MANHATTAN — Call it volatility or parity, this is college baseball in 2013.
Bryant is seeded ahead of Wichita State in the Manhattan Regional at Tointon Family Stadium. Kansas State, making its fourth NCAA appearance, is hosting a regional and its guests are WSU and Arkansas, which combine for 14 College World Series appearances and 54 in regionals. The Wildcats won the Big 12 and Texas finished last, far behind West Virginia.
Trash your old notions about college baseball — old meaning three or four years ago. Oregon State won NCAA titles in 2006 and 2007, and Fresno State in 2008, all results that challenged the usual order. Those results made some sense.
Last season’s field in Omaha ratcheted up the unpredictability with Stony Brook and Kent State among the elite eight. Kent State eliminated Florida, just to prove it wasn’t a fluke.
So if you’re in the field of 64, feel free to dream big. Wichita State did in 1977 when it hired coach Gene Stephenson. Kansas State, which didn’t make a regional until 2009, started much later. Bryant is making its first NCAA appearance after moving from NCAA Division II status in 2009.
“Stony Brook makes it all seem that much more reachable,” Bryant pitcher Peter Kelich said.
The coaches agree this new order is good for the game, although tough on traditional powers. Heck, it’s tough on everybody.
Stony Brook went 25-34 this season. Kent State is at home this weekend. Purdue, the nation’s darling last season when it won the Big Ten and hosted a regional, went 17-34. Even membership in a power conference is no guarantee, as Texas can attest after missing the regionals for a second season in a row. Baylor and TCU, both in super regionals last season, won’t play in a regional this season.
“I think everybody is dangerous,” Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said. “There’s a lot more balance. It used to be that a lot of the big-name schools would get all of the kids and kids might go sit on the bench for a couple of years. Now kids are spreading out a little bit, and it seems like everybody’s got one or two guys on the mound that can beat you.”
The SEC and ACC combine to host nine of the 16 regionals, so plenty of power remains in the South and those schools enjoy advantages with the power rankings (RPI) many schools can’t match. Four regionals are on the West Coast, so weather still matters.
However, the days of out-bidding a few schools to host a regional every year are long gone. With 16 spots available to teams that earn them, more schools see the incentive to invest in baseball.
K-State is an example. It got serious about baseball when it rebuilt its stadium in 2002 and hired coach Brad Hill in 2004. Senior associate athletic director Casey Scott helped WSU build its program from 1985-98. He brought that experience to K-State and last week called Stephenson to tell him how much he learned in those formative years.
Former athletic director Tim Weiser identified Hill, then at Central Missouri State, as a coach who knew Kansas, understood the challenges weather and recruiting present, and told him to patiently build the program. It put money into the stadium and slowly built support. In 2009, the Wildcats made their first regional. Four seasons later, they are one of 16 regional hosts.
“There are more and more universities that have invested more in baseball,” Scott said. “I think it’s a great thing for the sport. I can remember when we hosted six-team regionals at Wichita, and we got them every year. We could sell it and make hundreds of thousands of dollars for the NCAA.”
With 16 four-team regionals, the NCAA prioritizes rewarding them to the best teams and keeping the competition regional.
“The reason (Kansas State) is hosting a regional is that they have a great team,” Stephenson said. “It’s well-deserved. I take great pride in the fact that they want to be Wichita State, or they want to be better than what Wichita State was, or they want to do everything Wichita State has done in the past, because they see it can happen.”