OMAHA, Neb. - A few minutes after Oregon State was knocked out of last year's College World Series, reliever Kevin Gunderson made a guarantee that followed the Beavers everywhere they went. "The Beavers will be back in Omaha next year in 2006. I promise you that," Gunderson said 361 days ago.
Oregon State's Kevin Gunderson, left, celebrates with teammate Chris Kunda after Oregon State beat Stanford 15-0 to win their NCAA super regional baseball game in Corvallis, Ore., Sunday, June 11, 2006. (AP Photo/Don Ryan)
Well, the Beavers are back for the second straight year — and third time overall. They are the only returning team from last year's CWS field.
"The path seemed a little more difficult when my closer told everybody in the world that he was going to guarantee we were going to be back in Omaha," Oregon State coach Pat Casey said Thursday. "We walked around with a pretty good bull's eye on our chest. I told him I was going to knock him out at the end of the year if he didn't get it done."
Bracket 1 double-elimination play opens Friday with Clemson (52-14) playing No. 8 national seed Georgia Tech (50-16) and No. 5 Fullerton (48-13) playing North Carolina (50-13).
First-round games Saturday in Bracket 2 include: No. 2 Rice (55-11) against No. 7 Georgia (47-21) and Oregon State (44-14) against Miami (41-22).
Bracket winners meet in a best-of-three championship series starting June 24.
The Beavers are still looking for their first CWS win. They went two games and out in 1952. Last year, they lost 3-1 to Tulane and 4-3 in 10 innings to Baylor.
Oregon State isn't content just to show up this year.
"We want to win the whole darn thing," outfielder Cole Gillespie said.
It's been a tougher road to Omaha for the Beavers, and not just because they had to back up Gunderson's guarantee.
They had gaps to fill in the outfield. All-American and career hits leader Jacoby Ellsbury left after he was drafted in the first round by Boston last year. They also lost two starters in the first week of March when Tyler Graham and Gillespie went out with injuries.
Geoff Wagner and John Wallace filled in admirably for those two, Casey said, and others did likewise as more injuries occurred.
"This club is different from last year," Casey said. "They had to rely on staying together as a club. I think we had 30 different lineup changes. Last year, we didn't have one injury.
"By them getting hurt, it created some opportunities for guys we didn't think would have to play. Maybe it was a good thing. It made us a little tougher."
Gillespie leads the Beavers with a .386 average, 12 home runs, 23 doubles and 53 RBIs. Dallas Buck, the Beavers' starter against Miami, led the Pacific-10 Conference with 12 wins. He has a 3.03 ERA, and opponents are batting .207 against him.
Jonah Nickerson has a 2.50 ERA and 112 strikeouts, and Gunderson led the conference with 17 saves.
Casey said he doubts last year's CWS experience will give his team much of an edge over the competition. But it should help the returning players, he said.
"It's going to help us in how we handle the atmosphere," he said. "There are some kids, their first time to Omaha, they want to experience it and find out what it's all about. But I really thought last year when we crossed the white lines we did a lot of things well.
"I just think with the quality of competition in the College World Series, a lot comes down to who plays well and if you get a couple breaks here and there."