TCU is no stranger to hosting an NCAA regional.
But the 2014 Fort Worth Regional, which begins Friday at Lupton Stadium, has a slightly different vibe than those in 2009, 2010 and 2011.
Although TCU was expected to play well and advance by most observers of those previous editions, the newness of hosting was still fresh and expectations were relatively low.
Even when the Horned Frogs advanced to the NCAA super regional at UCLA after winning the 2012 College Station Regional, most fans’ hopes were exceeded.
After earning its first national seed, however, TCU no longer has that underdog label, and the road to Omaha seems more inevitable than impossible.
The Frogs’ first trip to the College World Series in 2010 now seems like a blurry, once-in-a-lifetime dream for some. TCU is five home wins from a return trip to Omaha, the holy grail of college baseball.
“I don’t think it changes anything,” TCU coach Jim Schlossnagle said of the No. 7 national seed. “These guys have proven that they keep their heads out of the clouds. You don’t win 27 out of 30 games by starting to feel overconfident. They understand. They really respect the game, they really respect their opponent no matter who we’re playing.”
Tenth-ranked TCU (42-15), which opens against No. 4-seed Siena (26-31) at 7 p.m. Friday, has never hosted a super regional before. Frogs left-hander Brandon Finnegan (8-3) will start against Saints lefty Matt Gage (4-7) Friday.
If the Frogs get past the three other teams, which include familiar opponent Dallas Baptist (40-19) and Sam Houston State (41-17), they’ll host the winner of the San Luis Obispo (Calif.) Regional, hosted by Cal Poly, which includes Arizona State, Pepperdine and Sacramento State.
“We try not to listen to what’s going on around us,” TCU first baseman Kevin Cron said. “It doesn’t matter where or who we’re playing against, we’re going to go out and compete and give ourselves the best chance to win.”
Cron and many of his teammates know from experience that the top seed doesn’t always win the regional. The Frogs won the 2012 College Station Regional as the No. 2 seed. In 2011, third-seeded DBU won the Fort Worth Regional, beating TCU and Oklahoma, which did not even make it to the regional championship. In 2013, 14 of the 16 top seeds advanced.
“I feel really confident coming into a regional in a place we’ve been before, close to home so we know we’ll have good fan support,” DBU coach Dan Heefner said. “What I think our guys proved in 2011 is if we come in and play good baseball it doesn’t matter where you’re playing or playing against, we have the ability to move on to a super regional.”
Only one DBU player from that 2011 team remains on the roster, catcher KJ Alexander, from Denton Guyer High School.
For Schlossnagle, the value of the national seed and hosting in the postseason is only a program milestone if his team “plays well enough to take advantage of it.”
“If we don’t, then it didn’t have any value,” he said. “It’s a tremendous honor to get to host. Programmatically, it’s just a huge thing for your fan base. Our program took a huge step when we hosted in 2009 for the first time. It probably tripled our season-ticket donor base. Since we haven’t done it since 2011 it’s nice for the new people that haven’t been a part of it to get a chance to see it.”
TCU hopes beginning Friday that those new fans will get an up-close view of a return trip to Omaha.
Fort Worth Regional
TCU Horned Frogs (42-15)
Coach: Jim Schlossnagle (13 years, 11 at TCU)
How they got here: Went 4-0 to win the Big 12 tournament and have won 27 of their last 30 to earn their first national seed.
Notable: This is the fourth NCAA regional TCU has hosted, all since 2009. The Frogs won the regional in 2009 and ’10.
Quotable: “We are back in what we call the hourglass. We are back heading towards the center of that hourglass where we’re just focused on playing the next pitch. At least that’s what I’m hoping.” — Coach Jim Schlossnagle on his team’s focus.
Dallas Baptist Patriots (40-19)
Coach: Dan Heefner (7 years, all at DBU)
How they got here: Won nine of their last 10, including 4-1 in winning the Missouri Valley Conference tournament in their first season in the league.
Notable: Won the 2011 Fort Worth Regional as the third seed, beating Oral Roberts in the championship after getting past TCU and Oklahoma.
Quotable: “To be great you have to play great teams and that’s an incredible opportunity we have in this area. Last year was a real motivating thing for us. I know that really spurred the guys on to work hard.” — Coach Dan Heefner on playing TCU and SHSU, as well as other good Texas teams during the regular season.
Sam Houston State Bearkats (41-17)
Coach: David Pierce (3 years, all at SHSU)
How they got here: Won their third consecutive Southland Conference regular-season title and earned an at-large bid after going 1-2 at the league tournament.
Notable: Went 3-1 against TCU and DBU this season. The Kats beat Brandon Finnegan and the Frogs 9-4.
Quotable: “I think all three of us are different teams now. It gives us confidence that at that time we beat them and played very well. Those types of game against those types of opponents get you over the hump when you struggle a little bit.” — Coach David Pierce on his team’s success early in the season against TCU and DBU.
Siena Saints (26-31)
Coach: Tony Rossi (45 years, all at Siena)
How they got here: The Saints won four in a row after losing their MAAC tournament opener to claim the league’s lone bid.
Notable: Rossi is the second-longest tenured active head coach in the nation behind Texas’ Augie Garrido.
Quotable: “This is probably the hottest [weather] we’ve been in. We just have to keep hydrated and let our trainer take over. I don’t think it’ll affect them too much.” — Siena coach Tony Rossi on playing in the Texas heat.