OMAHA, Neb. — The Stony Brook Seawolves may be the first team from New York to make the College World Series since 1980 but they feel right at home in Omaha, Neb.
The Long Island university shares its name with a small neighborhood near 144th street in Omaha. Naturally, Stony Brook’s residents threw their support behind the Seawolves and the rest of Omaha followed. The Seawolves have garnered near celebrity status with the Nebraska locals because of their improbable postseason run.
At Friday’s opening game between UCLA and Stony Brook at TD Ameritrade Park – a 9-1 win for the Bruins – red shirts outnumbered blue shirts and Stony Brook’s adopted team motto “shock the world” could be seen on makeshift banners and t-shirts throughout the concourse. One merchandise vendor near the stadium said he had sold a disproportionate amount of Stony Brook gear to locals.
“My team isn’t here and Omaha is a college town,” said Nebraska fan and Omaha native Tony Huerta, who fit right in wearing a red Cornhuskers hat. “We’re not necessarily cheering against teams like UCLA but everyone loves the underdog.”
Added Steve Woodworth of Omaha: “They’re the newcomer. We’ve seen these other teams here before. It’s time to give someone else a chance.”
Stony Brook is an easy underdog to like as its program embodies the essence of a rags to riches story. Coach Matt Senk took over the program in 1991 when the Seawolves were playing in NCAA Division III. Twenty one years later, Senk has the Seawolves in their first College World Series as just the second No. 4 seed from a regional to get to Omaha.
The Seawolves have the second best batting average in the nation (.335) and they lead the country in wins. Like UCLA, they had seven players drafted in the MLB’s first-year player draft earlier this month including one in the supplemental first round, junior center fielder Travis Jankowski.
As for UCLA, despite being the No. 2 team in the country and the Series’ No. 2 national seed, Stony Brook’s Cinderella run has helped them fly under the radar. This isn’t unfamiliar territory for the Bruins as TCU went on a similar run during the Bruins last trip to Omaha in 2010. UCLA coach John Savage doesn’t seem to mind.
“If everyone is pulling for them, that’s what college baseball is all about,” Savage said in a press conference Thursday. “We’ll embrace it and go play.”
Stony Brook has four players on its roster from Southern California. Friday’s starter and right-handed ace of staff Tyler Johnson, sophomore outfielder Joshua Mason and sophomore outfielder Michael Hubbard each attended Crespi Carmelite High School in Encino while sophomore right hander Brandon McKnitt attended Bishop Amat High School in La Puente.
Johnson was removed in the top of the third inning after giving up seven earned runs on five hits and walking four. The seven runs surrendered by Johnson on Friday were the most he’s given up all season.
The only run UCLA starter Adam Plutko gave up during Friday’s game was a solo home run to Stony Brook’s senior catcher Pat Cantwell. The only runs Plutko has given up during the postseason have been solo home runs as he threw a complete-game shutout to beat Creighton 4-0 in regional play and threw seven innings in a 6-2 win over TCU in the Los Angeles super regional.