For the second consecutive season, the Washington State University Cougars baseball team is headed to the NCAA tournament.
For the second consecutive season, WSU has been sent halfway across the country to play.
And for the second consecutive season, the Cougars profess not to concerned.
“I don’t think it matters to the kids at all,” said WSU coach Donnie Marbut on Monday morning. “I don’t think it brings us together or takes us apart. I don’t think they care, to be honest. I don’t think they had any expectations of where they were going to go.”
Marbut had just found out his WSU team (34-20 overall, 15-10 and third in the Pac-10 Conference) had earned one of 34 at-large berths into the tournament and are headed to Fayetteville, Ark., where it will be the No. 2 seed and open Friday evening (5:05 PDT) against Kansas State (36-20), the third seed in the four-team regional.
Host Arkansas (40-18, 18-12 in Southeastern Conference play) faces fourth-seeded Grambling, which earned the SWAC’s automatic berth despite a 22-30 overall record. The winner of the regional will face the winner of the Tempe region, hosted by No. 1 overall seed and Pac-10 champion Arizona State (47-8).
“That’s one of the differences from last year to this year,” said WSU senior Matt Fanelli, who hit .316 with five home runs and 40 RBIs in the regular season, “our expectation now is to go in, surprise some people and win that regional, then move on to a super (regional) and then the ultimate goal, obviously, is Omaha (site of the College World Series).
“For us, those are realistic expectations if we’re on our game.”
Last season, WSU made its first NCAA appearance since 1990, and, as the Pac-10’s second-place team, earned a third seed at the Norman, Okla., region. The Cougars opened against Arkansas and lost, 10-3. The back-to-back bids are a first since 1987-88 for WSU.
“Not that I wasn’t proud last year, but this year kind of put a stamp on (the program) because I kind of feel like we’re here to stay,” Marbut said of his team, which has won 12 of its last 15 games. “I felt like we’ve built it right and we built it to last.”
“The team just decided that’s what we needed to do, just pick it up a little bit,” said starting pitcher Chad Arnold of the Cougars’ finish. “We hit a little stretch there where we weren’t playing good baseball. (But) finishing the season off in a good way was really key for us.”
Arnold (5-3, 3.47 earned run average), a redshirt junior, will start against KSU. After that, Marbut said, he’ll make a decision between James Wise (3-1, 4.53) and reliever-turned-starter Adam Conley (5-3, 3.13) depending on the second-round opponent.
The Cougars opened last season with a three-game series in Fayetteville, losing all three and gaining a respect for the Razorbacks faithful.
“The fans, they’ll get on you but I take that as a challenge,” said second baseman Cody Bartlett, who is hitting .315, with five home runs and 30 RBIs. “It’s a pretty neat atmosphere to play in and I’m excited to go there.”
“I think it does help a little bit,” Marbut said of playing at Arkansas before. “The combination of having a bunch of guys who have played in the postseason and also going somewhere where you’ve played before, just because you know how the field plays, that helps.
“I’m not sure if it’s a huge advantage, but I know it’s not a disadvantage.”
The Pac-10 received eight bids to the 64-team tournament, the same number as the SEC and the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Besides Arizona State, UCLA (43-13), the No. 6 overall seed, is the other Pac-10 school hosting a regional. West Coast Conference champion San Diego (36-20) is the second seed in the Tempe regional.
California (29-23) is the No. 2 seed in the Norman regional and Stanford (31-23) is No. 2 in Fullerton, Calif. No. 3 regional seeds are Arizona (33-22) in Fort Worth, Texas; Oregon (38-22) in Norwich, Conn.; and Oregon State (31-22) in Gainesville, Fla.