When Arizona last reached a College World Series, Oregon's baseball program wasn't even in exist. Far from it -- UO announced the return of baseball from a 25-plus-year hiatus in July 2007, three years after the Wildcats' most recent trip to Omaha.
The Ducks were not a roadblock between Tucson and Nebraska then, but they certainly are now. UO rolled into Hi Corbett Field this weekend ranked No. 10, just ahead of the Wildcats. A series win for either has huge NCAA tournament implications, with selections coming in just three weeks.
And UO flew out to the early advantage.
UA dug an early hole en route to a 6-1 loss Friday night, giving up three runs through three innings. The bad news for Andy Lopez's boys: Wildcat ace Kurt Heyer took the loss. The good news is UO exhausted its own ace, Alex Keudell, who went the distance and surrendered the one run.
Taking the next two would be huge, and perhaps necessary for UA's effort to bring the Super Regional home. The Wildcats play seven straight on the road after this weekend's tilt, including three against a USC team playing for its NCAA life.
PerfectGame.org had both the Wildcats and Ducks hosting regionals in its bracketology earlier this week. Conference mates UCLA and Stanford are also tabbed as initial hosts, and UO/Stanford are projected as Super Regional sites.
The Wildcats are not only jockeying for postseason positioning with its Pac brethren. Other western programs are climbing fast, like San Diego. The Toreros are 12-5 since April 1 and No. 19 in the polls. USD could work its way into the regional host site discussion with a strong finish.
UO's quick rise up the baseball ranks is impressive. Duck baseball has ridden the same wave of Nike-fueled success that landed football in three consecutive Bowl Championship Series games, and opened the doors on state-of-the-art Matt Knight Court.
Duck head coach George Horton was wooed from perennial powerhouse Cal State Fullerton. Thus, and not surprisingly, UO has flourished with a bevy of southern California talent. Worth noting is that UO jumped back into the baseball fray immediately following hated rival Oregon State's second consecutive College World Series run.
The addition of a program like Oregon only deepens a conference already at the top of collegiate baseball. The Pac and SEC run neck-and-neck. Adding UO, and a Washington State program on the cusp of an NCAA berth this season certainly improves the conference's case. But it also makes slogging through the regular season that much more difficult.