Throughout Western Athletic Conference regular-season and tournament baseball play, Sacramento State was the team to beat.
The Hornets will face a different scenario when they open play in the NCAA Regional Division I playoffs Friday in San Luis Obispo.
As the No. 4 seed in the four-team, double-elimination field, the Hornets will be the underdogs as they make their first D-I baseball playoff appearance in school history dating to 1990.
The Hornets (39-22) will open at 6 p.m. Friday against host and top-seeded Cal Poly (45-10), the winner of the potent Big West Conference and, like the Hornets, enjoying a season for the ages.
Also in the field are West Coast Conference champion Pepperdine (39-16), the No. 3 seed, and No. 2 Arizona State (33-22), the third-place finisher in the Pacific-12 Conference. The Waves and Sun Devils will play at 1 p.m. Friday.
The tournament winner will advance to the June 6-9 Super Regional and face the winner of the Fort Worth Regional that involves Big 12 champion TCU, Siena, Dallas Baptist and Sam Houston State.
Cal Poly, which has been ranked as high as No. 1 nationally this season, is No. 4 in the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association poll and No. 6 in the USA Today Coaches’ Poll.
Arizona State is among five Pac-12 teams, including Stanford, that advanced to the NCAA Tournament. The Sun Devils are No. 18 in the Collesgiate Baseball poll and the Waves No. 25.
Sac State, which is unranked, received an automatic NCAA berth Sunday by beating Utah Valley 10-3 in the WAC tournament championship game in Mesa, Ariz.
Thirty-one schools earned automatic bids in the 64-team tournament that features 16 regionals.
Though they are viewed as NCAA Regional long shots, the Hornets have had impressive wins over ranked teams this season. They include a 7-6 come-from-behind thriller April 21 at Raley Field over Pac-12 champion Oregon State (42-12), which earned the overall No. 1 national seed and is hosting a four-team regional this weekend in Corvallis. Oregon State beat Sac State 8-1 the next day at John Smith Field.
“We were the underdogs when we beat Oregon State and when we beat Texas A&M,” Sac State coach Reggie Christiansen said of the Hornets’ 1-0 win Feb. 21 in College Station over the then-No. 21 Aggies, who are in the Houston regional. “Our guys can get behind that.”
WAC Player of the Year and all-tournament selection Rhys Hoskins (Jesuit High School) expects the momentum of coming back from a first-round tournament loss Thursday to Cal State Bakersfield to decisively win four games in row in the final three days to continue.
“We don’t care where we go, who we play,” said Hoskins, a junior first basemanwho had two home runs and four RBIs in the title game. “We just want to show how good a team we are. It’s awesome to make history and to be part of the NCAA regionals.”
The team and some of its fans gathered Monday morning at the Field House American Sports Bar to watch the tournament selection show.
“San Luis Obispo here we come!” Christiansen tweeted when it was announced on ESPNU where the Hornets would play.
The Hornets are 12-32 against Cal Poly, having last faced the Mustangs in 2009 when they were swept in a three-game series. Cal Poly has won the last seven games between the schools.
The Hornets are 2-1 all-time against Pepperdine, winning that series between the teams in 1998. Sac State has not faced Arizona State in baseball.
But whom they play is only a back story for the Hornets.
“It’s the ultimate to make the NCAA Tournament,” said WAC tournament MVP Chris Lewis, a sophomore outfielder-designated hitter. “We set our goals high in wanting to win the WAC. Now we’re going to have to set our goals a little higher.”
Call The Bee’s Bill Paterson, (916) 326-5506.