World-Herald staff writer Steven Pivovar selects five locks to make it to the College World Series, as well as five dark horses to advance to Omaha.
>> SOUTH CAROLINA: South Carolina returns key pieces that should make it a prime contender for a three-peat. Decisions by pitchers Michael Roth and Matt Price and outfielder Adam Matthews to reject professional opportunities were key offseason developments. First baseman Christian Walker remains the team’s chief power threat, and help is expected from a recruiting class that ranked sixth nationally. The primary concern is replacing all four up-the-middle starters.
>> FLORIDA: The Gators made it to Omaha the past two seasons, and many of the key contributors return to make Florida the favorite to walk off with the championship trophy that narrowly eluded them in 2011. Shortstop Nolan Fontana, catcher Mike Zunino, first baseman Austin Maddox and outfielder Preston Tucker highlight a lineup loaded with tough outs. The Gators return their entire weekend rotation along with closer Steven Rodriguez.
>> STANFORD: The Cardinal haven’t played in Omaha since 2008, but it will be difficult keeping Stanford from ending this season at TD Ameritrade Park. Seven regulars from a regional championship squad are back, with potential first-round draft picks Kenny Diekroeger at shortstop and Stephen Piscotty at third base anchoring the lineup that boasts power and speed. The Cardinal are loaded with quality arms, with Mark Appel considered a front-runner to be the No. 1 pick in the draft.
>> TEXAS A&M: Former Nebraska coach Rob Childress got the Aggies to Omaha last year and he has enough talent that a return trip isn’t out of the question. Texas A&M returns its top four hitters in outfielders Tyler Naquin and Krey Bratsen, third baseman Matt Juengel and first baseman Jacob House. The up-the-middle defense is a concern, as is the closer spot if junior college transfer Jason Jester can’t get eligible. The Aggies have quality starters in Michael Wacha and Ross Stripling, who combined for 23 wins last season.
>> RICE: With their strengths being pitching and defense, the Owls appear to be built to play in spacious TD Ameritrade Park. Rice lacks power, but the Owls will run out a lineup loaded with guys who can manufacture runs. The Owls expect to get more out of outfielder Michael Fuda, a speedster who was injured much of the 2011 season. Graham will sandwich soft-tossing Taylor Wall between power pitchers Austin Kubitza and Matthew Reckling, and the bullpen is loaded with shutdown relievers.
FIVE DARK HORSES
>> GEORGIA: The Bulldogs made it to a regional last season and return eight players who started at least 34 games, its entire weekend rotation and a flame-throwing closer in Tyler Maloof. Don’t be fooled by Maloof’s 7.16 ERA that was inflated by a couple of bad outings in mop-up situations. He came through with 18 saves when games were on the line. Right-hander Michael Palazzone is the ace of the staff.
>> OKLAHOMA: The Sooners underachieved in 2011 after making it to Omaha in 2010. They will rely on an infusion of talent from the junior college ranks, but their chances of making a College World Series run could depend heavily on whether such veterans as shortstop Caleb Bushyhead, outfielder Cody Reine and Max White can bounce back from inconsistent showings in 2011. Dillon Overton returns to give Oklahoma a solid No. 1 starter, and newcomer Damien Magnifico, whose fastball nips at triple digits, could be an elite closer.
>> CENTRAL FLORIDA: The Knights have never played in the CWS, but coach Terry Rooney has been stockpiling talent to give this group a shot. First baseman D.J. Hicks provides power to a lineup that returns seven players who had at least 150 at-bats last season. Hicks hit .351 with 14 homers and 66 RBIs last season. Brian Adkins and Ben Lively give the Knights a solid 1-2 punch at the front of the rotation, and Joe Rogers is a proven closer who flashes bulldog competitiveness.
>> CLEMSON: The Tigers will need a lot of pieces to come together to make an Omaha run, but coach Jack Leggett has a team that has plenty of upside. Kevin Brady, Dominic Leone and Scott Firth form a solid weekend rotation. Clemson will need a big season out of projected closer Matt Campbell and some other young arms on the staff. Third baseman Richie Shaffer is coming off a 13-homer, 55-RBI season.
>> MISSISSIPPI: The Rebels have flirted with getting to the CWS over the past decade but haven’t made the trip to Omaha since 1972. Four of the team’s top five hitters return, with first baseman Matt Snyder having headliner potential after deciding to return for his senior season. Second baseman Alex Yarbrough hit .350 as a sophomore and has double-digit power potential.