Best College World Series Stories of the 2010s

The College World Series at a magical time in the baseball season – as the major league season hits the dog days of June and July, the best collegiate talent gathers in Omaha, Nebraska for a double elimination tournament that has produced some classic moments. However, with the coronavirus pandemic cancelling this past CWS, it gave me time to reflect on some of the best stories from Omaha over the past decade. Here are my top 5 inspiring CWS runs from the 2010s. 

#5.  2013 UCLA

UCLA wasn’t necessarily a massive underdog to reach Omaha, as they were a top-20 team in the nation and a top seed in their region entering the NCAA Tournament. After breezing through the Los Angeles regional with a 3-0 record, the Bruins surprised fifth-ranked Cal State Fullerton, a titan in the college baseball world, sweeping the favorites in a two-game Super Regional on the road. At 44-17, the Bruins entered the College World Series with the worst record among the eight teams, with no CWS titles to their name and just a 4-9 overall record in Omaha. 

However, UCLA continued to breeze through the field – you would have hardly known they were the 6h seed in the event. Facing traditional powerhouse and 57-win LSU in the opener, UCLA won 2-1, and they matched that score against NC State to reach the semifinals. There, they had two chances to take down the #1 team in the nation in UNC, but the Bruins needed just one. Their pitching continued to dominate, as UCLA won 4-1. In the best-of-three championship series, UCLA got a somewhat welcome surprise as Mississippi State, the 7th seed in Omaha, emerged as their challenger for the championship. The Bruins eked out a 3-1 victory in the opener, and they sealed their dominant championship run with an 8-0 victory in the championship, giving up just four runs in five CWS games. 

UCLA’s pitching staff was led by tournament MVP Adam Plutko, who’s Game 1 gem (6 IP, 4 H, 1 R) gave the Bruins the jump in the championship series. 

#4. 2010 TCU
The Horned Frogs are one of two teams on this list that didn’t win the title, but their run to the College World Series semifinals in their first ever appearance was still inspiring enough to land them at #4. TCU played the 2010 season in the Mountain West Conference, so although they put together 51-win regular season, the Horned Frogs entered the NCAA Tournament ranked just 15th in the country. They cruised through their regional on their homefield, but they found themselves in a battle versus #2 Texas in the Super Regional. After winning a 3-1 opener, TCU was clubbed 14-1 in Game 2, seemingly shifting all the momentum to the Longhorns in the winner-takes-all battle. However, TCU rebounded and stunned their in-state rival with a 4-1 victory that got them to Omaha for the first time in program history. 

TCU found themselves facing Florida State, who was making their 20th appearance in the College World Series, second most in the field. The Horned Frogs didn’t blink, dismantling the Seminoles 8-1. After a setback to #6 UCLA, TCU proved their victory over FSU was no fluke, beating the tradition-laden program 11-7 in an elimination contest. 

TCU reached the semifinals and gave the sixth-ranked Bruins a big scare, winning the first game 6-2 to set up a winners-take-all clash with a championship series berth on the line. Despite their ultimate defeat in the semifinals, TCU’s season was regarded as a highly successful one and an extremely unexpected run given their lack of history and mid-major conference. Head Coach Jim Schlossengale was named the national head coach of the year. 

#3. 2019 Michigan

The 2019 Wolverines are the other team not to win a title that makes our list. Michigan entered the season with no College World Series appearances since 1984, and their last title coming in 1962. Not only that, but the Big 10 themselves were in the midst of a ridiculous cold streak in college baseball – since Michigan’s 1984 appearance only Indiana in 2013 had reached Omaha. The Wolverines didn’t look like the class of the conference for most of the season, and they didn’t win the Big 10 championship, but they slipped into the NCAA Tournament as a three-seed in their regional. However, once in the tournament, the Wolverines turned up the heat. 

Michigan smacked Creighton and Cincinnati to quickly reach their regional final. After suffering a setback to the Blue Jays, Michigan rebounded to beat Creighton for a second time and earn a date with the #1 team in the nation in UCLA. The entire three-game Super Regional was must-see baseball, with the Wolverines clawing out a 3-2 victory in Game 1, before succumbing 5-4 in extra innings of Game 2. The series came to Game 3, and Michigan wasn’t about to waste their deep tournament run, as they edged out the Bruins 4-2 in the elimination game, earning their first CWS berth in 35 years. 

Michigan was understandably a huge underdog in Omaha, as, with the exception of Auburn (1997), every team had been to the College World Series this decade. Five of the top-8 teams had survived this far, so Michigan didn’t have a cushy schedule by any means. However, the Wolverines were rolling, and they weren’t slowing down, beating Texas Tech and Florida State to reach the semifinals. They matched up with the Red Raiders once more, absolutely dismantling the boys from Lubbock, 15-3, to reach the championship. 

Michigan didn’t quite bring the Big 10 to glory, but they came extremely close against SEC powerhouse Vanderbilt. Michigan beat the Commodores, ranked second in the country, 7-4 in the opener, but they couldn’t quite get over the hump, losing the series in three games. Despite the final result, Michigan’s resurgence put the Big 10 back on the map and was one of the best stories of the decade. They were led by Tommy Henry on the mound, and Jimmy Kerr (1B), middle infielders Ako Thomas and Jack Blomgren, and outfielder Jesse Franklin, all of whom made the all-tournament team. 

#2. 2015 Virginia

If not for the #1 team on this list, Virginia may have been the most unlikely champion of the decade. The Cavaliers had finished as the CWS runner-up in 2014, but their 2015 season had been an absolute roller coaster, as UVA went 15-15 in ACC play, and with just 39 wins in the season, they held their breath on selection day, getting into the tournament as a 3-seed in their region. However, the Cavaliers cruised, with a 3-0 record to reach the Super Regionals, where they faced and swept a fellow three-seed in Maryland. 

The Cavaliers entered the College World Series faced with a daunting field including #2 LSU, #4 Florida, #5 Miami, and #7 TCU. Virginia got unranked Arkansas in the first round and escaped with a 5-3 win, before slipping past the Gators in a 1-0 shutout to reach the semifinals. There, they matched up with Florida once more, needing one win with two opportunities to do so. They needed both, losing 10-5 in their first effort. The Cavaliers scraped through to the championship round on the strength of a 5-4 upset of Florida, earning UVA a title-series rematch with Vanderbilt. 

The championship series looked bad for the Cavaliers, who appeared overmatched in a 5-1 Game 1 loss. However, buoyed by an elite start from Josh Sborz, Virginia bounced back with a 3-0 shutout victory in Game 2, and they closed out the Commodores in Game 3, 4-2 to cap off one of the most unlikely championship runs in recent college baseball history. 

#1. 2016 Coastal Carolina

This was the obvious choice, as even though Coastal Carolina entered the NCAA Tournament as a higher seed than Virginia, the Chanticleers had zero history in the College World Series and as a member of the Big South, they weren’t taken seriously as a title contender by most major media outlets. However, the Chanticleers beat #9 NC State in two of three contests throughout their regional to reach a Super Regional against #8 LSU. There, the Big South representatives swept the Tigers to reach Omaha for the first time in school history. 

The Chanticleers earned a stunning victory to start their College World Series journey, toppling the top-ranked Florida Gators 2-1. That win alone may have been enough to call their debut journey to Omaha a success, and it looked like that would be the high point when they were smacked by TCU 6-1 in their next contest. However, Coastal rallied to edge #5 Texas Tech 7-5, followed by a pair of victories over the Horned Frogs to reach the championship against an unseeded but heavily favored Arizona team. The Wildcats blanked Coastal 3-0 in the first game, but the Chanticleers responded with a 5-4 victory in Game 2. In the deciding battle, Coastal turned to Andrew Beckwith, the national leader in wins, who had already pitched two complete games in Omaha. He didn’t go the distance in Game 3, but his 5 ⅔ innings were enough to keep Arizona at bay. The Chanticleers built a 4-0 lead in the sixth inning and staved off the Wildcats just enough for a 4-3 title-clinching victory. An absurd and unprecedented run by the Chanticleers that was the no doubt choice for the #1 slot here.

GREATEST NCAA BASEBALL MOMENTS COUNTDOWN – #2: A walk-off straight out of a movie

Little-used freshman pinch hitter steps to the plate, with his team down 3-0 in the bottom of the ninth, having done absolutely nothing offensively all game. With the bases jammed, facing one of the best pitchers in the country and down to his final strike, the freshman golfs a 1-2 pitch over the right field fence for a walk-off grand slam. It sounds like something out of a movie, but UC Santa Barbara can assure it is not. And Louisville, although they’d rather forget, can also confirm its reality. 

UC Santa Barbara was a 2-seed in their region, and they went 3-0 en route to reaching the Super Regionals for the first time in program history. They were lucky enough to not have to take on top-seeded Vanderbilt, getting to face 4. Xavier twice instead. However, they received no such luck in their inaugural Super Regional, having to take on Louisville, who finished the year ranked second in the country. Louisville had also cruised their regional, dispatching each of the three teams in their pool with relative ease, giving up just five runs along the way. 

Game 1 was a good one, as the Gauchos shocked the Cardinals 4-2 to open the series, putting them one game away from a College World Series berth. But it was Game 2 that provided one of the best moments in college baseball history. Drew Harrington took the mound for the Cardinals and looked very comfortable from the get-go. He scattered six hits and a walk over seven dominant innings, shutting out the Gauchos with a dozen strikeouts. He did not allow a hit until the fourth inning, when he had been staked to a 3-0 advantage. He allowed the first two batters of the eighth to reach and left the game. Departing after 7+ innings and 92 pitches, Harrington looked in line for a well-deserved win. Louisville’s bullpen escaped the eighth-inning mini-jam with ease, and the Gauchos were down to their final three outs. 

The toughest part of their comeback was that it was going to have to come against Louisville’s stud closer, Zach Burdi. Burdi had been one of the best pitchers in the country. There was no reason to expect that Burdi, a first-round draft pick with a career 1.92 ERA, would fold. He had 11 saves on the year, and the Cardinals were 47-0 when leading after eight innings. Those were the odds that UC Santa Barbara were facing, so you can forgive anyone who was already mentally prepared for a Game 3. 

Burdi started the ninth with a strikeout, but ultimately, it would only be the only out he recorded. JJ Muno singled for the Gauchos, and Burdi unraveled, uncharacteristically issuing two walks to load the bases, allowing the Gauchos to bring the winning run to the plate. They elected to do so in the form of freshman Sam Cohen, a little-used substitute with all of 26 plate appearances on the season. He had appeared in 19 games for a team that had never been to a Super Regional against the nation’s best closer – it was the unlikeliest of postseason match-ups. 

Burdi fired a ball and whipped in a 96mph offering for a strike. Cohen fouled off another heater, putting him in a 1-2 hole. Burdi elected to deliver a changeup that spun down and in on the left-handed hitting Cohen. The freshman reached down and got a hold of the pitch, pulling it high and deep down the right field line. It stayed fair easily and cleared the fence for a walk-off grand slam, sending the Gauchos to their first ever College World Series. 

The Aftermath

UC Santa Barbara didn’t make any lengthy run in Omaha, but they did collect one more stunning victory. They lost 1-0 to Oklahoma State in the opener before shocking Miami, the #3 team in the country to survive for one more game. There, the Gauchos fell to eventual NCAA runner-ups Arizona, ending their Cinderella Run. 

The Gauchos saw ace Shane Bieber taken in the 4th round of the MLB draft. Bieber now pitches for the Indians, and he was the MVP of the 2019 MLB All-Star Game. Sam Cohen played with UC Santa Barbara for three seasons, hitting .246 over three seasons, with his final two as a starter. He played out the last of his eligibility with Hope International, but he is no longer playing baseball.

GREATEST NCAA BASEBALL MOMENTS COUNTDOWN – #3: The Most Unlikely College World Series Winner Ever

Far and away the most unlikely College World Series champion ever, Fresno State’s miracle run in 2008 comes in at #3 on our countdown of the top postseason NCAA baseball moments. Fresno State was not an unknown in the college baseball world entering the season, as they were ranked #21 by Baseball America’s preseason poll, but the Bulldogs quickly fell off everyone’s radars with a wildly mediocre regular season. In a mediocre Western Athletic Conference, Fresno State put up just a 33-27 overall record. And they weren’t exactly firing on all cylinders heading into the postseason, having won just 7 of their past 17 games. A run through the conference tournament was the Bulldogs’ only route to the NCAA Tournament, a far cry from the beginning of the year, when they seemed to be a lock. 

However, the Bulldogs were far from done. The two-time defending WAC champions, Fresno State proved once more that when they turned it on, they were the class of the conference. The Bulldogs won four consecutive games, taking down Nevada in the title game and securing an auto-bid for a third straight season. The Bulldogs were ranked 51st out of 64 teams in the field, and as such, they were granted a 4-seed in the Long Beach Regional. 

Fresno State sent an immediate message in their opener, dismantling top-seeded and #14 overall Long Beach State, 7-3. But even low-seeded teams have a good game, or have an ace, so it wasn’t until the Bulldogs shut out second-seeded San Diego in the winners’ bracket contest that their chances seemed seriously improved. The Bulldogs drew San Diego in the championship, and they had two chances to win, which they needed. They looked horrible in dropping a 15-1 decision in the first game, but they rebounded with a 5-1 victory to push into the Super Regionals. 

However, the Bulldogs’ little mini-run was supposed to end brutally with their next obstacle. Fresno State encountered Arizona State, the third-ranked team in the country. Not only that, but they were battling history, as no four-seed had ever made it to the College World Series. The Sun Devils were a particularly fearsome opponent, having averaged 12 runs a game in their previous three NCAA Tournament games, giving up a total of ten. It looked to be a quick series when Arizona State took care of business in the opener, dominating Fresno State 12-4, putting the Bulldogs on the brink of elimination. The Sun Devils got off to another hot start in Game 2, opening up a 5-2 lead, but the underdogs weren’t done yet, striking back with a grand slam from Gavin Hedstrom that gave them a lead they wouldn’t relinquish. Fresno State won 8-6 and forced Game 3. 

The deciding contest was a slugfest, particularly in the final frames. Tied 5-5 in the seventh, Arizona State turned to their ace in Mike Leake, who had fired 118 pitches in their Game 1 victory, but Leake did not have anything in the tank. Two walks and a hit batter led to a run and a 6-5 Bulldogs’ lead, but it didn’t stop there. Second baseman Erik Wetzel drilled one into the gap for a bases-clearing double. Left fielder and WAC player of the year Steve Susdorf deposited Leake’s next offering over the fence, and suddenly the Bulldogs led 11-5. They added another run later and appeared in control, up 12-5 into the ninth. But nothing was going to come that easy, as the Sun Devils struck four times and loaded the bases, allowing Matt Newman, who had already slammed two home runs in the game, to come to the plate as the winning run. Newman blooped one into left field, where Susdor made a sliding catch, sending Fresno State to Omaha. 

Six of the top-8 ranked teams in the country made it to Omaha, and Fresno State took on one of those squads, matching up against #6 Rice in the first game. It was never a contest. Justin Wilson took the mound for the Bulldogs, and he danced in and out of trouble, allowing Fresno State to build a massive lead. Wilson left the game after seven frames and leading 11-1. The Bulldogs cruised to a 17-5 victory. Game two was a closer ordeal against #2 North Carolina, but Fresno State survived once more. On the strength of home runs from Susdorf and Ryan Overland and a sterling pitching performance from five Fresno State hurlers, punctuated by a four-out save from Brandon Burke, the Bulldogs dispatched the Tar Heels, 5-3. 

Fresno State had to take on the Tar Heels once more in the semifinals, and again they needed two chances to secure one victory. After a 4-3 loss, Fresno State turned to pitcher Clayton Allison, sidelined for two weeks with tendinitis, to deliver them from elimination. Allison gritted out a six-inning performance, surrendering a single run while striking out six. Burke later said it was “one of the gutsiest things he ever saw on a baseball diamond”. Fresno State extended a 2-1 lead to 6-1, and their bullpen sealed the deal, leading the Bulldogs into the national championship, a best-of-three series against Georgia, the #8 team in the country. Georgia was 5-0 in elimination games to that point, and they hadn’t lost in Omaha, going 3-0 en route to their title game appearance. 

Game 1 was a thriller, as Fresno State took a 6-3 lead in the top of the eighth, only to give it all back in the bottom half, as Georgia took the opener, 7-6. Much like the Arizona State series, this one looked all over early in Game 2, as Georgia went up 5-0 by the third inning, but once more, Fresno State responded. They mauled Georgia for fifteen runs in the next three innings and cruised to a 19-10 victory, fittingly bringing this one to Game 3. In a historical and miraculous run to the championship, Fresno State needed just a couple of legendary performances in their final contest to bring home the title. Offensively, it was Steve Detwiler getting the job done, as Detwiler brought home a whopping six runs with two home runs, a double, and a single. Meanwhile, on the mound it was Wilson doing it all. On three day’s rest, Wilson silenced Georgia’s bats for eight innings, giving up a mere one run over 129 pitches. In the meantime, Fresno State built a 6-1 lead, setting up for a ninth inning celebration. Burke did the honors, collecting the final three outs and inducing a massive dogpile. All in all, Fresno State went 6-0 in elimination games, and they set a record for losses by a College World Series champion with 31 on the season. 

The Aftermath

Fresno State saw five people named to the All-Tournament team, with Susdorf and Detwiler among those honored.The Bulldogs weren’t darlings in the MLB draft, as only five Fresno State players heard their names called. Wilson was the first off the board, 144th overall, and he was followed by Wetzel, Miller, Susdorf, and Allison. The Bulldogs have made four appearances in the NCAA Tournament since 2008, but they are yet to go back to Omaha.

GREATEST NCAA BASEBALL MOMENTS COUNTDOWN – #4: Pepperdine stuns everyone in 1992

Coming in at #4 on our Top-7 moments in NCAA Baseball history countdown is the miracle that was the 1992 Pepperdine Baseball team. Compared to the 2006 Oregon State team – the first underdog run we covered in this countdown – Pepperdine was a slightly bigger Cinderella for a few reasons. One is that Pepperdine was barely ranked for most of the year, whereas Oregon State was a top-15 team entering the NCAA Tournament. Pepperdine wasn’t even favored to escape their regional, which was a spot they had struggled in for years. In their past seven trips to the NCAA tournament, each appearance had ended in the regional. They had only played in one College World Series, which came back in 1979. 

Pepperdine entered the year with expectations of making the NCAA Tournament, but playing in the relatively obscure and irrelevant West Coast Conference, nobody was paying attention to the Waves on the national scene. After dropping two of three to Saint Mary’s just over halfway through the regular season, the Waves stood at 18-8-1 – a very good record, but hardly anything groundbreaking, especially considering most of their success was fueled by an 11-0-1 record at their own Eddy D. Field Stadium. However, the Waves were able to crack the rankings by ending the year with victories in 22 of their final 24 games, including a twelve-game winning streak to end the season. Their remarkable streak was punctuated with a 16-8 victory over a strong UCLA squad that would end up falling one game short of the College World Series. 

Pepperdine entered the 6-team West regional as a 3-seed, and they got some favorable luck in the first few rounds. Arizona and Hawaii, the top two teams in the regional respectively, both lost their first round games, allowing Pepperdine consecutive winners bracket match-ups with lower seeds. The Waves took advantage; after squeaking past Fresno State, Pepperdine dispatched Southeastern Louisiana and hammered sixth-seeded Washington to advance to the championship. 

There, however, the Waves finally had to do battle with Hawaii, and they immediately lost their one-game cushion with a 6-3 loss in their first battle with the Rainbow Warriors, producing a winners-take-all finale. However, Pepperdine re-adjusted and drilled a nail into Hawaii’s coffin, slaughtering the favored squad 9-0 to push their way into the College World Series. 

Pepperdine was seeded seventh out of eight teams in Omaha, meaning that, as had been the case for most of the year, nobody expected much out of the Waves. They were heavy underdogs against second-seeded Wichita State in the opener, as the Shockers were perennial contenders and boasted the top-ranked offense in the country in 1992. However, Pepperdine countered with ace Patrick Ahearne, who was nothing short of marvelous. Outside of a bases-loaded jam in the fourth inning, Ahearne was never in trouble and allowed just three singles and struck out nine in 7 ⅓ innings of work. He gave way to Steve Montgomery, who closed the game out with five straight outs. 

However, Pepperdine then had to deal with Texas, who was making their 26th appearance in Omaha, including a record sixteenth for head coach Cliff Gustafson. But Pepperdine’s Derek Wallace was up to the task, silencing the Longhorns over six innings of work, scattering seven singles. Montgomery finished with three clean innings of relief for the save, and Pepperdine was into the national semifinals. After the game, Gustafson made a comment about Pepperdine’s chances: “They’re going to be hard to beat if people can’t start putting up runs on them…I don’t remember the last time we were shut out [in the College World Series]”. 

Pepperdine drew Texas again in the semifinals, and they had two chances to beat the Longhorns, but the Waves only needed one. It was certainly a more dramatic victory, as Pepperdine did surrender a few runs, but it took a while. Steve Duda, the #3 starter for Pepperdine, one-hit Texas over six innings. He got one out in the seventh but hit a batter and gave up a single, giving way to Montgomery. Montgomery could not work his magic this time, as Texas bashed a three-run home run, ending Pepperdine’s record shutout streak in stunning fashion. The Longhorns manufactured another run and led 4-1 into the bottom of the 7th, but Pepperdine was not to be denied. After leaning on pitching and defense for two and a half games, the Waves needed some clutch hitting, and they got it from second baseman Steve Rodriguez.

 Rodriguez, all of 179 pounds, slammed a grand slam in the bottom of the seventh, flipping the script on the Longhorns and giving Pepperdine a 5-4 lead. Montgomery worked out of an eighth-inning jam and spun a perfect ninth to send the Waves to the title game. After the game, Gustafson commented “I’m not giving Pepperdine the title yet, but with Ahearn on the mound, I like their chances”. It was high praise considering Pepperdine had not even been considered a threat to win the tournament and had to face powerhouse Cal State Fullerton in the championship. 

The Titans were making their seventh appearance in Omaha, having played Division One baseball for only 17 seasons. They had already claimed two titles, and after ripping through the losers bracket and stunning #1 Miami twice in a row, Cal State Fullerton was ready to add a third championship to their trophy case. 

Pepperdine sent Ahearne to the mound, and he dazzled once more for the Waves, giving up just one unearned run on three hits over 6 ⅔ innings. Wallace came on and got the final out of the seventh inning, and the game went into the eighth with Pepperdine leading 3-1 on the strength of a two-run first inning and fifth-inning dinger from Eric Ekdahl. 

Montgomery entered for the Waves, and he got into immediate trouble, loading the bases with one out. He gave up a sacrifice fly, putting runners on the corners with two outs. And, after winning the previous game with a home run, Steve Rodriguez came up huge for Pepperdine in the field. Fullerton’s Tony Banks hit a sizzling grounder to Rodriguez’s left, who took a step and dove to snag the ball right at the lip of the outfield grass. Rodriguez bounced up and threw out Banks by a step to keep Pepperdine ahead by a run. Montgomery fired a perfect ninth, and Pepperdine’s improbable title run was complete. 

The Aftermath

Ahearne was one of four Pepperdine players to receive All-Tournament honors, with battery-mate Scott Volmer, first baseman Dan Melendez, and Rodriguez also being honored. They did see eight players, including five pitchers, drafted from their title team. Wallace was a first-round pick of the Cubs, and Melendez, Ahearne, Montgomery, and Rodriguez also heard their names called in the first seven rounds. Pepperdine has not made the College World Series since 1992, with a run to the 2014 Super Regionals the closest they’ve come.