Power conference chaos

May, 19, 2008
It seems like I write the same intro every week; more chaos in the power conferences, as it seems like nobody wants to claim the last three national seeds or the last few hosting slots for regionals. Expect the upsets to continue as we enter tournament week, and don't count on the picture being any clearer when tournament selections are made next Monday.

Around the Horn: Weekend Wrap

• Two more bids to the NCAA tournament were earned this weekend when Bucknell captured the Patriot League title and Bethune-Cookman won the MEAC tournament. Bucknell (26-22) was the lowest seed to qualify for the tournament, but won series at top-seeded Army and Navy to capture its fourth Patriot League crown; the Bison previously represented the conference in regionals in 1996, 2001 and 2003. Bethune-Cookman won its third straight MEAC title, and the Wildcats have now won 11 titles in the last 13 years. After beating UMES 13-1 in the opener, they were challenged by North Carolina A&T in the winner's bracket game, as the Aggies left the tying run on third in a 3-2 loss. The championship game was no contest, as the Wildcats ran roughshod over a tired Norfolk State pitching staff on their way to a 13-2 victory.

• The top two teams in the country played in Coral Gables, and the series lived up to its billing as No. 2 North Carolina took two of three games from No. 1 Miami. Like every other series this season for the Hurricanes, the series started with a victory. Chris Hernandez improved to 10-0 on the season and Yonder Alonso set the tone with a third-inning grand slam as Miami won 12-2. The Tarheels evened the series with a 16-hit effort on Friday, and an early 9-0 lead was enough to withstand a Mark Sobolewski grand slam and another Alonso homer as North Carolina held on for a 10-6 victory. The finale followed the same script; UNC led 12-4 after five innings before Miami scored three runs each in the sixth and seventh to cut the lead to two. Alonso, who hit his third homer of the series in the seventh, came up with the winning run on base in the ninth; he singled to cut the lead to one, but Tim Federowicz recorded the final two outs for a 12-11 Tarheel win to take the series. Miami will be the top seed in the ACC tournament, while North Carolina will be the No. 3 seed behind Florida State.

• It wasn't a great weekend for the leaders in the Big 12, as both first-place Texas A&M and second-place Nebraska were swept over the weekend while No. 10 Oklahoma State missed a chance to capture the regular season title with a loss on Sunday. And the hottest teams heading into the conference tournament in Oklahoma City will meet in the opening game Wednesday. Texas improved to 9-1 over its last 10 games by sweeping the No. 9 Aggies and allowing no more than three runs in any of the games. The Horns will play No. 15 Missouri, winner of eight of its last 10 after sweeping No. 5 Nebraska; the Tigers scored 37 runs in the series, including a 22-9 victory on Saturday. With the Aggies and Huskers struggling, Oklahoma State had a chance to win the conference title on Sunday but lost 10-4 to Oklahoma to finish in second place.

• With how topsy-turvy the season has been, the final weekend of SEC play shouldn't have come as a surprise. LSU stayed on fire, as the No. 16 Tigers extended their winning streak to 16 games with a sweep of Auburn. Things didn't end as well for No. 7 Georgia; the Bulldogs scored 13 runs in two different games against Alabama but lost both contests. Florida took the third seed by sweeping No. 19 Vanderbilt in Gainesville, and the two teams meet again in the tournament opener. And in Ron Polk's final series as coach, last place Mississippi State took two of three games from Arkansas to knock the Razorbacks out of the SEC tournament. Expect the chaos to continue in Hoover this week, as any of the eight teams could win the tournament crown.

• I've been beating the drum for Oregon State most of the season, but it's getting close to time to pull the plug on the defending national champions. The Beavers were swept by USC this weekend to drop to 25-23 overall and 11-13 (eighth place) in the Pac-10. Oregon State outhit the Trojans over the weekend, but left at least nine runners on base each game. The Beavers are close to dropping out of the Top 50 in RPI, and the challenging schedule seems to have taken its toll on the young team. Oregon State finishes the regular season with four games against the Big West, traveling to Long Beach State on Monday before hosting Pacific over the weekend.

• The undefeated season continues, as Trinity (Conn.) stormed through the New England Regional to advance to the Division III College World Series. Trinity improved to 41-0 on the season by winning all of its tournament games by at least four runs. The Bantams will be joined in Appleton by seven other teams from around the nation, led by defending national champion Kean (39-9) and D3Baseball.com/NCBWA No. 1 Chapman (39-3). The other five participants are Cortland State (42-3), Wisconsin-Whitewater (39-8), Johns Hopkins (38-6), Adrian (34-11) and Linfield (34-11). Adrian (Mich.) and Linfield (Ore.) were the lowest seeds to advance to this year's College World Series; both were seeded fifth in six-team regionals.

• It was milestone weekend for two coaches in the Big South Conference. On Friday night, Winthrop coach Joe Hudak picked up the 800th victory of his career as the Eagles beat UNC Asheville 13-12 in 10 innings. With the series win over the Bulldogs, Hudak improved to 801-557-5 in his 24-year career, including 598 wins in 16 seasons at Winthrop. The following afternoon, Gary Gilmore picked up his 500th win at Coastal Carolina, as the No. 23 Chanticleers won 18-8 at Radford. Gilmore is in his 14th year with the school, and has gone 500-274 in that time; including six years at South Carolina-Aiken, his coaching mark is 753-376.

• Yogi Berra always liked to say "It ain't over till it's over," and the Miami RedHawks proved that was true in college baseball on Friday afternoon. Kent State led Miami 13-5 entering the ninth inning, and the Golden Flashes added three more runs that frame to take an 11-run lead into the bottom of the frame. The inning started inconspicuously, as Kyle Hallock allowed two singles and a groundout before being relieved by Steven Davis. Unfortunately for Kent State, the next 13 batters reached base for Miami as the Red Hawks tied the game off three different relievers. The scoring was highlighted by a three-run home run by pinch-hitter John Hornke and a grand slam by Tommy Nurre that cut the lead to one run. With the score tied and runners on the corners, Reid Lamport finally recorded the second out of the inning; unfortunately, it was a game-winning sacrifice fly by Hornke that netted Miami a stunning 17-16 win over Kent State.

• In the first game of a doubleheader on Friday, Oakland tied an NCAA record by banging out 11 straight hits in the eighth inning in rallying for a 17-6 victory over Southern Utah. The Grizzlies trailed 6-1 in the fifth inning before scoring five runs over the next two frames to tie the game. After a strikeout and walk to begin the bottom of the eighth, the next 11 batters recorded hits as the Grizzlies tallied 11 runs to secure the victory. Justin Wilson started things off with a bunt single, then provided the exclamation point with a two-run homer that was the 10th straight hit and capped the scoring.

What to Watch For: Regular Season Finales

While most of the country prepares for conference tournaments, the Big West and Pac-10 continue conference play next weekend. Over the next week, I'll be focusing almost exclusively on the tournaments, so here's a quick glance at what will be happening out west during that time.

Oregon State at Long Beach State (Monday): The defending national champions finish the season against 13-38 Pacific, so this will be their last chance to impress the committee. After falling to 19-14 a month ago, the Dirtbags have gone 15-8 and are still in contention for the Big West crown and a chance to host a regional.

UCLA at No. 8 Cal State Fullerton (Tuesday): By sweeping Washington State over the weekend, UCLA moved into a third-place tie with No. 13 California in the Pac-10. Sitting on the bubble with four games to play, the Bruins must travel to Berkeley after playing at Fullerton.

No. 8 Cal State Fullerton at Long Beach State (weekend series): The conference title on the line, with the winner of this series capturing the Big West's automatic bid. Before the uniform start date, the two schools played two series per year, but this will be the only meeting between the teams this season; last year was the first time that Beach took the conference series between the schools since 2002. Both teams are already in the NCAA tournament, but the Titans are playing for a national seed while the Dirtbags are playing for a hosting opportunity.

UC Santa Barbara at No. 12 UC Irvine (weekend series): The Gauchos are in third in the Big West, one game ahead of the Anteaters entering the final week of the season. A series win should be enough to get UCSB into the regionals, but since UCI reinstated its baseball program in 2002, the Gauchos have failed to take a series against the Eaters.

No. 3 Arizona State at Arizona (weekend series): Arizona is outside the top four in the Pac-10, but closing series at home against No. 14 Stanford (which ends on Monday) and conference-leading Arizona State provide an opportunity to impress. The Sun Devils have won their last seven games, but are just 7-6 on the road while compiling a 37-3 record in Phoenix-area games.

Closing Number

Eight: Years since an Eastern Division team represented the SWAC in the NCAA Tournament. That streak will continue this season, as Prairie View (25-25) and Texas Southern (15-32) meet in the championship game on Monday. The Panthers are looking for their third straight SWAC title, while the Tigers played in the regionals in 2004. Jackson State was the last champion from the East, going 0-2 in the Baton Rouge Regional in 2000.



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