Late comebacks are nothing new for the California Golden Bears.
Saving their season last Monday night with a stunning rally against Baylor was nothing. They faced even longer odds a few months ago, when they rescued their program from extinction.
"I'm so proud of this team," coach David Esquer said. "To see them experience and work hard and going through what we've gone through and to see them on the field and knowing that is what's it all about, that's rewarding as a coach."
The Golden Bears (35-21) opened the season thinking it might be the last for a school that won the very first College World Series against President George H.W. Bush's Yale team in 1947. Now they're heading to the NCAA tournament's super regionals for the first time against Dallas Baptist (42-18) in perhaps the most intriguing of this weekend's eight best-of-three series — alive and well, thanks to a massive fundraising effort that recently reinstated the program.
It's been a special season for California, which is two wins from its first College World Series appearance since 1992 after pulling off a four-run rally in the bottom of the ninth inning that gave the Golden Bears a 9-8 victory over Baylor.
"Holy cow," Esquer said after the win. "I say I believe it because in the dugout I was saying, 'Hey, we could do this,' but when it actually happened, I don't know if I believed it."
California and Dallas Baptist, also a super regionals newcomer, will square off starting Saturday at Santa Clara University's Stephen Schott Stadium — technically a neutral site for both because, in part, neither had adequate facilities to host a super regional.
Other super regional series that start Saturday are: UC Irvine (42-16) at Virginia (52-9), Connecticut (45-18-1) at South Carolina (48-14) and Texas A&M (45-19) at Florida State (45-17).
Series that begin Friday include: Stanford (35-20) at North Carolina (48-14), Mississippi State (37-23) at Florida (48-16), Oregon State (41-17) at Vanderbilt (50-10) and Arizona State (42-16) at Texas (47-16).
Like California, Dallas Baptist is used to the underdog role. After all, the Patriots have been a Division I team for just six seasons and are an independent, unaffiliated with a conference. But they are hardly lacking talent. Outfielder Jason Krizan made headlines earlier this season with a 39-game hitting streak, which tied for 11th-longest in Division I history. He also set an NCAA mark with 39 doubles — and counting.
Still, this is Dallas Baptist's second NCAA tournament appearance, and along the way, the Patriots got their first win — a 3-2 victory over Oklahoma in 10 innings — and knocked off TCU and Oral Roberts to get here. Dallas Baptist also joined Miami as the only independent teams to make it to the super regionals.
"I don't know that it's really sunk in," coach Dan Heefner said after his team's regional-clinching victory over Oral Roberts on Monday. "Our focus is always on the next game and the next pitch. It's always been a great program at DBU, but this is a whole new level."
Connecticut is a rising program from the Big East, and like Cal and Dallas Baptist, is in the super regionals for the first time. Led by a pair of first-round draft picks in outfielder George Springer and right-hander Matt Barnes, the Huskies have a tough task ahead: They have to get past the defending national champion Gamecocks to make it to Omaha for the first time since 1979.
South Carolina has been ranked No. 1 in the country at times this season, and they've been able to keep winning even without star outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr. The College World Series most outstanding player a year ago has been sidelined since April 23 after injuring his left wrist while trying to make a catch.
Players such as Evan Marzilli, Adrian Morales and Christian Walker have been solid on offense, and the pitching with starter Michael Roth and closer Matt Price has made South Carolina tough to beat.
"Our guys have been there enough," coach Ray Tanner said. "I feel good knowing whatever happens next weekend is going to happen because of baseball. It is not going to be anxiety or tension or inexperience. If we play poorly, we are going to lose, and if we play well, we have a good chance to win, and I feel good about going into it that way because of having veteran players."
Virginia feels the same way. The Cavaliers were selected as the No. 1 national seed entering the tournament, and they've certainly lived up to that label. Led by left-hander Danny Hultzen, drafted second overall by Seattle, Virginia has been stingy on the mound and outscored its opponents in the regionals 29-3.
"This is three years in a row that we have made the super regional level and that's equivalent to the Sweet 16 in basketball," coach Brian O'Connor said. "That's a special accomplishment."
The Cavaliers will be hard-pressed to win it all, though, even if they get past UC Irvine and make it to Omaha. Since the NCAA adopted its current tournament format in 1999, only Miami that same year has been No. 1 and brought home a national title.
"This is a great accomplishment, and we're very proud of it," Hultzen said. "But at the same time, we know we are not even close to being done yet."