Beavers, Tar Heels go outside traditions, meet for CWS crown

Saturday, June 24, 2006

One of the schools will win their first national title in baseball.

OMAHA, Neb. -- North Carolina is known more for its basketball tradition, while Oregon State has made its mark on the football field.

Playing for a national title in baseball? That's something entirely new for both schools.

"I think it's neat that these two programs are here, and it speaks to where college baseball is going," Tar Heels coach Mike Fox said Friday, a day before his team was scheduled to take on the Beavers in the best-of-three championship round of the College World Series.

The matchup marks the eighth time in CWS history that neither team had won a national title in baseball, and the first since Cal State Fullerton beat Arkansas in 1979.

"There are a lot of great programs out there, and the ball has to bounce the right way a few times," Fox said. "There are a lot of programs that can get here, even if they aren't the top-ranked team in the country."

And now, it's down to the Tar Heels (53-15) and Beavers (48-15) -- who both set school records for wins, but took much different roads to the championship series.

Oregon State was the only team of the eight in Omaha that played in last year's College World Series, but things didn't look so promising after an 11-1 rout by Miami last Saturday on the first day of the tournament.

The resilient Beavers bounced back quickly -- helped by some impressive pitching performances, including Jonah Nickerson's two gutty starts in four days. Oregon State won four straight to reach the championship round from the losers' bracket and could become the first team since Southern California in 1998 to win the title after losing its first game.

Coach Pat Casey has built Oregon State into a legitimate power in an area of the country that sees more snowballs in February than baseballs. He has recruited heavily within the state -- 24 players on this year's roster coming from Oregon -- and his team is a force in the Pac-10, a conference normally dominated by teams in California and Arizona.

"When I came to Oregon State, we struggling at the bottom of the Pac-10," junior outfielder Cole Gillespie said. "A couple years later, we started getting a couple more wins, and last year, we broke out and had a big season. Obviously, we got here. We knew coming back this season we had a lot of the same kids coming back, and not to get back to Omaha, we'd be unsatisfied."

North Carolina has had a much easier time, winning all three of its CWS games -- with a few days off in between. The Tar Heels last played on Wednesday, when they eliminated Cal State Fullerton.

The Tar Heels have one of the best pitching staffs in the country, with first-round draft picks Andrew Miller (13-2) and Daniel Bard (9-3), and hard-throwing righty Robert Woodard (7-1). All three will be well-rested for the championship series, with the lefty Miller going in Game 1 and Woodard in Sunday's game.

Oregon State isn't quite as set with its pitching, after playing four games in as many days.

"We'll do what we've been doing the last few days and throw whoever is ready to go," Casey said.

That includes Dallas Buck (12-3), who took the loss in last Saturday's loss to Miami; Mike Stutes (8-2), who pitched six-plus innings in Tuesday's win over Miami on Tuesday; and even Daniel Turpen (3-0), who combined with Joe Paterson on a five-hitter in Wednesday's 5-0 win over Rice.

"It's not like a normal three-game series where you roll in and your kids are rested," Casey said. "We've had to play five games, so maybe that's what's best for our program. We've got our backs against the wall. We'll have to scrap and fight, and maybe that's the best thing."

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