither coach announced his starting pitcher for Game 1. Both teams have depleted staffs. Coastal Carolina played three games in three days and Arizona three games in four days.
Johnson said he hasn't ruled out Nathan Bannister pitching sometime in the finals. Bannister, who has thrown a nation-high 142 1/3 innings, left in the third inning of Friday's game against Oklahoma State with a strained forearm. Johnson said Bannister told him Saturday that he felt like he normally does the day after a start.
YOU'VE COME A LONG WAY: Gilmore heads one of the most successful programs of the last decade, but it was downtrodden when he was hired in 1996. The Chanticleers had won 17 games the year before, the team had a substandard stadium and the commitment of some players was questionable. Gilmore told how a player on his first team informed him he couldn't come to practice the next day because it conflicted with his job as a bartender on the beach.
"Where we started at and where we are now, there's been a lot of building blocks," Gilmore said. "There's a bunch of major league players and a whole bunch of All-Americans and just great hardworking blue-collar baseball players that have gotten us to where we're at."
ARIZONA'S RISE: The Wildcats consider May 22 as the day their season turned. They had lost four of their last five games, including the first two of their final Pac-12 series at Oregon. The Wildcats beat the Ducks to start a stretch in which they have won 15 of 17 games.
"Coach got us together Sunday in the dugout after I believe the first inning and said: 'You guys are a lot better than you're playing. You guys know that. I know that. We need to go out with a bang and get hot at the right time and ride this thing as long as we can,' " Gibbons said. "I feel like that's why we're here."
PROCEED WITH CAUTION: Neither Coastal Carolina nor Arizona has allowed a stolen base in the CWS. The Chanticleers lead the NCAA Tournament with 13 steals.
BATTLE OF DUGOUT MASCOTS: Coastal Carolina might have an edge in dugout mascot mojo because of a late addition. Arizona keeps a plastic Spider-Man toy in the dugout, and a stuffed monkey named Rafiki serves as Coastal Carolina's good-luck charm. The Chanticleers adopted an inflatable shark in the middle of the CWS to join Rafiki. The shark was among the dozens of beach balls and other inflatables that fans in the left-field bleachers dumped onto the field Thursday. The grounds crew piled up the debris in the left-field bullpen, where a Coastal Carolina player discovered the shark.