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Casey looking forward as Beavers prepare to open

Pat Casey has the tape of his Oregon State baseball team winning its second straight College World Series championship tucked away.

Sure, the coach will get around to watching it at some point. For now, he's focused only on what's next for the Beavers: the quest for a third consecutive national title.

"There will be a time for me to do that," Casey said of watching last year's victory over North Carolina. "I just think there's a little part of me that doesn't want to step into that enjoyment spot right now. I guess because of the fear of complacency or the fear that I won't be on the attack, and I think that's how we got there to begin with."

With impressive pitching and a gritty, grind-it-out offense, the Beavers went from being on the NCAA tournament bubble to the fifth Division I school to win back-to-back baseball titles. All that from a program in an area of the country not exactly considered a college baseball hotbed.

"What Pat Casey has done at Oregon State is miraculous," Arizona State coach Pat Murphy said. "If people look at that story closely, they will know that those two years, he did it with Oregon kids and did it by taking on everybody. It's a tremendous baseball story, and maybe the greatest in our modern-day time."

Oregon State will try to join Southern California (1970-74) as the only schools to win at least three straight CWS titles, starting with its season opener Friday against Vanderbilt.

"I think hopefully we've opened up the door," Casey said, "for a lot of colleges and schools to feel like, 'You know what? There's a lot of people playing baseball across the country than in just one part of it.'"

And they'll all get started on the same day this season.

The NCAA's new uniform starting date for Division I teams gives college baseball its first true opening day. In an attempt to create more competitive balance, the NCAA created the rule to prevent programs from starting their regular-season schedule before Feb. 22.

"I think it's going to be a much shorter season, so therefore the intensity of the season will be a little bit higher," said Murphy, whose Sun Devils started last season 20 days earlier. "We look forward to it."

The rule gives teams 13 weeks to play a 56-game regular-season schedule. In the past, warm-weather programs were able to spread out their schedules so they didn't play as many games per week.

"When I was coaching at Notre Dame is when the new rule about the common start date was put in," said Paul Mainieri, in his second year as coach at LSU. "I was a big proponent of it and I'm still a proponent of it, even being in the South. For a sport to have true credibility on a national basis, there has to be some consistency."

Oregon State didn't need the new rule to win its two titles, but lost a number of key contributors from the championship teams. The Beavers still have sophomore right-hander Jorge Reyes, the CWS most outstanding player last season, and righty Mike Stutes, who won 12 games.

"One of the things I tell them is, 'Hey, some of you guys were a big part of that club last year, but that club is in a picture frame hanging on the wall now,'" Casey said. "I tell them the best thing you can do is create your own identity. Be your own club."

The Tar Heels have been to the CWS championship series the last two years and lost to the Beavers both times. With a dangerous offense that includes slugging first baseman Dustin Ackley, the national freshman of year, third baseman Chad Flack and catcher Tim Federowicz, could the third time be a charm?

"We don't even talk about that," North Carolina coach Mike Fox said with a laugh. "We talk about the process. We're realistic enough to know that you can go another 10 years and never get to another College World Series. It's just that hard to get there."

Arizona State is a preseason No. 1 pick by many national publications, with Pac-10 player of the year Brett Wallace powering a potent offense.

"Our team and the guys on it, they know that being No. 1 is just insignificant at this point," Murphy said. "If there's 20 times that you get ranked through the course of a season, this is the least significant time to be No. 1."

Vanderbilt knows the feeling. The Commodores were the top-ranked team for most of last season and entered the NCAA tournament as the No. 1 seed before being upset by Michigan in the regionals. They figure to again be one of the teams to beat with third baseman Pedro Alvarez, a possible No. 1 pick in June, and slugging outfielder Dominic de la Osa.

South Carolina, which led the country with 113 homers last season, has sluggers Justin Smoak, James Darnell and Phil Disher back as they look to return to Omaha for the first time since 2004.

Other schools expected to contend for the eight-team College World Series in June include Arizona, Miami, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, San Diego and UCLA.

Some players expected to have big seasons include: Arizona right-hander Preston Guilmet, Miami second baseman Jemile Weeks, Missouri righty Aaron Crow, San Diego lefty Brian Matusz, Texas outfielder Kyle Russell, Virginia righty Jacob Thompson and Yale catcher Ryan Lavarnway.

As the popularity of the sport has risen, with new stadiums cropping up on campuses and attendance marks records being broken annually, so has the parity. Oregon State has proven that national champions don't come only from the West and South anymore.

"College baseball has really taken off like a rocket in the last seven or eight years," Casey said. "It's unbelievable. We have 900 people on our waiting list for season tickets. That's just phenomenal and I think that's a great sign of what's taken place in college baseball all across the country."

Oregon coach Pat Casey, center, is hugged by players after Oregon State beat North Carolina to win the NCAA championship in June. - AP