The Big 12 had a down year in 2013 and TCU coach Jim Schlossnagle doesn’t mind being brutally honest about it.
When a reporter gingerly asked about the league’s resurgence in 2014, Schlossnagle, surrounded by reporters after TCU’s first practice at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, didn’t mince words.
“The league actually wasn’t very good last year and the reason it wasn’t very good was because TCU, and I’m sure [Texas coach] Augie [Garrido] would admit, Texas, too … I know we weren’t very good,” he said. “We didn’t do our share. We weren’t very good and we didn’t play very well.”
Indeed, TCU, Texas and Texas Tech finished at the bottom of the league a year ago. The Horned Frogs and Longhorns, perennial postseason participants, were left holding their rosin bags with nowhere to go when postseason started.
Texas Tech, under first-year coach Tim Tadlock, finished 26-30 in 2013. TCU, in its first season in the Big 12, finished 29-28 and 12-12 in the league and missed the postseason for the first time since Schlossnagle became coach before the 2004 season. Texas finished last with a 7-17 league mark and missed the postseason for a second consecutive season. An inconceivable notion considering Texas’ dominance over the years. Even Baylor, which finished under .500, missed the postseason, leaving the state of Texas with just four teams in the field of 64. Only one of those teams, Rice, advanced to the super regionals.
A year later, however, the scene has changed. Seven teams earned NCAA tournament berths and four advanced to the super regionals. TCU, Texas and Texas Tech — at the bottom of the Big 12 a year ago — advanced to the College World Series, the most from the state in one year.
Tadlock and Schlossnagle, whose teams meet at 2 p.m. Sunday in their CWS opener, sat next to each other during a Friday press conference, along with Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco and Virginia coach Brian O’Connor. Ole Miss and Virginia play at 7 p.m. Sunday. Texas (43-19) opens the 2014 CWS against UC Irvine (40-23) at 2 p.m. Saturday. Louisville and Vanderbilt play at 7 p.m. Saturday.
“It’s something that’s neat for the state of Texas,” Tadlock said. “There’s some really good teams in the state of Texas that aren’t here. I can assure you right now they’re trying to round up some guys and put together a competitive team. We all really enjoy that competition, and we all get along. It’s a neat fraternity of people and just a neat time.”
That goes for the Big 12, too. The league’s coaches have touted the improvement all season. Baylor’s Steve Smith campaigned for TCU to earn a national seed at the league tournament and emphasized how good and deep the league’s pitching was. TCU earned its first national seed (No. 7) a few days later.
“It was a great turnaround for our conference,” Schlossnagle said. “We’ve been touting the qualities of our league all season, and for me, no disrespect — I grew up in western Maryland in the heart of ACC country and I cut my teeth as an assistant coach in New Orleans in the heart of SEC country so I know how great these leagues are. I’m glad everything we’ve been talking about all year showed itself on the field of play.”
The resurgence of the state and the Big 12 is not lost on the players, either. They have high school teammates playing throughout the state.
“It speaks to the talent that the state of Texas has in baseball,” TCU catcher Kyle Bacak said. “Any division school in Texas is good at baseball because the talent is so deep. Sam [Houston State] gave us pretty much all we could handle in a 22-inning game. We played Dallas Baptist a couple of times and had a 15-inning game against them. I feel like the talent in Texas is at another level. It doesn’t matter who you’re playing, there are no pushovers.”
TCU was pulling for all its Big 12 brothers to earn a CWS berth, including Oklahoma State, which was swept by UC Irvine in the super regionals.
“I think it says that the Big 12, from top to bottom, is very talented,” he said. “Some of us had down years last year. We kind of took that to heart and during the off-season and really worked our butts off and now we’re where we want to be: a chance to play for a national championship.”
A look at the eight-team CWS field:
Louisville Cardinals (50-15)
Coach: Dan McDonnell (8 years, all at Louisville)
Road to Omaha: Won the American Conference regular-season title, went 2-2 at the league tournament. The Cardinals swept both the regional (Kent State, Kansas, Kentucky) and super regional (Kennesaw State).
Notable: Louisville is second nationally with 132 stolen bases, including team leader Sutton Whiting’s 37 steals in 43 attempts. This is the Cardinals’ third CWS appearance (’07, ’13).
Quotable: “We just keep telling our kids, keep the main thing the main thing, and let’s enjoy this and have fun, but at the end of the day, it’s [about] trying to play good baseball. Hopefully the experience of coming here last year, you’re still going to be impressed and aha’d by everything as I am, but hopefully … you’re a little more comfortable with it, a little more relaxed, because at the end of the day, you want to play good baseball.” — Dan McDonnell
Ole Miss Rebels (46-19)
Coach: Mike Bianco (17 years, 14 at Miss.)
Road to Omaha: Went 1-2 at the SEC tournament before sweeping the Oxford Regional with two one-run wins against Washington. Took down No. 6 national seed Louisiana-Lafayette after losing the opener in the Lafayette Super Regional.
Notable: The Rebels are making their fifth CWS appearance and first since 1972. Ole Miss topped the nation with nine players selected in the MLB draft, most in the country. Bianco was an assistant to TCU’s Jim Schlossnagle on the U.S. National Collegiate team in 2013.
Quotable: “You want them to enjoy it, you want them to take it in, you want them to be loose, but you’ve also got to be able to lock in, and that’s important. You’re playing the best teams in the country, and you’ve got to be at your best and you’ve got to play your best, and in our game it’s not necessarily about the most talented team, it’s the team that plays the best, and can you do that here.” — Mike Bianco
TCU Horned Frogs (47-16)
Coach: Jim Schlossnagle (13 years, 11 at TCU)
Road to Omaha: Won 32 of their past 36 games, including 4-0 at the Big 12 tournament and 3-0 in the regional, before taking two of three from Pepperdine in the Fort Worth Super Regional.
Notable: The Frogs earned their first national seed (No. 7) and join Virginia (No. 3) as the only national seeds remaining. TCU leads the nation with a 2.19 ERA.
Quotable: “If you’re going to compete in Omaha you’re going to have to beat a good pitcher to get there and you’re going to face a good pitcher when you’re there. More than likely, against a good pitcher, you’re not getting 12 runs and 14 hits. You’re going to be in close games. Certainly, I wish we scored more. The more you’re in those games the more comfortable you are. We don’t panic, but every team here, if you’re here, you’re resilient.” — Jim Schossnagle
Texas Longhorns (43-19)
Coach: Augie Garrido (46 years, 18 at Texas)
Road to Omaha: Texas finished fifth in the Big 12 went 2-2 at the league tournament before beating Rice and Texas A&M at the Houston Regional. Then swept Houston in the Austin Super Regional.
Notable: The Horns’ 35 CWS appearances are the most in the nation. Garrido is making his 15th CWS appearance (eighth with Texas) and first since 2011. UT last won the title in ’05 and was the runner-up in ’09.
Quotable: “All of the teams in this tournament have found the oneness that it takes to be able to execute and trust that their teammates will depend on each other to get the job done, or they wouldn’t be here. But Mark [Payton] and Nate [Thornhill] are the ones that set the tone [for us].” — Augie Garrido
Texas Tech Red Raiders (45-19)
Coach: Tim Tadlock (2 years, all at Tech)
Road to Omaha: After going 0-2 at the Big 12 tournament, won two of three against regional host Miami and swept No. 4-seeded College of Charleston in the Lubbock Super Regional.
Notable: Red Raiders’ postseason pitching has been stellar, allowing only four runs in six games, including three consecutive shutouts.
Quotable: “You’ve got just good arm after good arm. It’s really impressive what kind of staff they’ve put together. Obviously, we know whoever they name, we’ve got our hands full as far as that goes.” — Tim Tadlock about TCU’s pitching
UC Irvine Anteaters (40-23)
Coach: Mike Gillespie (27 years, 7 at UCI)
Road to Omaha: After finishing the regular season with six consecutive Big West Conference losses, the third-seeded Anteaters took down No. 1 national seed Oregon State in the regional and then swept Oklahoma State in the Stillwater (Okla.) Super Regional.
Notable: Gillespie is making his sixth CWS appearance and first with UC Irvine. He took USC five times and won the 1998 national title.
Quotable: “Omaha, the College World Series, is a dramatically different place from the last time I was here. And this event, which was great then, I can promise you, has blown up by 500. It’s a spectacular opportunity, and I’m really, really glad our players get to experience this. This is sensational.” — Mike Gillespie
Vanderbilt Commodores (46-19)
Coach: Tim Corbin (18 years, 12 at Vandy)
Road to Omaha: After going 1-2 at the Southeastern Conference tournament, Vandy swept its regional, including two wins against Oregon, and beat Stanford two of three in the super regionals.
Notable: It’s their second trip to Omaha (2011). Along with Virginia, the Commodores are the only team that has played at TD Ameritrade Park. Vandy is 41-3 when leading after six innings and 44-2 when leading after eight.
Quotable: “There’s going to be a little bit of a tourist mentality. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, either. But after some hours, maybe 48 hours, you get to the point where you become Gene Hackman and you get out the measuring tape and you say this is the foul line and this is the basket, and it’s the same all the way around.” — Tim Corbin, referencing Hackman’s character in Hoosiers.
Virginia Cavaliers (49-14)
Coach: Brian O’Connor (11 years, all at UVA)
Road to Omaha: Swept through the regionals, beating Arkansas twice, before losing the super regional opener to Maryland and coming back to win the next two.
Notable: One of five schools to appear in three CWS since 2009 (’09, ’11, ’14). Three members of the team (Whit Mayberry, Artie Lewicki and Austin Young) were on the ’11 roster.
Quotable: “This is, as I say, the greatest college sporting event out there because it takes place over a two-week period, and the people in the city of Omaha wrap their arms around this event, and we couldn’t be happier to be here.” — UVA coach Brian O’Connor