OMAHA, Neb. — A day before their teams were to meet for the first game of the College World Series finals, LSU coach Paul Mainieri and Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan stood side-by-side and smiled for the cameras.
On the dais between them sat the NCAA national championship trophy — a relatively plain-looking tower of lucite and wood they have nevertheless spent the past several months working and yearning for.
The photo-op dragged on, their smiles remained. A reporter interrupted.
This feels awkward, the guy said.
“It’s not awkward,” Mainieri said. “We like each other.”
Friends indeed, for at least this day. Distant cousins, in a way. The two coaches know plenty about each other, as do their teams.
Monday night, the LSU Tigers and the Florida Gators, both proud members of the Southeastern Conference, face off the first of three games. That part sounds normal.
Now the abnormal part: This three-game series is not in March, April or May, with an eye on the conference standings. It is not in Gainesville or Baton Rouge. It will decide a national champion.
“Just like an SEC weekend,” LSU shortstop Kramer Robertson deadpanned. “Just more at stake.”
The way the season has unfolded, it makes sense these two teams would need one more series to figure out which was better.
On Feb. 10, the SEC’s preseason poll came out. The head coaches were asked to pick a champion. Six picked Florida and six picked LSU. On May 20, LSU wrapped up a road sweep of Mississippi State for its 21st conference win, tying Florida for the SEC regular-season championship.
Both were consensus top-five teams to start and finish the regular season. In between those high hopes at the start and high polish at the end, there were speed bumps.
LSU went through a season of sometimes-maddening midweek losses, leaving Mainieri fuming in the dugout before coming out to answer questions about his team's consistency. The Tigers stumbled out of the blocks in the SEC race, going into the final weekend in April at 10-8 in league play.
The Gators had — and continue to have — difficulty producing runs. Sometimes it led to some head-scratching losses. Florida scored five runs as it was swept in a two-game midweek series against Florida Gulf Coast. It averaged three runs per game as it was swept by Auburn. It lost a pair of one-run games to Tennessee, which only won five more games in conference play.
“It’s been very challenging throughout the year,” O’Sullivan said. “We’ve had to overcome a lot of things. But at the end of the day, we’re going to give it our best shot against a really good LSU team.”
For all the similarities between the teams, there is one major difference between them.
LSU is gunning for its seventh national championship and second under Mainieri. It has never advanced to this stage of the College World Series without taking home the trophy.
Florida, meanwhile, is still seeking its first title. It has been in this agonizingly close position before a couple times before, making the CWS championship series in 2005 and 2011. This year marks Florida’s third consecutive trip to Omaha.
Mainieri compared it to pounding on a door that’s lodged shut: Bang on it long and hard enough, and eventually you break it open. He expressed respect for his friend, saying that once he breaks through the first time, he’ll might win several after that.
“Eventually he’s going to get it,” Mainieri said. “I just hope it’s not this year.”