Pat Casey received numerous letters and phone calls from friends -- and strangers -- during the summer, thanking him and his Oregon State team for winning the College World Series.
"From Little League through high school, I've had responses from people who have said, 'Our kids were inspired by you,' " Casey said. "I think it was important for everybody."
The Beavers became the first truly northern-based school since Ohio State in 1966 to win the national title last June and gained a legion of fans in the process. That stunning victory sent a clear message that college baseball's crown can be worn by any program -- regardless of what part of the country it's from.
"I've had more letters written to me by coaches in the North that have said, 'Hey, what a great accomplishment for college baseball and what a great inspiration for teams in the North,' " Casey said. "Hopefully it kind of re-energizes how teams are selected for the NCAA tournament."
For years, the classic stereotype surrounding college baseball was that only schools based in warm-weather areas -- the South and West Coast -- could truly compete for the national title. Before the Beavers' breakthrough, the last 11 College World Series champions had been from four states: California, Florida, Louisiana and Texas -- all traditional college baseball hot spots.
"Oh, it's incredible now," Rice Coach Wayne Graham said. "You've got to be extremely tenacious, a little fortunate and you've really got to be good to win it."
The Beavers are attempting another rarity: a College World Series repeat. Texas (1949-50), USC (1970-74), Stanford (1987-88) and Louisiana State (1996-97) are the only teams to accomplish the feat.
Rice, Miami, Clemson and CWS runner-up North Carolina are among the schools who figure to stand in Oregon State's way this season.
"I'll take my chances with the guys who put on that Beavers uniform any day," Casey said.
Rice has been ranked No. 1 in many of the preseason polls, a distinction that doesn't concern Graham or his players.
"That may be somewhat unrealistic, but on the other hand, I don't think it hurts anything," said Graham, whose Owls won the title in 2003. "I mean, it's a show of respect and the kids had already put the high expectations on themselves. I think we're among a group of about eight to 10 teams that, at this point, have a legitimate chance."
The defending champions are certainly among them. Despite losing several top players, including pitchers Jonah Nickerson, Dallas Buck and closer Kevin Gunderson, the Beavers still have plenty of talent. Star shortstop Darwin Barney and catcher Mitch Canham are back, as are several pitchers who had big games in Omaha, such as right-handers Mike Stutes, Daniel Turpen and Eddie Kunz.
"Has the expectation level been raised? Absolutely," Casey said. "And we like that and we want to raise the bar again, but our success isn't going to be based on whether we go to the College World Series or not. It's going to be based on whether we become the best club that our kids are able to become."
The Owls were the top-ranked team for most of last season before their offense sputtered in Omaha. They should remain near the top of the polls again, especially with most of their stars back, including left-hander/first baseman Joe Savery, dominant closer Cole St. Clair and a veteran-filled lineup.
"The whole idea to be a national champion or even to aspire to it, you've got to be able to play the complete game: defensively, offensively, the bunting game, handling a variety of pitches," Graham said. "Our kids are working on it. They know what it takes."
Miami has two of the nation's top starters in right-hander Danny Gil and lefty Scott Maine, and one of college baseball's most exciting players in speedy second baseman Jemile Weeks, the brother of the Milwaukee Brewers' Rickie Weeks.
Clemson, top-seeded heading into the NCAA tournament last year, has plenty of depth again despite losing a number of key contributors. First baseman Andy D'Alessio is one of the country's top returning sluggers, and lefty Daniel Moskos is an elite closer.
"I have been doing this 33 years and every year I feel like a little kid," Coach Jack Leggett said. "Every year, I feel like I have a chip on my shoulder and that we have something to prove."
North Carolina lost its main starters -- first-rounders Andrew Miller and Daniel Bard -- but still has another possible high draft pick in right-hander Robert Woodard and promising righty Luke Putkonen. The offense is solid too, with shortstop Josh Horton and first baseman Chad Flack providing some pop.
Other schools expected to contend for the eight-team College World Series in June include Arkansas, Georgia Tech, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia.