Two Cinderella stories. Two tales. One hope -- that their stories won't end any time soon.
The relatively unknown Stony Brook Seawolves went on a remarkable run during the NCAA tournament, winning once in Miami and twice in LSU to advance to the 2012 College World Series. Vendors in Omaha had a hard time meeting the demand for Stony Brook baseball caps as fans embraced the team as its own.
Stony Brook head coach Matt Senk sensed the support of fans in Omaha from the time his team arrived.
"Today was amazing," Senk said in the pre-series press conference. "The autograph session was just blowing our minds. And the people of Omaha, since we've been here have been absolutely incredible. But our attention will be turning back to baseball. And they feel very good about what they've accomplished to this point. I think they don't want to disappoint. More than anything, they don't want to disappoint each other, and not go out there and play their very best."
But fans had little to cheer for in Stony Brook's first game. The UCLA Bruins jumped all over Stony Brook starter Tyler Johnson for five runs in the first inning and cruised to 9-1 win.
The Kent State Golden Flashes made their own improbable run, defeating the Oregon Ducks in the best of three series in their super regional to advance to Omaha for the first time in school history. If it weren't for the Seawolves, the Golden Flashes would be the talk of Omaha. But like Stony Brook, they lost big, 8-1 to the Arkansas Razorbacks in their first game of the CWS on Saturday, June 16.
After that loss, Kent State head coach Scott Stricklin was asked what positives his team can take away from that game and his answer showed how much he believes in the magic of the CWS atmosphere in Omaha.
"Well, I told the guys to look around," Stricklin said. "We're in Omaha. That's the positive. This team has battled so hard and no one expected us to be here.
"I mean, we hoped to be here. But I don't think one guy would, before the season, have said we're going to be here. And so I think that's the positive, that we're in Omaha. We have an opportunity to show the world we're a really good baseball team."
The next time both teams take the field, they will face the possibility of elimination. Stony Brook plays the Florida State Seminoles on Sunday, June 17. Kent State plays the loser of Game 4, between the South Carolina Gamecocks and Florida Gators, on Monday, June 18.
Both teams know they have their work cut out for them.
"As far as coming back on Sunday, we've been in this position before in the regional, the super regional," said Stony Brook catcher Pat Cantwell in the postgame press conference on Friday, June 15. "It's like that. We have to fight back from the bottom. So the team's got a lot of heart, and we'll come out on Sunday ready to play and we'll give it everything we've got."
"I told the guys in right field [after the loss to Arkansas], we either play the number one team in the country [Florida] or the two-time defending national champion [South Carolina]," Stricklin said. "So we've got a tough task ahead of us."
After Kent State's loss, I had a chance to talk to Stricklin one-on-one and I mentioned that Omaha normally gets behind the Cinderella team, but this year there are two Cinderella teams, and unfortunately, in his case, the fans are all in with the Seawolves. I wondered if Kent State felt the support of Omaha, even with Stony Brook getting so much attention.
"I think people appreciate what we've done," Stricklin told me. "But yeah, it's great for Stony Brook. They deserve to be here. They won 50-plus games. After watching them play LSU on TV, they were really, really good. I know they are disappointed like we are in the way they played against UCLA. They ran into a buzzsaw and UCLA beat them.
"They deserve to be here. We deserve to be here. And I'm glad we're in different brackets. We can get some attention on this side, and that's ok."
"We were a little bit more under the radar in Gary, Indiana and Eugene, Oregon [where they played their regional and super regional games, respectively]" Stricklin added. "But we still deserve to be here too. We'll take all the support that we can get from the fans in Omaha."
Lee Warren is a freelance writer who lives in Omaha, Nebraska and is covering the 2012 College World Series for YCN.