By Jeff White
OMAHA, Neb. — In 2009, perhaps the biggest storyline at the College World Series was the homecoming of Brian O’Connor, the former Creighton University baseball standout who was born in this city and raised across the Missouri River in Council Bluffs, Iowa.
O’Connor, whose wife, Cindy, also grew up in Council Bluffs, was then in his sixth season as head coach at the University of Virginia, which was making its first appearance in the College World Series. Moreover, Virginia’s first game in historic Rosenblatt Stadium was against LSU, whose coach, Paul Mainieri, had been O’Connor’s boss at Notre Dame.
For the media covering that CWS, O’Connor noted the other day, it was almost “a perfect storm.”
Two years later, O’Connor is back in Omaha, this time with the NCAA tournament’s No. 1 overall seed, and the credentials of the ACC champion Cavaliers (54-10) are considerably stronger than those of Cal (37-21), the team they will face in their CWS opener.
Yet the Golden Bears have generated more headlines than the Wahoos over the past week, and that’s fine with O’Connor.
“I think it’s great for college baseball that they are playing in the College World Series,” he said. “I think it maybe sends a message across the country to administrators that are ever considering at all dropping their baseball program. I mean, here’s a college baseball program in Cal that has a very, very storied history. They’ve been to Omaha many times. They’ve developed many players that have had success at the professional level.
“I just think it’s a great story, the fact that nine months ago their program was no longer going to exist, and schools were recruiting their players to transfer there next year, and they were able to put it all together and have the kind of year they had and save the program.”
In September, Cal announced that, for financial reasons, it planned to eliminate four sports, including baseball. Another varsity sport, rugby, would be reduced to club status.
The announcement outraged the college baseball world and alumni of Cal’s program, which dates to 1892. The Bears won the inaugural College World Series in 1947 and made it back to Omaha in 1992. Former Cal players refused to let the sport die at their alma mater, leading a campaign that by April had raised $9.6 million, enough to save the program.
“When we got the opportunity to continue this program, we knew for ourselves and everybody who put in the fundraising efforts that we could do some big things this year,” junior shortstop Marcus Semien told NCAA.com.
With a 13-13 conference record, the Bears finished fifth in the Pac-10, but they enter the College World Series on a six-game winning streak.
“To see our kids kind of rally around themselves and commit themselves to their coaching staff and their teammates and the school — because they all made a commitment to come back after the fall semester — it’s been just quite a ride,” Cal coach David Esquer said.
On the NCAA tourney’s opening weekend, the Bears were a strike away from elimination before rallying to beat Baylor 9-8 to advance to a best-of-three super regional with Dallas Baptist.
Similar drama marked UVa’s super regional against UC Irvine at Davenport Field. In the deciding game, Virginia trailed 2-1 in the bottom of the ninth, with two outs and none on and two strikes on senior David Coleman.
But Coleman singled, and so did the Cavaliers’ next batter, Jared King. Pinch-hitter Reed Gragnani walked on four pitches, and then sophomore Chris Taylor singled up the middle, scoring two runs and sealing an excruciating defeat for the Anteaters and their legendary coach, Mike Gillespie.
“You could probably sit there and say maybe they deserve to be here,” O’Connor said Friday during a pre-CWS press conference. “They were one strike away from Coach Gillespie sitting in this seat instead of me, but sometimes that’s baseball. I’m so proud of our guys that we were able to figure it out and win that ball game and get back here to Omaha.”
Most things in this city remain unchanged since the Cavaliers’ last visit. But the CWS venue is new this year, and that’s a matter of no small consequence.
“The thing about Rosenblatt is, it was just your historic ballpark,” said O’Connor, who grew up going to games there with his family. “There was so much tradition there … there’s neighborhoods all around it, and the excitement of that, and the atmosphere outside the stadium, was just so unique and special. All the years that the World Series was played in Rosenblatt, the tradition that was developed there, you could just feel it when you went there for a game.”
That said, O’Connor has raved about TD Ameritrade Park, where the opening ceremonies were held Friday night, and his counterparts in Omaha have done the same.
“I know there are a lot of broken hearts that we’re not going to be at Rosenblatt any more,” Texas A&M coach Rob Childress said, “but there are going to be a lot of memories made here at TD Ameritrade over the next 50 years.”
Esquer played in the 1987 College World Series as a Stanford senior. He was an assistant coach on the Stanford team that made it to Omaha in 1995.
“We’ve found over the years that the teams that can relax and play their games and get comfortable early enough here are the teams that perform the best,” Esquer said. “That’s why getting here your first time you play a little tense and tight. If we can get over those [jitters], we’ll give ourselves a chance to perform like we know we can.”
Virginia is “a tremendous challenge for us, but any team here that you play is going to be a tremendous challenge,” Esquer said. “You don’t duck anybody. There’s no easy road.”
Like Esquer, O’Connor experienced the College World Series as a player and as an assistant before getting to Omaha as a head coach. O’Connor pitched for Creighton’s 1991 College World Series team, and he was an assistant on the Notre Dame club that reached Omaha in 2002.
That many of his veterans — Danny Hultzen, Steven Proscia, Tyler Wilson, John Hicks, John Barr and Keith Werman among them — also played leading roles in 2009 gives O’Connor confidence going into Virginia’s second CWS appearance.
“The older guys now understand what to expect, and they can handle it a little bit better,” O’Connor said. “The first time you do anything, there’s just the unknown, and now the majority of them understand what it’s all about.”
Hicks said: “It’s totally different from any baseball game that you’re going to play anywhere else. You’re going to be playing in front of 25,000 [fans].”
To reach the College World Series in 2009, Virginia had to win an NCAA regional in Irvine, Calif., and a super regional in Oxford, Miss. The ‘Hoos “had never been [to the CWS],” Hicks recalled this week, “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.’ “
The Cavaliers’ mentality has been different this season, and that should bode well for their prospects at TD Ameritrade Park.
“I think a lot of teams make some mistakes,” O’Connor said. “Everybody around the country says the goal is to get to Omaha. We have never talked about that this year with our club. I never heard them talk about it, that that’s the goal, and that can’t be the goal. If that’s your goal, then you’re selling yourself short.”
The College World Series opened with two games Saturday. Vanderbilt beat North Carolina 7-3, and Florida defeated Texas 8-4. Two more games are scheduled for Sunday: UVa-Cal at 2 p.m. (Eastern), and South Carolina-Texas A&M at 7 p.m. (Eastern). South Carolina is the defending NCAA champion.
“Any club that is here can win it,” O’Connor said. “It’s just a matter, I think, of who gets hot at the right time. Hopefully that’s us.”