<
>

NCAA baseball super regionals will feature history and rivalry

Sixteen tickets were punched over the past three days to the NCAA baseball tournament super regionals, with five of eight national seeds emerging from four-team regionals in addition to five other host schools.

The best-of-three-games super regionals open Friday as Kentucky visits seventh-seeded Louisville (noon ET, ESPN2), with all games on the the ESPN networks and eight spots at stake to the College World Series.

Here are five storylines to watch as super-regional play approaches:

The legendary coach

A week ago as regionals began, retiring Stanford coach Mark Marquess occupied the spotlight after the Cardinal earned the No. 8 national seed and an inside path to the CWS. Could Marquess, who had led Stanford to 14 CWS appearances and two national titles, direct a career-ending return to Omaha, Nebraska?

Cal State Fullerton ended the Cardinal's bid in the Stanford Regional, but across the country, Florida State's 73-year old head coach, Mike Martin -- who has no plans to retire -- led his team to four straight victories in the Tallahassee Regional after an opening-round loss to Tennessee Tech.

Martin has won more than 1,900 games in 38 years at FSU, coaching it 15 times in the CWS without winning a title.

The regional performance was representative of the Seminoles' season. In mid-April, FSU appeared in jeopardy of missing the postseason altogether. It finished strong with series wins over Clemson, Virginia and Louisville, then swept four games at the ACC tournament.

Florida State has won 10 of 11 postseason games and was selected by the NCAA to host a super regional, starting Saturday (noon, ESPNU) against upstart Sam Houston State, which also came through the loser's bracket in regional play to defeat No. 5 seed Texas Tech. The Bearkats, of the Southland Conference, are the fourth team in the past five years to win the sixth and seventh games of a regional on the road, joining 2016 Arizona, Houston and Stanford in 2014.

A little history

The super-regional field features a mix of programs seasoned at this level of play and first-time participants.

Florida State leads the way in its nation-leading 16th super regional since the format was introduced in 1999, followed by No. 4 LSU and Cal State State Fullerton with 13 appearances apiece; No. 3 Florida (nine); Texas A&M (eight); No. 7 Louisville, Vanderbilt, Mississippi State and No. 6 TCU (seven); No. 1 Oregon State (six); Missouri State and Long Beach State (three) and Wake Forest (two).

Kentucky, Davidson and Sam Houston State are making their first super-regional appearances.

As for CWS appearances, 10 of the remaining 16 teams have made it in the past six years -- and five of those 10 played in Omaha in 2015 or 2016. Florida State again tops the list with 21 all-time trips; followed by LSU and Fullerton with 17; Florida (10); Mississippi State (nine); Oregon State and Texas A&M (five); Long Beach State and TCU (four); Louisville and Vanderbilt (three); Wake Forest (two); and Missouri State (one).

Four for four?

TCU cruised through the Fort Worth Regional, showing no signs of pressure as it attempts to join an elite club in making four consecutive trips to the CWS. The Horned Frogs host Missouri State, which upset Arkansas in regional play, starting Saturday (6 p.m., ESPNU).

Two wins by TCU would make it the first team to appear in four straight College World Series since North Carolina made it from 2006 to 2009. Other programs to count four straight trips in their history are Arizona State, Miami, Oklahoma State, USC and Texas.

Notably, Cal State Fullerton, Florida State and LSU have not done it.

TCU won two games in Omaha in each of the past two years and one game in 2014. The Frogs return plenty of star power from previous CWS teams, including catcher Evan Skoug and pitchers Jared Janczak and Brian Howard. But TCU is missing powerful first baseman Luken Baker, who underwent surgery last month after sustaining a left arm injury. Baker was a breakout star as a freshman last year during the Horned Frogs' run to Omaha.

SEC power

The Southeastern Conference posted a 25-8 record in regional play, well ahead of the ACC's 18-9 mark. No other league with more than two bids is above .500 in the NCAA postseason. (The Big West sent two teams to regionals, and both are still playing.)

Six of the eight SEC teams selected for the 64-team field won regionals, equaling the single-league record set by the SEC in 2004.

Be wary, though, of crowning the SEC too quickly. Last year, five SEC teams made it this far, but only Florida won its super regional. The top-seeded Gators then finished 0-2 at the CWS.

Intriguing matchups

LSU swept SEC rival Mississippi State in a three-game series last month in Starkville, part of the Tigers' current 14-game winning streak. Their super regional in Baton Rouge opens Saturday (9 p.m., ESPN2).

Ahead of their super-regional opener Friday (6 p.m., ESPN2), host Long Beach State has beaten Big West rival Cal State Fullerton in five of six meetings this year. Four of the LBSU wins came by two runs or fewer, including a pair of 1-0 victories and a 2-1 decision.

Perhaps the most interesting series is between in-state rivals Kentucky and Louisville, who split a pair of meetings in April. Keep an eye on the Wildcats' pitching rotation at Louisville after UK used ace right-hander Sean Hjelle for 35 pitches over the final 3 1/3 innings Monday night to earn the clinching win over NC State.