OMAHA, Neb. – Arizona and Coastal Carolina will meet for the first time on the baseball diamond and the winner of the series will be crowned the 2016 national champion.
The Chanticleers have gone 4-1 in their first trip to the College World Series, the first team to win four times in its initial appearance since South Carolina in 1975. The Wildcats are seeking their fifth national crown and first since 2012.
CCU has not had any of its athletic teams play for a national championship at the Division I level. The top finish in any NCAA championship was fifth place in men’s golf in 2007, led by current U.S. Open champion Dustin Johnson.
For the championship series, CCU will be the home team for Game 1, while UA will be the home team for Games 2 and 3, if necessary.
There is a contrast in experience with the head coaches. Gary Gilmore is in his 21st season leading the Chanticleers.
“I think that’s where character comes in,” Zach Remmard of CCU said. “This team has a bunch of talented ball players but also a lot of good people. It’s a testament to Coach Gilmore getting us prepared all season, getting us in the right mindset and all the leadership we have on this team to get the guys focused and staying in the moment.”
“I think it’s just a testament to all the preparation,” Connor Owings of CCU said, “the hours that we’ve put in in the fall leading up to this moment. We came out here and we really enjoyed ourselves, and we like to enjoy ourselves when we play. But when we step on the field in between the lines, we just get lost in the process. The process doesn’t know where we are. We just really like to stick with ourselves, stick with our game plan and try to win pitch by pitch. Whether it’s in Conway or Lynchburg, Virginia, or in Omaha, we just decided to do what we do on the field as a team.”
Jay Johnson is in his first campaign with the Wildcats.
“I’ve never gone through a coaching change,” Zach Gibbons of Arizona said. “But right from the get-go, when I was driving out to summer ball, Coach Johnson called me, introduced himself. Not too many coaches would do that, just tell you the plan he has for the team, tell you the plan that he has for you as an individual. But right when he called, I knew it was going to be a great experience this year coming up.
“Right when he took over, he told us seniors he wanted it to be the best last year of our lives, to go out and grind and give the other team the best nine innings,” Gibbons said. “Even if they got our best, they’re going to get the best nine innings we have.
So it’s really going out, playing loose and loving the game that you’re playing.”
“Skip mentioned to us he had guys on the roster that could play better than what they have,” Cody Ramer of UA said. “He wanted to get the best version of ourselves. It’s something that he stressed to us and really helped us on our improvement stage.”
Both coaches are in the College World Series for the first time and were asked if they sought advice prior to their trip to Omaha.
“The best advice that I got was from Sean Miller, a basketball coach,” Johnson said. “And he said you need to look at this like you’ve accomplished a lot already. And it’s a great accomplishment in being here, and don’t let anybody tell you anything different. And he said make sure your players enjoy or see you enjoying this experience with them. And I think we’ve combined really well, which I think reflects our team, is enjoying the opportunities in front of us and preparing and playing at an extremely high level while we’re doing that.”
“I reached out to several coaches who had been here just to get their advice,” Gilmore said, “not so much on anything tactical, just how to deal with the process of what goes on here, and got absolutely fantastic advice from all of them. The resounding thing was just the same advice Jay got, is enjoy yourself. Don’t get caught up in the moment, so to speak, and let your players know how relaxed you are. And if you can be relaxed, your players will be relaxed.”
Neither team has played a home game during the 2016 NCAA Tournament.
Arizona won the Lafayette Regional, including three victories in elimination games. The Wildcats captured a pair of one-run wins at Mississippi State in the Starkville Super Regional.
“We had a unique situation,” Johnson said. “We had a bye weekend the last weekend of the year. And we were in Hawaii, and we took a red-eye flight back to Denver. We actually watched the Selection show in the Denver airport. So we got some Wildcat fans in the airport that day. I was so excited for that day because none of our players had ever experienced it before. And just the accomplishment of navigating a really tough nonconference schedule, the Pac-12, and getting to the tournament, that was a big day for our program.
“And then going to Louisiana, you look at the bracket and you go: There’s a 45-win team there. And we won the first game, lost the second, just the same way as we did here, and then just put our head down. Sam Houston State had the winning run on second base in the eighth inning of that game. We were able to get through it. And then the next day against Louisiana, we had to come back and play two games. And was the best day of baseball I’ve ever been a part of, winning a doubleheader at Louisiana to advance out of the Regional.
“And then we went to bed that night, and they said, hey, you’re turning around and you’re playing on Friday, after we just played four games in 30 hours. Got on the bus, drove eight hours to Starkville and trained for a couple of days.
“And, man, I don’t know if any of you have ever watched games there, but I couldn’t wait to get to Omaha. It’s like we’re not going to have 14,000 people calling me a short guy or a midget or something. And I think it prepared us well for here, and it’s been a great journey and one I wouldn’t trade for the world.”
Coastal Carolina won the Raleigh Regional, with one win in an elimination contest. The Chanticleers traveled to the Baton Rouge Super Regional and took two from LSU.
“I think we’ve been on the road seven of the last eight weeks.” Gilmore said. “So I think that part has helped us. The series that turned this team around, that made this team, was going to Georgia Tech and failing. We go there and have a three-run lead in the ninth inning of Game 2 and end up blowing the lead and losing and then having to play a second game of a doubleheader. And I think we had like five or six lightning delays. It was probably as miserable a 24 hours as you could spend as a baseball player and coach. Play two innings, sit for two hours. Play one inning, sit for an hour. And we ended up losing the third game of that series.
“Everybody had made it a big deal that if we went down there and won at Georgia Tech at least one game we would for sure host. If we won two, we might even get in the national hunt. I had a meeting with our kids after that, and I just looked them in the eye. I said: This is contrary, completely different than anything I’ve ever preached to you, but you’re an older group so I’m just going to flat throw it out to you.
“We’ve got 17 games left, and I don’t think we can mess up one time if you want to host. And they won 16 of them. The one we lost we dropped a ground ball at first base with two outs in the ninth inning on a road game in our conference, so with a one-run lead, and basically beat ourselves. And they still didn’t get to host.
“It took about 30 seconds for them to get past the fact that they didn’t host. And they looked at the Regional at Raleigh and said: We can do this. We can win this. And that series at Georgia Tech prepared us for all the weather issues we had, because we were on the field, off the field. Had to sleep overnight with the bases loaded and two outs. We went through a lot to do that, and for our kids to find a way to win.
“I’ve coached 21 years in Division I baseball, never played at LSU before. And going to that environment for a program like ours, that was unique. I reached out to one of my best friends at Wilmington, Mark Scalf. He had played there in a couple of Regionals. We talked for an hour: Educate me. Tell me what I’ve got to tell my kids. Tell me what we’ve got to be prepared when we go into that place.
“And I’m telling you, man, he was point on. Every single thing he told me we went through, and our kids handled it, honestly. We didn’t get sped up one single time in arguably one of the toughest places in the country to play. They have fantastic fans, but if you let them, they can speed you up real fast, and it was great how our kids handled it.”