Coastal Carolina, Arizona defy expectations to reach CWS finals

OMAHA, Neb. -- If back in January, or heck, even in April, you were predicting that the College World Series would end with a West Coast vs. Southeast best-of-three-games College World Series finals, then you weren't alone.

But if you try to claim that back in January, or heck, even a week ago, the final pair of teams representing college baseball's two hotbed regions was going to be Arizona and Coastal Carolina, then ... hang on ... the rest of us are slowly stepping away because you're about to be struck by lightning.

Monday night's title bout was supposed to be Oregon State vs. LSU or Cal vs. Miami or USC vs. Florida or even Cal State Fullerton vs. NC State ... but Wildcats vs. Chanticleers? No.

"Forget everyone else. When we were 7-7 in March, I don't think we expected to be here, either," Coastal Carolina second baseman Tyler Chadwick said moments after his Chanticleers, in their first CWS, held off TCU 7-5 in their third straight victory. The senior nearly hit for the cycle, with a single, double and homer. "But thankfully, they don't choose who comes to Omaha based on February or March -- or what people expected from us."

Added Arizona coach Jay Johnson: "You can't predict or even explain how a team can come together, but this one has. And I think the lack of expectations from others might have been part of the glue that brought this team together."

In the preseason, Arizona was picked by the coaches of the Pac-12 to finish ninth out of 11 teams. The Cats' slow, steady rise against the tide of those underwhelming expectations was overshadowed by the herkier-jerkier rise and fall of the likes of Oregon State, Cal, Stanford, UCLA and a bizarre battle between fellow overlooked programs Washington and Utah for the conference title. That showdown was won by the Utes, who had an overall losing record. Arizona, the league's third-place team, was shipped off to Louisiana-Lafayette to begin the NCAA tourney as a 2-seed.

Their .500 start notwithstanding, the Chanticleers were good all season. They've been good for the past 16 seasons. But they were also expected to do what they did those 16 seasons: stand proudly among the upper echelon of mid-major programs that threaten to crash the Omaha party, only to come up a little short each June. They, too, were handed a road trip by the NCAA selection committee, and so they headed up I-95 to NC State, also as a 2-seed.

Both teams scrambled ahead into the super regionals. Their mutual reward was being charged with three-game series in the jungle of college baseball's two most legendary home-field advantages: Arizona at Mississippi State, Coastal at LSU. Both teams pulled off two-game sweeps.

Both teams suffered second-game losses in Omaha -- Arizona to Oklahoma State and Coastal to TCU -- and both had to take two straight from those same teams to move on to the title series. It was only the second time in the 29-year history of the College World Series' two-bracket format that both finalists started the series 1-1 yet emerged from the so-called "loser's bracket" after a stressful week spent living on the razor's edge of elimination.

"I think that the stress of this has been felt more by me than anyone else -- my coaches and especially the players," said Gary Gilmore, who is in his first CWS as a 27-year head coach, 21 of them at Coastal, also his alma mater. "I look over at my guys in the dugout and see how much fun they are having, and I'm like, 'Can I borrow some of that?'"

Both teams have spit out would-be stress like swished water or emptied sunflower seed shells, the same water and seeds both rosters have expectorated all over their dugouts whenever celebrating a run or a strikeout or while faux-feeding their Omaha mascots.

Coastal Carolina carried a stuffed monkey named Rafiki around all series and on Saturday night added Bruce, an inflatable shark they saved from the floor of the TD Ameritrade Park bullpen, confiscated from overzealous fans in the bleachers. Bruce, dressed in a Coastal jersey, was described by CCU players as their "rescue pet" as they tossed him seeds and water for sustenance. They start every game with a handshake more complicated than a Cirque du Soleil stunt. Earlier in the week, Arizona set up a beauty parlor in their dugout, complete with a shampoo treatment.

What we're saying is both teams are loose. They're also the last teams left. That's no fluke. Just ask the teams they beat to get there.

"By no means are they a Cinderella," TCU head coach Jim Schlossnagle said of Coastal Carolina as he started his post-elimination press conference Saturday. "You don't win 53 games as a Cinderella. That's a team that's a legit national title contender."

"I don't care what people might have said about Arizona in January because you guys didn't expect us to be here, either," Oklahoma State coach Josh Holliday said. "But we were. And they were. And they are still here. They'll be here next week. You don't get to stick around after everyone else is gone unless you are for real. Believe me."

Oh, we believe you, coaches. We just wouldn't have believed you a week ago. No one would have, even if they try now to claim otherwise.