Beavers and Tar Heels mark first title rematch since '72-73

OMAHA, Neb. -- As if they needed to make any statements about whether they were ready to begin a second straight College World Series best-of-three Championship Series against North Carolina, Oregon State players Joey Wong, Mitch Canham and Jorge Reyes showed up at Rosenblatt Stadium Friday morning to talk about Saturday's 7 p.m. (ESPN) opener in full uniform.

At the opposite end of the table, Tar Heels' Robert Woodard, Josh Horton and Andrew Carignan sported short-sleeve polos.

Their uniforms still may have been dirty. After all, just 14 hours earlier Carolina had toppled top-ranked Rice for the second time in two days to win one half of the bracket with a 4-1 record. Oregon State, meanwhile, had been awaiting an opponent since wrapping up its 3-0 run with a 7-1 victory against UC Irvine on Wednesday.

If they had to, the Tar Heels would play the Beavers in street clothes.

Flash back to last June 26.

It's the bottom of the eighth inning in the deciding game of the Championship Series. Carolina had won the opener 4-3; Oregon State won game two 11-7; and this one's knotted up at 2-2.

The Beavers have a two-out rally going with runners at first and second and the Tar Heels call on Andrew Miller, the No. 6 pick in the 2006 Major League draft. Oregon State sends Ryan Gipson to pinch-hit, and he bounces a two-strike pitch at second baseman Bryan Steed.

The throw is a bit up the line, and when Tim Federowicz -- normally the catcher, but on this day making his fourth start at first base -- didn't come off the bag, the ball sails by for an error on Steed and Bill Rowe scores from second.

In the ninth, with two on and one out, the Beavers then call on lefty Kevin Gunderson, who'd guaranteed after OSU went 0-2 in the 2005 Series that it would be back the following year. Two batters later, center fielder Tyler Graham squeezes cleanup hitter Chad Flack's fly ball and the Beavers are dog-piling national champions.

"I picked up 'Gundy' and fell, and I couldn't breathe," recalled Canham, one of five Oregon State regulars in this year's Series hitting .333 or better. "I just remember crying. I was just going nuts. Every time I start to think about it, I'll start to get all emotional."

No doubt, so do the Heels, which only adds to the intrigue of this year's rematch, just the second one involving the final two teams in the event's 61-year history (Southern California beat Arizona State in 1972 and '73).

Carolina (57-14) and the Beavers (47-18) have traveled much different routes back than the ones they took last year.

In 2006, Oregon State lost its CWS opener to Miami, then won four straight, giving up four total runs and shutting out Rice twice to advance to the final series. North Carolina, meanwhile, cruised into the championship with a 3-0 mark.

This year's turn of events has come about after the Beavers, who returned just two full-time position starters, almost didn't make the NCAA Tournament. It took winning a series at Pac-10 runner-up UCLA on the final weekend of the regular season for Oregon State to merit consideration. And even then, the Beavers got in over two teams that finished higher than they did.

"The defining moment -- we don't win two of three, we're going home," OSU coach Pat Casey said, "and I think that's something they all realized. I think what got us through was just the character of our club."

Now, with the Beavers hitting .333 and compiling a 2.67 earned-run average in Omaha, all of that seems ancient history.

"Being here the past three years, it feels like home," Canham said. "When you're sitting there talking about Omaha it's like 'Next year when we come back we should do this.' It's not like 'Man, if we make it back.' We expect to be here."

They'll send the right-handed freshman Reyes (who beat Cal State Fullerton in the CWS opener and is 6-3 on the season) to open against the veteran Tar Heels.

Carolina has banked on six returning lineup starters and a couple of big-time newcomers, including National Freshman of the Year Dustin Ackley, to win more games than any other team in the nation.

In Omaha, though, Mike Fox's club has had to scrap for everything, as it's hit just .247 and has a 4.80 ERA.

No wonder the Tar Heels feel grateful to be where they are.

"It's kind of ironic to be back with them here in this situation," said Horton, the junior shortstop who's a team-best 7-for-18 (.389) in the CWS. "It reminds me of how close we were and how second place feels. We stood there and watched them celebrate and I think a bunch of the guys that were there remember that feeling.

"Then again, we've totally changed our approach. Last year, I felt like there was kind of like a nervousness just being our first time. This year, we have a lot of guys who have been through it and hopefully that'll carry over into some good results."

Right-handed freshman Alex White (who lasted just 1 1/3 innings in a 14-4 loss to Rice on Sunday and is 6-6 on the season) will start for Carolina Saturday night.

"Once I saw them on the bracket, I knew 'Man, they've got a good shot of getting through' " Canham said of the Tar Heels.

As for Oregon State? Well, the Beavers were the last qualifier for Omaha. Now, he's hoping they're the last one standing.

Curt McKeever is a reporter for the Lincoln (Neb.) Journal Star.