There are just sixteen schools left in this year's mens college baseball bracket, and it is anyones guess as to who will take home the sport's ultimate prize.
However, before making an appearance in Omaha for the College World Series, teams must get past the Super Regionals round, held at four different locations across the country.
While watching this weekend (Super Regionals begin Friday afternoon), make sure to pay extra attention to the following five student-athletes. Each one of these stars have excelled during the regular season in the process of helping their team reach the sport's sweet sixteen. However, things are guaranteed to get more difficult as the competition gets tougher and the lights get brighter in the Super Regionals. One thing is for certain: each of these players will be counted on to continue their season-long success and carry their teams to the pinnacle of college baseball.
*All statistics courtesy of Baseball Reference
SP Jack Leiter, Vanderbilt
Vanderbilt has created one of the best professional talent pipelines in the nation, and no two players represent this better than starting pitchers Jack Leiter and Kumar Rocker (more on him later). The pair of dynamic hurlers are poised to go as high as the top two picks in the upcoming MLB draft.
Leiter, the son of former MLB All Star Al Leiter, has excelled in 2021, pitching to the tune of a 9-3 record and a 2.22 ERA. What attracts scouts the most to Leiter's game is likely his elite stuff; he had a K/9 rate of 14.8 across 89 innings as a sophomore. A three-pitch repertoire that includes a nasty curveball and stifling changeup made the sophomore arguably the most dominant pitcher in the SEC this season. The highlight of the year for Leiter was a dominant 16-strikeout no-hitter against South Carolina on March 20th.
Now, the Commodores will need the New Jersey native to pitch lights-out against a talented East Carolina team desperate for their first College World Series appearance (in an NCAA-record 31 tries). While Vanderbilt head coach Tim Corbin has yet to announce a starter for Game 1 between Leiter and Rocker, whoever takes the mound will face off against another elite arm in ECU's Gavin Williams and a lineup headlined by All-American second baseman Connor Norby.
SP Kumar Rocker, Vanderbilt
It's a testament to Vanderbilt's starting staff that the 2019 CWS Most Outstanding Player may not even start his team's playoff series. Still, that's no knock on Kumar Rocker, a dazzling talent with a different but just as overpowering skill set. Rocker, now a junior, turned heads for the 2019 National Champion Commodores. On top of his Most Outstanding Player award, he became the first-ever pitcher to toss a no-hitter in the Super Regionals, silencing Duke's bats in a history-making 19 strikeout performance. This season, Rocker was phenomenal, pitching to a 12-3 record with an ERA of 2.65, an improvement from his freshman year.
The fact that this year's iteration of Vandy has an even more outstanding Rocker and a new ace in Leiter is a chilling thought for the rest of the NCAA Tournament field. So far, Rocker's postseason excellence has continued; he threw a seven-inning shutout against Presbyterian in Vanderbilt's first game of the tournament. Unlike Leiter, who has limited playoff experience, Rocker has proven himself on college baseball's biggest stage numerous times. If he gets the chance to pitch in an elimination game, baseball fans across the country could be in for a can't-miss performance.
2B Jace Jung, Texas Tech
Few, if any, hitters were as good as Jace Jung was for Texas Tech this season. The slugger knocked in 20 home runs (tied for seventh best in all of Division I) and 67 RBIs to accompany a .706 slugging percentage this season. To top it off, the sophomore had an outstanding .342 batting average. Jung's dominance at the plate earned him a slew of regular season honors, such as a spot on the All-American team and the Big 12 Player of the Year, something that no underclassman had previously been awarded.
With so much talent on display at such a young age, there are few things Jung hasn't done in his young collegiate career. However, this will be his first ever appearance in the Super Regionals, since 2020's postseason tournament was cancelled due to COVID-19. With the Red Raiders set to face off against a tough Stanford Cardinals squad, it will be up to Jung, fellow All-American Cal Conley, and the rest of the Tech bats to carry the team. Will the bright lights of the postseason prove too challenging for Jung, or will this budding star continue to rake as he did in the regular season?
RP Kevin Kopps, Arkansas
Heading into the tournament, Arkansas is the number one overall seed and favorite to take home a National Championship for the first time in program history. The school has been represented in Omaha nine times throughout its history, but has yet to take home the ultimate prize. This year's group may be their best ever, sitting with a stellar 49-11 record, an SEC title, and the #1 overall ranking in the country.
While these Razorbacks are certainly a well-rounded attack, no player has been more important than reliever Kevin Kopps. "Reliever" is simply a title, as Arkansas head coach Dave Van Horn is quick to bring his best arm into the game at any given notice. So far, Kopps has rewarded his head coach's faith...and then some. The senior has pitched to a perfect 12-0 record, accompanied by an absurd 0.68 ERA across 79.2 innings pitched, easily the best in the nation. Even more astounding may be Kopps' mix of quality pitches (headlined by an unhittable cutter) and supreme command; his 8.00 strikeout-to-walk ratio is tops amongst Power 5 pitchers.
Expectations are sky-high for both Kopps and Arkansas. As this season's breakout player, Kopps may very well win the Golden Spikes award for best player in the nation. While concerns about a ramped up postseason workload have been mentioned, he's shown no signs of slowing down to start the tournament, tossing 13.1 scoreless innings over three appearances out of the bullpen. To capture the first title in school history, Arkansas will first need Kopps to continue pitching at an elite level in the Super Regionals. Anything less may lead to a massive upset in Fayetteville against the red-hot bats of NC State.
OF Dylan Crews, LSU
Few players in college baseball possess the five-tool skillset of LSU's Dylan Crews. The freshman has been the best hitter on a good, if slightly underwhelming, Tigers team, batting .361 to go along with 16 homers, 40 RBIs, an on-base percentage of .455, and 12 stolen bases. At just 19 years of age, Crews has already earned himself All-American honors, and could be hitting just the tip of the iceberg as far as his potential. Crews' fantastic play in the regional against Oregon bodes well for the rest of the tournament:
With all that being said, LSU faces a tall task in the Super Regionals against Tennessee. The Vols have had their number all season, sweeping the season series against the Tigers en route to an SEC East title. Legendary LSU head coach Paul Mainieri called out the Tennessee crowd and players for "nasty" behavior following their three-game series in late March, remarks that should only rile up the Knoxville crowd even further. Of all the Super Regional matchups this weekend, this meeting of SEC rivals promises to be a nail-biter.
Given their struggles against Tennessee this year and LSU's somewhat inconsistent inter-conference play (38-23 overall record but 13-17 against SEC teams), it's hard to pick the Tigers to pull this one out. If they have any shot at pulling off the road upset, chances are it will come from Crews, one of the few hitters in the Super Regionals who can impact the game with both his bat and his legs. Other members of a solid LSU lineup will also need to play their best baseball of the season, such as Tre' Morgan and Gavin Dugas. Still, Tennessee's pitching game plan will likely focus on holding Crews in check; a failure to do so could make things interesting.