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June 18, 2004

Associated Press Writer

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) – For the second time, four Southeastern Conference teams are among the final eight vying for the national championship at the College World Series.

Louisiana State, Georgia, South Carolina and Arkansas all will be at Rosenblatt Stadium, where the tournament opens with first-round games Friday and Saturday.

“I thought when I walked in here that we were in Birmingham at the Southeastern Conference tournament,” Arizona coach Andy Lopez said Thursday.

In Friday’s games, Arizona (35-25-1) plays Georgia (43-21) at 2 p.m. EDT and Arkansas (45-22) meets top-ranked Texas (55-13) at 7 p.m.

Saturday, Cal State Fullerton (42-21) faces South Carolina (50-15) at 2:30 p.m. and Louisiana State (46-17) meets Miami (49-11) at 7 p.m.

No conference has had as many teams in a single CWS as the SEC. Four SEC teams – LSU, Alabama, Auburn and Mississippi State – made the field in 1997.

Nine of the 12 SEC teams made the 64-team national tournament this year.

“It’s a conference that has administrators who care about baseball and resources are provided, and they try to put you in the best situation to win,” South Carolina coach Ray Tanner said.

Lopez, in his third year at Arizona after coaching Florida the previous seven, said college baseball is good in the West, Southwest and Southeast.

But there is something special about the SEC, he said. Every weekend conference series is a big event in modern stadiums with big crowds, he said.

“That’s what really is missing on the West Coast,” Lopez said. “It’s an electric conference. It inspires young guys to play even better than they can at times. . . I lived it for seven years. There is no margin for error, no mercy, no grace.”

Arizona is back at the CWS for the first time since winning the national title in 1996. Lopez is one of three coaches to take three different schools to the series. He brought Pepperdine in 1992 and Florida in 1996 and ’98.

Georgia is in the CWS for the second consecutive year. Bulldogs coach David Perno played on the 1990 Georgia team that won the national title.

Arkansas, picked before the season to finish last in the SEC West, reached the final eight for the first time since 1989. They are coached by Dave Van Horn, who guided Nebraska to the CWS in 2001 and ’02.

Texas is in the CWS for a record 31st time and for the fourth time in five years.

Cal State Fullerton, which brings in a CWS-leading .385 batting average, made it back to Omaha for the fourth time since 1999 after getting off to a 15-16 start.

“The ’04 version is one of the greatest comeback seasons in Cal State Fullerton history,” Titans coach George Horton said.

South Carolina has beaten 10 straight opponents in winning the SEC tournament title, its regional and its super regional against East Carolina.

LSU is back in Omaha for the 13th time in 19 years. But this will be the Tigers’ first meeting with Miami since Warren Morris hit his bottom-of-the-ninth homer to beat the Hurricanes 9-8 in the 1996 national championship game.

“That was the biggest nightmare of my life as a coach in that last inning,” Miami coach Jim Morris said. “I really want to be LSU.”