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Conference success pays off for Demons, Red Storm

5/31/2005

NCAA Tournament selection day inevitably brings sighs of relief from the last teams that sneak in, and frustration from those that don't make the cut. The apprehension was even greater this year after upsets in smaller conference tournaments made the competition for at-large spots more crowded.

Two of the upset victims, St. John's and Northwestern State, were among the final teams in the field, despite their 0-2 showings in their conference tournaments.

St. John's, the Big East Conference regular season champion, was favored to win the conference tournament but lost its first two games. Notre Dame went on to claim the league's automatic bid. St. John's still received a No. 3 seed in the Corvallis, Ore., regional.

"I would have to say it's a big load off my mind. I kind of felt that this team deserved it," Red Storm coach Ed Blankmeyer said. "I also understand there were several teams left out that deserved it as well. We were lucky. Anytime you lose the conference tournament, especially two in a row, that's the last thing the committee could get their hands on, so to speak. But then again, we won the league — this was the only bad weekend we had."

Blankmeyer's only gripe with the selection process was that St. John's looked like a solid choice as a potential regional host before losing in the Big East tournament. He said his team should still have gotten the opportunity.

"If we were in — maybe we were that close to the bubble; I don't know, I wasn't in the room — but if we were in, why don't you reward a three seed, if you truly want to make it a national sport and bring it to the Northeast?" Blankmeyer said.

Charlie Carr, the Division I baseball committee chairman, said the Red Storm had a good shot at serving as a host until stumbling in the tournament.

"How they ended up was not how they wanted," Carr said. "It certainly didn't help their case for hosting. We were certainly very proud of them as a committee and look forward to great things out of them because it would be helpful to us as a committee for them to host in the future."

Northwestern State was in a similar position. The Demons won the Southland Conference regular season with a 22-5 league record (40-18 overall). But like St. John's, Northwestern State dropped its first two games in the conference tournament.

The Demons, however, had been snubbed before and learned from it. In 2002, they won the Southland regular season and lost in the finals of the conference tournament. They did not get a regional because the committee said their schedule was too weak.

After that, coach Mitch Gaspard began scheduling rigorous nonconference opponents, and this season might have been the toughest yet. Northwestern State played 14 games against top 50 RPI teams (Baylor, Louisiana State, Louisiana-Lafayette, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Tulane and Wichita State), winning three of them. As a result, the Demons finished with a Ratings Percentage Index in the top 40, according to Internet models.

"I guess the rewarding thing for us is, when we were left out in 2002, we had a lot of questions of why and what happened, and we kept hearing about strength of schedule and RPI, so we made those adjustments," Gaspard said. "I think this was one of those make-or-break years; we were going to find out today whether it was worthwhile to play that type of schedule. For us it showed that if you can compete on that level, you've got a real good chance to get into a regional."

Chanticleer Surprise

Coastal Carolina's selection as a No. 1 seed raised eyebrows across the country — even on the school's campus in Conway, S.C.

"I'm still sitting here pinching myself," coach Gary Gilmore said. "I'm not sure I'm still on the planet. This was totally unexpected. We just hoped to get in and didn't care about the seeding. We just wanted a good draw."

The Chanticleers went 48-14 overall and 21-3 to win the Big South Conference, but lost to Winthrop in the conference tournament. Internet models showed Coastal Carolina's RPI in the top 20, but Gilmore figured not following the regular season title with the tournament crown ended his club's slim chances at earning a No. 1 seed.

But consecutive nonconference wins at Georgia Tech and North Carolina on May 10 and 11 pushed Coastal over the top. "They had great wins over very good teams and obviously that propelled them," Carr said.

Coastal Carolina heads to Tempe, Ariz., as the only No. 1 seed not playing on its home field.

"We're very humbled by this whole thing ... Hopefully we can go out and live up to the seeding," Gilmore said. "Our expectation as a baseball program is to go out there and win. We're not playing in our own ballpark, but we're thankful for the opportunity as a mid-major to be a No. 1 seed."

Fullerton Regional Fierce Again

In 2004, Arizona State decided against submitting a regional bid because of renovations going on at Packard Stadium and, though it earned the No. 7 national seed, was sent to the Fullerton regional. Three league champions played there: Cal State Fullerton, Pepperdine and Minnesota. The Sun Devils were eliminated in three games, and the Titans won the College World Series, proving how tough the regional was.

A year later, Arizona withdrew its bid to serve as a host one week before bids were handed out. Now, the Pac-10's second-place team is headed to Fullerton to face the No. 6 national seed and defending champs. Missouri, a team with one of the nation's best pitchers in sophomore Max Scherzer, awaits Arizona in its opening game. The Fullerton Bracket of Death is back for another year.

"We've got our hands full," Fullerton coach George Horton said. "I guess there's a good way and a bad way to look at that. I shared with my team the good way because there's no sense in complaining about it. At this time of year, everybody's pretty good and there's no givens or soft teams.

"If we can't beat them here in our own yard, we're not going to beat them in Omaha anyway. In our program, it's not about surviving for the next week but winning in Omaha. Sooner or later, we've got to play everyone anyway."

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