OMAHA, Nebraska -- The Southeastern Confrerence comprising half the field at the College World Series not only is nothing new, it's becoming a bit of a tradition.
This year the SEC is represented in the eight-team MCWS field by Texas A&M, Arkansas, Auburn and Ole Miss. It's the third time since 2015 that the SEC has made up half of the field in Omaha and the fourth time overall. The conference first accomplished it in 1997 and again in 2004, 2015 and 2019 prior to this year.
Asked how much it illustrated the overall strength of baseball in the conference to again have half the field filled by SEC squads, pitcher Conor Noland did not have to think about it for long.
"I think this speaks volumes to it," Noland responded without hesitation. "There's four teams here from the SEC. The (SEC) West is loaded. Every week you have to bring it. Obviously we played a lot of these teams before. It really gets you ready to jump into this kind of tournament where you might face those teams again. I think we're ready and have a good sneak peek of what we have to do."
Texas A&M faces Oklahoma at 2 p.m. ET Friday in the opening game of the MCWS. Arkansas will open play Saturday with a 2 p.m. ET game vs. Stanford. Both of those games will be televised on ESPN, followed by Auburn playing a familiar SEC foe in Ole Miss at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN2.
The Aggies are the only SEC club in Bracket 1, but SEC teams make up three of the four entries in Bracket 2, with Stanford being the only outlier.
All of the SEC teams went through practices on the pristine Charles Schwab Field Friday, then met with the media on a rotating basis throughout the day. The SEC players and coaches all were in agreement that going through the grind that is their conference season and tournament helped get them to Omaha and prepare them for what lies ahead.
"I think playing an SEC schedule puts you in the best possible scenario to have success," said Texas A&M catcher Troy Claunch, a graduate student who played his first season in the SEC this year after tranferring from Oregon State. "When you're battle tested every single weekend, when there's not an easy at-bat, Friday through Sunday. Whether it's the eighth inning of a blowout game or a tight game, there is no such thing as an easy at-bat or no such thing as an easy pitch. When you can go through that week after week, you feel ready to take on anybody."
Claunch's coach, Jim Schlossnagle, also in in his first year of coaching in the conference after 18 years heading up the TCU program. He said the biggest difference between the sEC and other conferences is the fans.
"It means more to more people," Schlossnagle said. "The schools are bigger. College baseball means a lot to the people of Fort Worth, Texas and TCU. But there's more people -- 70,000 students. 510,000 former students (at Texas A&M). So it just means more to more people in my opinion. But the league itself, it literally such a gauntlet because of the level of play. Every single team."
Schlossnagle pointed out the competitiveness of teams from the conference that didn't even make the NCAA Tournament.
"Alabama and Kentucky didn't make the NCAA Tournament," he said. "Yet if you would have told me two weeks ago Alabama and Kentucky would be at Omaha, it wouldn't shock me in the least, not for one second. "What Troy said, every single pitch has so much riding on it, just to win a game, much less a series. And then you throw in the atmospheres that are involved at just about every ballpark, it is, on a Monday, the day after you play a three-game series ... I'm literally mentally just so exhausted from the grind of the decisions that happen on every single pitch and the way it can turn, because the players are so good and the coaches are so good."
There is another team noticeably missing from the SEC Omaha crowd, and that's Tennessee. The Volunteers spent the majority of the season ranked No. 1 in the nation, and won both the SEC East division and the SEC Tournament in historically dominant fashion. But they lost in three games to Notre Dame in the Knoxville Super Regional they hosted.
Meanwhile, Ole Miss was the last at-large team added to the NCAA Tournament field. And yet here they are, preparing to face Auburn on Saturday.
Mike Bianco, the Ole Miss coach, insists that familiarity with a conference opponent is only going to count for so much on this Omaha stage.
"You get to this point and you are who you are," Bianco said. "The question about playing the conference opponents, you're familiar with them. I think there's an ease of trying to look at scouting reports because not only are you watching video but you've played and you've seen a lot of that live. There's a little bit of being comfortable with that, but at the end of the day, like I said, we played Auburn maybe 10 weeks ago. And they're different. And we're different. ...
"We're all a little bit different, so it's going to come down to like it always does and should is who plays the best, he said. "I think there's too much made up of the scouting reports and all of that. It comes down to which guys pitch better, which guys get the timely hit. That's usually who wins"
Claunch also offered a cautionary tale for all the SEC teams in Omaha.
"I think there's no surprise that there's as many SEC teams as there are here," Claunch said. "It's a great conference, but the teams that aren't in the SEC that are here are also great teams."