OMAHA — College baseball has long been known as a sport for schools in the South, and the game’s history books back that up.
The region's prowess is never more evident than the annual lineup at the College World Series, as teams come north to Omaha in droves.
The 2019 College World Series maintains that trend, featuring seven teams from what is considered the southern region of the United States, and one team that’s carrying the flag not only for the Big Ten Conference but northern baseball in general.
Michigan is making its first appearance in Omaha in 35 years and taking charge for the Big Ten, a conference that hadn’t had a team in the eight-team field since 2013.
The Wolverines picked up a win in the tournament’s opening game, their first win in Omaha since 1983, a 5-3 victory against Texas Tech on Saturday at TD Ameritrade Park.
“This is big deal for us, but I also think it’s a big deal for Nebraska fans, too. We’re one of the teams they face year after year in the conference, so it’s nice to see that the conference gets some recognition here,” Michigan infielder Blake Nelson said. “The guys up north can play baseball too. It’s not just the SEC and ACC. It gives us a little extra motivation knowing we’re playing not just for ourselves but our conference and our region.”
It came as no surprise Friday when Michigan coach Erik Bakich, who was just named coach of the year by the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association, mentioned during the pre-CWS introductory news conference that the Wolverines’ ascension to college baseball’s biggest stage is a “big deal” for the Big Ten.
"It's good to represent the conference, and, obviously, we want to help raise the Big Ten's profile and continue to improve," Bakich said. "Hopefully we can make this a regular thing as a team and as a conference."
Before Michigan’s run to the College World Series this season, the conference had had only 24 participants over the tournament’s 73-year history — 50 fewer teams than the Big 12 and a staggering 73 fewer than the all-time conference leader, the Pac-12.
Things don’t get much better for Big Ten teams when they arrive in Omaha, either, as a conference school hasn’t claimed the NCAA title since Ohio State won in 1966.
All of this history and, in the end, unproductive statistics have done little to deter the Wolverines, who had to get past defending national champion Oregon State and overall No. 1 seed UCLA just to get to Omaha.
“One of the reasons I went to Michigan is because I wanted to make a name for Michigan baseball and the north,” said starter Karl Kauffman, who earned Saturday's win against the Red Raiders. “Getting the chance to do this on this stage has been a dream and hopefully it’s something where the Big Ten can build off it, especially in the youth baseball community.
"That’s the most important part — that these northern kids are seeing us succeed up here and seeing that they can do it.”
Playing in the Big Ten does have its benefits beyond the overall competition of the conference. TD Ameritrade Park is familiar to Michigan, which is not something the rest of the field can claim. The Wolverines played five games at the park during the Big Ten Tournament less than a month ago.
“Playing Nebraska up here in the Big Ten Tournament was a big help today, because we got to see what it’s like up here when fans pack the stands,” Nelson said. “It gave us some experience and seeing what the pitching looks like here and the dimensions, I think it gave us an advantage today.”
The Wolverines also have history going for them, at least for Big Ten bragging rights. Michigan has claimed two of the conference’s four CWS titles, one more than both Minnesota and Ohio State, the only other winners.
Their task is simple now: add to the bragging rights.
“It would obviously be a huge deal to lift that trophy. It’s everyone’s dream that plays baseball, but for now, we’re not trying to look too far ahead, just to the next game,” Nelson said.
What’s next for the Wolverines is a date Monday with Florida State, who took down Arkansas 1-0 in Game 2 on Saturday.