Coach Jim Penders (16) has his UConn Huskies primed for the post-season.


Five Mid-Majors Who Could Pull A Coastal

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This is America. We love an underdog. We love Rocky Balboa. Butler basketball. USA hockey team.

Isn’t the old saying “Baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and underdogs”? The underdog spirit is woven into the fiber of our being here under the waving stars and stripes ever since our country started out as an underdog to England. And in the great American sport of college baseball, we have had our share of great underdog stories from the mid-major ranks.

Going into the way-back machine, the origins of our underdog-love began back in 1952 when Holy Cross won the College World Series by using just eleven players – eight fielders and three pitchers – during their entire seven-game stay in Omaha.

Since then we have been honored to have such non-Power Five title-winners like Wichita State in 1989, Pepperdine in 1992, Rice in 2003, Fresno State in 2007 and the latest addition to the list, Coastal Carolina in 2016.

The caveat to all these mid-major underdogs is Cal State Fullerton, who is considered a long-time national power in our sport but is still not a Power Five conference team. The Big West Conference is one of those “tweener” conferences that buoy themselves between being a power conference and a mid-major conference in the past 30 years. If you look at it from a money perspective, then yes, the Big West is certainly a mid-major conference, playing without a lot of the top-flight facilities that teams at the top of the SEC, ACC, Big 12, Pac 12 and even the Big 10 enjoy.

Fullerton has won a national title in each of the last four decades: 1979, 1984, 1995 and 2004. As the facilities and money wars have escalated in our sport, the Titans and the rest of the Big West certainly are leaning more and more toward the mid-major side of our sport.

But I digress. As we head into 2018, which of the mid-majors in D1 can we look toward to make a run at the national title like the CCU Chanticleers of two years ago? Here are the five I like. See if you agree…

The AAC regular and tournament champions return with a hyper amount of experience and hopes of going a step or two further in the post-season after hosting a Regional last season. Coach Todd Whitting says a trip to Omaha is a “When, not if” proposition for the Cougars.

The key is: Health and welfare
Last year, UofH had some injury issues and the psycho-circus that was ace Seth Romero, who was eventually kicked off the team. With smoother sailing, and a ton of experience, this could be UofH’s breakthrough year.

Last year The Sam was a surprise to everyone, making the Super Regional round. This year, there will be no surprise. A full 490 of last year’s 600 innings return on the mound, as does RHP Riley Gossett, who was a Freshman All American in 2016 but sat out last season. That could be a difference-maker.

The key is: No sophomore slumps
Joining Gossett as second-year flingers will be Hayden Wesneski, a 10-game winner, lefty Kyle Backhus, who made 28 appearances, and Nick Mikolajchak, who had 13 saves last year. If they pitch to potential, their post-season experience last year will be a strength this coming June.

There is a lot of draftable talent on this year’s Husky squad, the most since 2011. LHP Tim Cate pitched for Team USA and three talents were Cape Cod League All Stars last summer in C Zac Susi, LF John Toppa and LHP P.J. Poulin. Plus, last year’s NCAA snub will be a driving force for this team all season long.

The key is: Not to run out of gas
Coach Jim Penders told me that the 2017 Huskies spent 51 of their first 82 days on the road, and it was a drain. That fatigue contributed to a 9-7 month of May. This time his squad is a more upperclassmen-led, so the hope is they are used to the college grind and have more stamina for a June push.

The best part is that this program has post-season experience to boot. They’ve hosted Regionals. They’ve gone to Super Regionals. They’ve been No. 1 seeds. With a talented, experienced squad, and a pitching staff that is older/wiser this time around, this could be the year coach Dan Heefer finally puts it all together and makes an Omaha run.

The key is: The yearlings growing up
Last year’s starting rotation was freshman-sophomore-sophomore. This season they are a year older and a year wiser. If soph Ray Gaither and junior Jordan Martinson pitch to potential and some of the ballyhoo’d JC transfers live up to billing, this team will be loaded for June.

The top-hitting team in Conference USA returns seven regulars, four of which hit .312-plus. So they’re ready at the dish. The problem is missing three weekend starters on the mound, but part-time RHP starters Colt Smith and J.C. Keys are ready to step up along with saves specialist Nick Sandlin. This is a program ready to prove they belong among the national elite.

The key is: Opening weekend
We’ll find out about the Eagles in short order here. On opening weekend they’ll host a three-game set against big bully brother Mississippi State. If SoMiss is going to make a serious run toward their second Omaha appearance, taking care of the ‘Dogs will be a big first indicator. If they fail? Well, failure is not an option.

Five more to watch:

– Missouri State
Some missing talent will need to be replaced, but Jake Fromson (8-3, 2.25) and SS Jeremy Eierman (23HRs) are both All American pedigree.

– South Alabama
The offense will be daunting with six of their returning starters who hit .301-plus, including Golden Spikes candidate OF Travis Swaggerty. But the pitch staff has many holes to fill.

– Kent State
Very similar to the 2012 CWS team, the Flashes have seven players – four of which are pitchers – who are projected to be top 15 round MLB picks. Senior-heavy, this might be the most experienced team in D1.

– Louisiana
Even without stud lefty Gunner Leger, the Cajuns still welcome back several talented arms, including draft darlings Hogan Harris and Nick Lee, who combined for 24 starts.

– San Diego
The Toreros are never too far off the radar, especially when they are pitching-heavy as they’ll be in 2018. All three weekend starters return, led by All American candidate Nick Sprengel, who went 9-1 last season.

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