By Jeff White
OMAHA, Neb. — The UVa baseball team practiced Thursday afternoon at a high school about 10 miles southeast of TD Ameritrade Park, where the College World Series begins in this city Saturday.
A swarm of autograph seekers, most of them 10 or younger, still managed to track down the Cavaliers, whom the fans kept busy after practice. So, Tyler Wilson, how many autographs did you sign in Charlottesville this season?
“Probably half as many as we’re about to sign here,” Wilson said with a smile Thursday.
The Wahoos, who on Monday night rallied to beat UC Irvine in the deciding game of their best-of-three NCAA super regional at Davenport Field, flew from Charlottesville to Omaha on Thursday morning.
On the ride from the airport to the team hotel, UVa coach Brian O’Connor had the bus swing by Omaha’s sparkling new stadium. The Cavaliers disembarked for a quick visit, during which most of the players — as well as several coaches — snapped photos with their phone cameras.
In 2009, O’Connor did the same thing at iconic Rosenblatt Stadium, home of the College World Series until TD Ameritrade Park opened this year.
The ‘Hoos will practice at the new stadium for an hour Friday, and O’Connor wanted his players to see it before then, he said Thursday, “so they’re not in awe about it and giddy about it on the practice day. You kind of get through that, and tomorrow we can concentrate on working out.”
O’Connor, who’s in his eighth season at Virginia, grew up in Council Bluffs, Iowa, just across the Missouri River from Omaha. He played in the College World Series as a Creighton pitcher and coached in the CWS as a Notre Dame assistant. Not until 2009, however, had UVa ever advanced to Omaha, so the experience was new for all of his players that season.
“The first time you do anything, there’s just the unknown, and now the majority of them understand what it’s all about,” O’Connor said.
Holdovers from the 2009 team include Wilson, John Barr, David Coleman, Danny Hultzen, Keith Werman, Steven Proscia and John Hicks.
“It’s definitely great that we have guys on the team that have had big-game experience like that in Omaha,” Wilson said.
“No matter how many times you get to experience this, you’re still going to be wide-eyed, though. When you come back to Omaha, it’s like the promised land.
“It’s an amazing opportunity. When you get off that plane and see a bus with Welcome, University of Virginia on it, it’s pretty special. But the benefit [of experience] really comes in, I think, when it comes time to play the games.”
In its opener, UVa (54-10) takes on California (37-21) on Sunday at 2 p.m. (Eastern). Cal is in the College World Series for the first time since 1992. The Golden Bears are likely to face some of the obstacles Virginia encountered in 2009.
“My freshman year, we didn’t have anybody who had been [to Omaha],” said Hicks, a junior who made the All-ACC first team at catcher this season. “We didn’t have anybody who could really say how it was going to be. Coach O’Connor told us a little bit about how hectic it was, but you weren’t really ready for what it is.”
What it is, O’Connor said Wednesday in Charlottesville, is “an absolute circus. But it’s a great circus that you want to be a part of. And part of the players having success out there is their ability to deflect things and manage the noise that’s around them. I’m not [talking about] 25,000 people in the stands. I’m [talking about] everybody asking for their time, pulling them in every different direction. It’s a lot to take on.”
Hicks agreed. He knows the requests from fans are coming: “Hey, can I have your glove? Can I have your hat?”
The “noise,” as O’Connor likes to call it, began Thursday at Bellevue East High.
Virtually all of the Cavaliers’ practices in Charlottesville are closed. “Here,” O’Connor said, “there’s a hundred people, and there’s a lot of voices in the background, and all the autographs and everything that happen as you walk to the bus. It’s great for the players to get that kind of attention, but at times it can be overwhelming.”
The team ate at a local steak house Thursday night. The Cavaliers’ schedule is anything but leisurely Friday.
They’ll practice at TD Ameritrade Park, take part in an autograph session, attend a seminar on the perils of sports wagering, meet with ESPN crews, dine on barbecue and, finally, participate in the College World Series opening ceremonies at the stadium.
“Tomorrow’s more about the event starting,” O’Connor said.
His team can’t wait, especially its veterans.
In 2009, Hicks recalled Wednesday, the “program had never been [to the CWS], and we were just excited to get there. Kind of the whole year it was, ‘Let’s get to Omaha, let’s get to Omaha.’ This year we haven’t really talked about it. It’s more about, ‘We want to win it all.’ The goal isn’t just to make it there. There are eight teams left, and we feel like we have a great chance of bringing home the ring.”
Hultzen said: “Last time it was just a joy ride. This time we know what to expect, and I feel like it’s just a little different.”
Only in Omaha, O’Connor said, do college baseball players deal with this level of “media attention, the autograph seekers, the fact that when you pull up to the stadium before the team gets off, it takes 10 minutes, because the bomb-sniffing dogs need to go through their field bags and through the bus and everything like that.”
In 2009, O’Connor noted, the ‘Hoos were young. “We’ve got a veteran team this year,” he said, “and they’ll be more prepared for what it takes to ultimately be focused between the white lines when you have to go win a ball game.”