Long Beach State SS Garrett Hampson throws to first. (Shotgun Spratling)

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West Coast Hopes To Stick It To Doubters

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LONG BEACH, Calif. — Shortstop Garrett Hampson and his Long Beach State teammates sat in a row of chairs watching the video scoreboard in the school’s basketball arena that had been converted to a super jumbo-sized television for the NCAA selection show Monday morning.

The Dirtbag players and coaches felt confident going into the selection show that they would hear their name called as an at-large participant after finishing second in the Big West, but there was a tinge of uneasiness. They had seen the NCAA selection committee judge the West region unworthy of a single regional host the night before with Lubbock, Texas earning the distinction of the most western this year.

The players, with cell phones in hand ready to record the scene when their name popped on screen, chatted with each other throughout the first segment of the show where the left half of the NCAA tournament bracket was revealed. The show went to commercial break with 32 teams announced and nary a Long Beach State mention. Instead, there were plenty of graphics and highlights depicting teams in the Southeast.

The whole show for me was an SEC highlight film. All of the shots were of SEC schools,” Cal State Fullerton head coach Rick Vanderhook later said. “I’m pretty sure there are other schools in the country that had some pretty good plays made other than the teams in the SEC. But every highlight was the SEC in that show.”

When the selection show returned from commercial, conference foe UC Santa Barbara was soon announced. The Long Beach State viewing party’s sense of excitement over seeing where the Dirtbags would be playing quickly turned into apprehension. Surely, if the third place Gauchos got in, the Dirtbags would as well?

With each passing announcement of the next Dirtbag-less regional, more groans and mumbles filled the room. Rival Cal State Fullerton was announced in the Starkville Regional. A pair of Pac-12 schools were plopped in the Lafayette and Oxford Regionals leaving only one regional remaining. Whether the Dirtbags realized it or not, there were only two spots remaining, with Miami hosting the Coral Gables Regional and Stetson having earned an automatic berth as the Atlantic Sun tournament champions.

“As it was getting toward the end, it was getting a little more quiet,” Hampson said. “We were pretty confident going in. But to not see your name up there for so long and knowing that there was only one left…”

In the final pairing, “Long Beach State” finally flashed on the giant video scoreboard, leading to an eruption from the players and fans in attendance at Walter Pyramid.

“Nerve-wracking is the best way to put it,” Dirtbags head coach Troy Buckley said. “I liked our resume and it was nerve-wracking. That’s what happens when you leave the decision in someone else’s hands. That’s why our goal was to win the conference, which leaves no doubt that you are automatically in. We’re excited to be in. It was a little heart pumping, but at the same time it feels good.”

While Buckley got to exhale with a big sigh of relief when the Dirtbags were officially in, there were other teams on the West Coast and throughout the West region with solid resumes that waited through the “SEC highlight reel” selection show only to never get the reprieve Long Beach State got at the last second.

Oregon State finished with a pair of series wins, including shutting out UCLA three straight times in the final weekend. The Beavers sat one RPI spot behind Arizona State, which got an at-large berth, three spots in front of Nebraska and eight spots in front of Long Beach State. Oregon State tied with Arizona State in the Pac-12 standings after sweeping the Sun Devils. They also took two-of-three from Washington, who received an at-large berth with the No. 55 RPI, and beat Pac-12 champion Utah three times.

Yet the Beavers were one of the last teams excluded from the NCAA tournament while Nebraska slid in as one of the final teams included. Arizona State’s resume wasn’t much different than Oregon State’s, but somehow earned a No. 2 seed while the Beavers were left home.

Arizona also finished tied for third with Arizona State and Oregon State. The Wildcats watched the selection show at an airport restaurant during a layover while flying back from a weekend series at Hawaii, where they made plenty of friends with their joy and excitement at returning to the field of 64 in head coach Jay Johnson’s first year.

While Johnson was happy for his squad, he was “surprised and disappointed” by Oregon State’s exclusion. “I do recognize the committee has a very difficult job, but they were definitely one of the top 64 teams in the country.”

BYU was another school that saw its bubble burst on Selection Monday. A team that was No. 53 in the RPI — one behind Long Beach State and two in front of Washington. After starting 23-3, the Cougars cooled in the second half after injuries to their pitching staff, but they still featured a physical and feared lineup.

“I think we played five regional teams this year and BYU was as good if not better than all of them,” St. Mary’s head coach Eric Valenzuela said. “Someone is lucky that they aren’t going to face that offense in a regional.”

“The longer I do this as a head coach, I’m trying to figure out RPI and figure out why a team like BYU, like Oregon State doesn’t get in and others do,” Valenzuela said. “I don’t know.”

“I don’t think we won enough games out here, in general,” Vanderhook said. “Who knows? The one thing that happens in the West with the exception of the Pac, once you go into conference and you lose games in conference, your RPI drops. If you’re in the ACC or SEC and you lose in conference, your RPI doesn’t drop. The RPI is the RPI. It’s their Bible.”

Buckley also admitted he still hasn’t got a firm grasp on the ratings percentage index that the selection committee uses as one of the tools when choosing the worthy teams.

“I don’t understand the RPI and how it works. It’s probably the most head-scratching ratings as far as all of them I’ve ever seen since it’s been implemented.”

“I think there’s probably a lot of cases out there where teams didn’t get in and should have got in and teams got in that shouldn’t have got in. I don’t know all the resumes, but we live through the West Coast and it’s difficult. It’s a grind. We know how challenging it is to play our games out here. We are a little biased on what type of baseball we play and the competition level and how demanding it is.”

For Buckley, that makes it imperative for the 11 teams from the Western conferences to go out and carry the banner for the region in the postseason.

“I think our job right now from a West Coast standpoint is to go out and play well,” Buckley said. “Play well for not only our schools and our conferences but for the West Coast. (We’ve got) a little bit of a chip on your shoulder as far how everything has gone down.”

The 11 teams that did make it into the field of 64 will be under a little extra scrutiny. Despite 10 of the 11 teams having to fly across the country (New Mexico is the only school close enough to bus to its regional), the schools are being expected to make an impact or prove the selection committee was correct.

It’s a burden, but an opportunity.

As Valenzuela pointed out, the common refrain in the past has been that the committee always pairs all the West Coast teams together in the same regionals, which forces them to beat up on each other and limits the number of the teams from the region that even have a chance to advance to the super regionals and Omaha.

Head-scratchingly, the committee did pair Arizona State and Gonzaga in the Fort Worth Regional and UC Santa Barbara and Washington in the Nashville Regional, forcing an automatic loss for each pairing. Everyone else has been shipped throughout the South from North Carolina to Florida to Texas and everywhere in between.

“It’s weird to not see any teams playing in the West. That’s crazy, but it’s also exciting,” Valenzuela said. “The argument used to be they keep everyone on the West Coast, now everyone is shipped out.”

While the West Coast was holding its collective breath on Monday, the teams that are in are planning to make a statement.

Valenzuela feels his team in particular isn’t feeling thankful just to be in the tournament. “This group, it feels like we can be dangerous. If we play like we have the last two weeks, we can be scary.”

Back at Walter Pyramid on Monday, Hampson caught his breath after finally seeing Long Beach State’s name revealed.

“It’s the right choice,” he said. “We deserve it. We had a great year. We’re a good team. We have confidence in each other. We’re not trying to win one game. We’re trying to win the whole thing.”

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