Long before Oregon State put northern baseball back on the map, Big Ten programs fared well at the College World Series.
Michigan (1953, 1962), Ohio State (1966) and Minnesota (1956, 1960, 1964) all captured national titles by defeating teams from warm-weather states. A shorter season allowed the Upper Midwest schools to avoid severe early-spring weather.
But Ohio State’s 1966 championship marked the end of the Big Ten’s run as a perennial threat on the national stage. Until Oregon State broke through with back-to-back titles in 2006-07, no northern school had won the CWS since the Buckeyes’ last march.
Minnesota (43-13), the 2018 Big Ten regular-season and tournament champion, is carrying the conference flag entering its Corvallis Super Regional showdown with No. 3 national seed Oregon State (47-10-1). The best-of-3 series begins at 2 p.m. Friday with the winner advancing to the CWS.
“Big Ten baseball is overlooked a lot,” junior shortstop Terrin Vavra said. “We haven’t had a lot of teams in the past that have made it too far, and that’s what we’re trying to do.”
The 14th-seeded Golden Gophers went 3-0 at last week’s Minneapolis Regional, including two victories over Pac-12 powerhouse UCLA. Minnesota is in the super regional round for the first time since the NCAA tournament field expanded to 64 teams in 1999.
The program’s last CWS appearance came in 1977, when current head coach John Anderson was a student assistant. Paul Molitor, now the manager of the Minnesota Twins, was the team’s star player.
The Golden Gophers are 24-6 in road and neutral-site games this season. Minnesota has notable series wins at TCU, Purdue and Ohio State.
“That’s just the nature of where we’re located,” Anderson said. “We’re isolated, similar to Oregon State as well. So when you’re isolated and you have weather that we have where you can’t play outside until April 1 if you’re lucky … you’ve got to get used to traveling and playing on the road.
“You can’t be weak to play in that part of the word.”
The Golden Gophers are anything but weak.
Despite losing six pitchers off last year’s team, Minnesota led the Big Ten with a 3.06 team earned run average. A veteran Golden Gophers lineup boasts a .302 batting average, also tops in the conference.
Ace Reggie Meyer (8-3, 2.62) will start Friday’s opener, Anderson announced. Meyer is a 6-foot-4, 210-pound junior right-hander.
Fellow righty Patrick Fredrickson (9-0, 1.76), the Big Ten pitcher and freshman of the year, is slated to throw Saturday. Fredrickson hails from Gig Harbor, Washington.
“When I went on my visit I liked the program, I liked the school and the coaching staff is great,” said Fredrickson, who will have plenty of friends and family at the games. “I liked the approach they took in recruiting me and I just liked some of the guys.”
Minnesota also has one of the country’s top bullpens with freshman Max Meyer (2-2, 1.34, 16 saves), sophomore Brett Schulze (9-0, 2.09) and senior Jackson Rose (5-1, 2.03). Max Meyer, no relation to Reggie, throws in the mid-90s and has a wipeout slider from the right side.
With an experienced group of returning position players, Anderson believed the 2018 Golden Gophers would be a force in the Big Ten. The pitching success has surprised the 37th-year coach.
“We just didn’t really know how we were going to put our staff together.” Anderson said. “Our pitching coach Ty McDevitt has done an outstanding job and we got a couple surprises from two freshmen. … We knew they had talent but you don’t know how they’re going to handle pitching at this level.”
Vavra, a third-round draft pick by the Colorado Rockies, leads the Golden Gophers in hitting (.393), home runs (10) and RBIs (59). Eight regulars are batting .270 or above.
Sophomore catcher Eli Wilson, the son of former Seattle Mariners great Dan Wilson, is hitting .295 with five homers and 37 RBIs.
“We are pretty confident going in that we are a good matchup against them,” Vavra said. “We know what they are capable of, we know they have a lot of talented players, and so do we. We are excited, and you can’t back down this time of the year.”
The road to Omaha runs straight through Corvallis, but Minnesota is ready for the challenge.
“We are familiar with being away from home,” Fredrickson said. “It’s a nice field and we’re playing a really good team, so it’s going to be a good test for us to see where we stand.”