By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — The sellout crowd had finally cleared out of Davenport Field on Monday night when Brian O’Connor emerged from the home dugout and spotted a gentleman about 30 yards away.
“Hey, Dad!” O’Connor yelled, then hustled across the infield to hug his parents.
John and Barb O’Connor, longtime residents of Council Bluffs, Iowa, have been in town since the start of the NCAA baseball tournament. They saw their son’s team pull off a stunning comeback Monday in the deciding game of UVa’s best-of-three super regional with UC Irvine.
Trailing 2-1 in the bottom of the ninth inning, with two outs and no runners on base and two strikes on right-fielder David Coleman, the Wahoos were all but eliminated.
Somehow, they staved off defeat. Coleman singled, and so did first baseman Jared King, whose hit ricocheted off the left ankle of Matt Summers on the mound. The Anteaters’ pitcher then walked pinch-hitter Reed Gragnani to load bases.
Up came shortstop Chris Taylor, a force throughout this series. In the biggest at-bat of his life, the sophomore from Virginia Beach delivered again, smacking a single up the middle that scored pinch-runners Mitchell Shifflett and Corey Hunt and gave Virginia a heart-stopping 3-2 victory.
That the capacity crowd of 5,050 included his parents was one more reason O’Connor will cherish memories of this game. Father’s Day is not until Sunday, but for O’Connor, it came early this year. And now his team is headed back to Omaha, Neb., the city where O’Connor was born and, of course, the home of the College World Series.
In its first game, UVa will face California at 2 p.m. (Eastern) Sunday.
O’Connor was raised in nearby Council Bluffs, where he and his two brothers — Brian is two years younger than John and two years older than Kelly — played countless sandlot games on the family’s property.
“My dad was my coach growing up,” said O’Connor, who became a standout pitcher at St. Albert, a Catholic high school in Council Bluffs, and then at Creighton University in Omaha.
“I love being able to win and having him and my mom being able to see it here. It makes it all the more special, knowing that he’s the one who taught me the game at a young age. We lived on a three-acre lot in Iowa where we would mow the baseball diamond into the grass.
“It was kind of like a field of dreams, really.”
O’Connor and his wife, Cindy, have three children: son Dillon and daughters Ellie and Maggie. The kids came out on the field after the game, too, to join a celebration that lasted long after Hunt crossed the plate with winning run.
Through it all, the Cavaliers’ eighth-year coach wore a smile as wide as the Missouri, the river that separates Omaha and Council Bluffs.
O’Connor said later that he was overflowing “with joy and excitement for the guys and for their opportunity to have a chance to win a national championship.”
Virginia, which entered the NCAA tournament as the No. 1 overall seed, is one of eight teams remaining. In Omaha, they’ll be split into two four-team groups. Each group will play a double-elimination tournament, with the winners meeting in a best-of-three series for the NCAA title.
“I’ve talked all year long after the fight and the character that this team has,” O’Connor said. “It’s just a really special group. Not only are they very, very talented, there’s just so many guys in our lineup and on the pitching mound that rose up for this team throughout the entire season.”
This will be the Cavaliers’ second appearance in the College World Series. In 2009, they went 1-2 in Omaha.
PRICE OF SUCCESS: On a conference call with reporters Tuesday, O’Connor confirmed that, as expected, he has been flooded with congratulatory messages.
“I’m looking at my phone right now,” he said at 2:50 p.m., “and I’ve received 172 text messages since the end of the game yesterday, and 110 e-mails. I actually had to get on my computer this morning and put on my vacation e-mail response. So anybody that e-mails me gets a reply, and it’s basically stating that I will not be returning your e-mail, that I can’t manage this whole thing, that you will not be getting an e-mail response from me.”
O’Connor chuckled at his predicament.
“So it’s been overwhelming,” he said. “It was two years ago [as well], but I think this year was even more, just because how we won the game. And so many people watched it [on ESPN2]. We were the only super regional playing at that time, and everybody that loves college baseball got a chance to see the end of that game.”
HIGH ANXIETY: UVa opened the super regional Saturday by beating UC Irvine 6-0. In the second game, the Anteaters rallied after a four-hour-plus rain delay to win 6-4.
That game ended a little after 8 p.m. Sunday. Which meant O’Connor had about 20 hours before the start of the deciding game to ponder what might happen in the finale at Davenport.
“They were tough [hours] last night, there’s no question about it,” O’Connor said after the game Monday. “But I can tell you that when I laid my head on the pillow last night, I had extreme confidence in my ball club. I didn’t know that we’d have to do it the way we did today, but I know the young men that play on our club, what they’re made of, and I knew that they’d be ready to play, and I knew that we’d have a chance to win the game. I felt good about it.
“Were there nerves? Sure. I can tell you in the last 24 hours I’ve eaten about a half a chicken breast and two spoonfuls of rice, and that’s about it. So I’m going to go eat some ribs and a big, fat steak and something else tonight.”
CLASS ACT: Leading up to and during the super regional, O’Connor spoke often about his respect for his UC Irvine counterpart. The series at Davenport made clear why O’Connor holds Mike Gillespie in such high regard.
Gillespie, who won an NCAA title as Southern California’s coach in 1998, was gracious in victory and defeat.
“When you get this close, it’s hard to find the good in things. But this has been a fabulous experience,” Gillespie said Monday night. “We got to come to a great, great place. This has been a great experience for all of us. The folks at the University of Virginia, at least from our perspective, I think they did a fabulous job of hosting this super regional. They dealt with a lot of adversity with the weather. We’ve been treated great. Everywhere we’ve gone, everybody we’ve met, we’ve been treated well. We’ve been shown the reason why there’s an expression ‘Southern hospitality.’
“I recommend the Boathouse to you, and I recommend the Downtown Grille, and I’m a big fan of Brian O’Connor, and I trust that everybody here, everybody in this community, is a big fan of his.
‘What they’ve done is not easy. What they’ve done, I think, in fact has been very, very hard to do over the period of eight years that they’ve been here. They’ve built a program that’s on the short list of the best programs in the nation … They’re well-schooled, highly disciplined. It’s a true program now. It’s not just a good team. It’s a premier program. So what’s been done here is fabulous.”
O’Connor, for his part, said Monday night that he would “rather play a team that hits 100 home runs” than face the Anteaters. “I love their style of offense,” he said. “They pick your eyes out, they’re always putting pressure on you. They’re tough to play. They deserve a ton of credit. My heart goes out for them.”
HOMETOWN HERO: Hunt, a fifth-year senior from nearby Monticello High School, had never appeared in an NCAA tournament game until Monday, when he entered as a pinch-runner for King.
“I hugged him after the game, and I told him he would always remember that moment,” O’Connor said. “He scored the game-winning run to take us to Omaha. That kid’s been in our uniform for five years, and he’s just been an ultimate team player and done everything we’ve asked, and it’s very, very fitting that he got to stomp on that home plate for the game-winner.”
CONFERENCE CALL: The College World Series field also includes North Carolina. Had Florida State defeated Texas A&M in the third game of their super regional Monday night in Tallahassee, the ACC would have had a third representative in Omaha.
The breakdown by conference: three teams from the SEC, two each from the ACC and Big 12, and one from the Pac-10.
When O’Connor addresses his players, he’s not likely to tell them to “win one for the ACC” in Omaha.
“This is no war between conferences,” he said. “I think it’s silly when it gets to that point. I think it’s a really good point, though, that both conferences are excellent. The Big 12’s an excellent conference. So is the Pac-10. There’s a lot of great conferences out there.”
The only team to win the College World Series as an ACC member was Wake Forest in 1955.
“Who knows? Maybe this year that’ll change,” O’Connor said. “But if we keep getting teams to Omaha, eventually that door will be kicked in.”