Big West teams must travel for college baseball regional games

Coach Rick Vanderhook and Cal State Fullerton will hit the road, instead of host a regional, when the NCAA tournament opens play later this week.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

As the selections announcement dragged on Monday morning, someone on the Long Beach State baseball team mustered a question: Hey, how many regionals are left?

The team, which thought it would be comfortably in the 64-team NCAA regional field, started running through which matchups had been revealed. 

“We’re like, ‘God, I don’t think there’s many left,’ ” Coach Troy Buckley said. “And next thing you know there isn’t. There’s one left. And we’re like, ‘Oh, boy.’ ”

It was anxiety typically experienced by college baseball teams from the West. For the first time since 1994, no team west of Lubbock, Texas, will host a regional.

Finally, in the last matchup announced, there were the 49ers: the No. 3 seed in the Coral Gables (Fla.) Regional.

They joined two other Southland teams, both from the Big West Conference. Cal State Fullerton is the No. 2 seed in the Starkville (Miss.) Regional. UC Santa Barbara earned the No. 2 seed in the Nashville Regional.

This season manifested in something not at all resembling manifest destiny. For teams seeking a trip to Omaha for the College World Series, the NCAA selection committee offered a different direction: go east, young men.

Overall, 11 teams in the West made the NCAA tournament field. The Southeastern Conference and Atlantic Coast Conference alone produced more teams than that — as hosts. The selection committee chose seven SEC teams and six ACC teams among the 16 regional hosts.

“Do I think we got short-changed?” Buckley said. “I did.”

All three Southland teams will open the tournament Friday. Long Beach State will meet Florida Atlantic at 10 a.m. PDT. Miami and Stetson will play in the regional’s second game.

Fullerton will face Louisiana Tech at 11:30 a.m. Mississippi State and Southeast Missouri State were also placed in Starkville.

Santa Barbara will open with Washington at noon. Vanderbilt and Xavier round out the regional.

The Ratings Performance Index (RPI), used to guide the selection committee, ranked only two West Coast teams in the top 25 — Santa Barbara and Arizona. Fullerton, ranked No. 21 by Baseball America, was 42nd in RPI. Long Beach State, which dropped out of the top 25 in the week’s final ranking, was 53rd in RPI.

“This year seems to be a little head-scratching,” Buckley said. “I don’t think any of us could predict it or figure it out, exactly.”

Even in the middle of the season, Fullerton Coach Rick Vanderhook said the RPI took wild swings.

“That one baffles me pretty good,” he said.

An unusual season in the Pac-12 Conference also dragged down the region. USC finished with a .500 record. UCLA, last season’s No. 1 overall seed, finished with six more losses than victories. Utah, with an overall record of 25-27, won the conference.

The Pac-12’s best hope to host a regional, Arizona State, ended its season with a 31-9 loss to USC.

The conference sent only four teams to the tournament: Arizona, Arizona State, Utah and Washington. The only other western teams in the field were Gonzaga and St. Mary’s of the West Coast, New Mexico from the Mountain West and Utah Valley of the Western Athletic.

“I still think baseball on the West coast is difficult,” Buckley said. “I think we play good baseball out here, and I think everybody would say that.”

But the power has shifted south and east. Florida, which began the season ranked No. 1, earned the top overall seed. Louisville was the second team in, followed by Miami, making its 44th consecutive appearance, and Texas A&M.

The selection show on ESPNU, Vanderhook said, turned into “the SEC highlight film every time they showed a screenshot. It just so happens that their contract is through ESPN. That’s just the way it was.

“We can’t cry about it, we’ve got to figure out a way to get represented better, and that’s it.”

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