PULLMAN – When you haven’t even been on the road to Omaha for 19 years, it doesn’t really matter where the first stop is.
But when the Washington State University Cougars found out Monday morning their first NCAA Division I baseball tournament since 1990 would start in Norman, Okla., against the Arkansas Razorbacks, their celebration went up a notch.
“Consensus around here right after it happened (is) we’re pretty confident,” said senior relief pitcher Jeremy Johnson, speaking in a crowded Camp Room, where the Cougars players, coaches and fans had gathered to watch the ESPN selection show.
The reasons behind the optimism?
The Cougars, who finished second in the Pac-10 at 19-8 (tying a school record for most conference wins, set in 1990) and 31-23 overall, played the overall seventh-seeded Sooners (41-18, 17-10 and second in the Big 12) four times early in the season, splitting the games in Pullman.
They had opened their season a week earlier in Fayetteville, Ark., against the then-22nd-ranked Razorbacks. By their own admission, they didn’t play well, but still lost the three games by a total of just five runs.
“Coach (Gregg) Swenson said the scouting reports won’t take him as long,” WSU coach Donnie Marbut joked before throwing out a little cold water.
“We played (Arkansas) at the beginning of the year and they went absolutely crazy,” he said. “At one time, they were the No. 1 team in the country. So you know you have a formidable opponent.”
The fourth team in the regional is Wichita State (30-25, 11-7 and fourth in the Missouri Valley Conference), which WSU lost to in Kansas last year and will play again next season.
“I’d like to say we got a good draw, though I probably shouldn’t say that,” senior catcher Greg Lagreid said. “I would like to think our chances are decent just because we’ve seen the teams, we’ve seen the Friday guy for Arkansas, who we are going to see this week.
“We didn’t win, but we’re a completely different team than we were at the beginning of the year.”
The Cougars started 3-8, but all but one of those games was against an NCAA-bound team. WSU finished the regular season 7-13 against teams in the tournament.
Arkansas (34-22, 14-15 in the SEC, which sent eight teams to the tournament) will probably throw ace Dallas Keuchel (7-3, 4.14 earned-run average) against WSU. Keuchel went six innings in the season opener Feb. 20, holding the Cougars to four hits and two runs in a 4-2 Arkansas win.
Cougars ace Matt Way (8-4, 2.49) was on the mound that game and gave up all the Razorbacks runs, making the senior left-hander look forward to the rematch.
“I lost to them earlier in the year,” he said. “I’m also really excited to go pitch against Dallas Keuchel, their Friday night guy. I played with him last summer in the Cape (Cod) League.
“And I’m just excited for that rematch, (to) get another shot to go at those boys.”
No matter who or where the Cougars play, they’re just happy to be in the tournament, only five years removed from a 23-loss Pac-10 season in Marbut’s first season.
“No matter what happens in this tournament the rest of the way,” Marbut told the gathered faithful, “whether we move on to the Super Regionals or Omaha or whatever it is, these boys have done everything we’ve asked them to do.
“I feel really good about our chances because of what these kids have done.”
“The year I was recruited, they were 1-23 (in the Pac-10),” said Lagreid, a senior catcher who is slowly working his way back behind the plate after mid-season arm trouble.
“Coach Marbut focused on the fact our class was the first class he had fully recruited,” he continued. “It was our job to kind of turn this thing around a little bit.”
With the path taken by the last two NCAA champions, Oregon State and Fresno State, the Cougars feel they have as good a shot as anyone.
Oregon State was sixth in Pac-10 two years ago before winning its second of two NCAA championships. And Fresno State won the WAC tournament to get into the NCAAs, then won its Regional and Super Regional en route to the national title.
“It just goes to show that any team can do it,” Lagreid said. “It’s just who gets hot at the right time.
“Once it gets down to that final 64, everybody’s got a shot.”
For the first time in almost two decades, WSU is on that road.