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June 23, 2014

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OMAHA, Neb. — During the June 13 opening ceremonies of the College World Series, eight teams took turns in the spotlight at TD Ameritrade Park.

Only two remain in Omaha, and one of them will win its first NCAA baseball title this week. The CWS Finals, matching Virginia (52-14) and Vanderbilt (49-20) in a best-of-three series, begin Monday at 8 p.m. Eastern.

UVa has already made history in this city, advancing to the CWS Finals for the first time. Two more wins this week would secure membership for the Cavaliers in an even more elite club.

Starting in 1947, the NCAA has crowned a champion in baseball each year. Of the 24 schools that have captured national titles in baseball, only one was in the ACC at the time: Wake Forest in 1955.

Virginia is the first ACC team since North Carolina in 2007 to reach the CWS Finals. Vanderbilt, meanwhile, extended a remarkable streak for the Southeastern Conference in Omaha.

This marks the seventh straight season that an SEC team has reached the CWS Finals. LSU won in 2009 and South Carolina in 2010 and ’11.

The Wahoos, 8-1 in this NCAA tournament, are 3-0 in Omaha. UVa opened the CWS with a 2-1 win over Mississippi, outlasted TCU 3-2 in 15 innings and then defeated Ole Miss again, this time 4-1, to advance to the championship series.

(Vandy and Ole Miss met only once this season: in the SEC tournament, where the Rebels whipped the Commodores 7-2.)

At his first press conference in Omaha this month, UVa coach Brian O’Connor recalled Sunday, he talked about “how hard it is to first get here to Omaha. And then how hard it is to advance. So on behalf of our team, I can tell you we’re very humbled by being here and being in this championship series.”

O’Connor said Saturday that the Cavaliers, who were ranked No. 1 for much of the regular season, don’t feel added pressure to win it all this year.

“We’ve never been in this scenario before,” O’Connor said. “Maybe if we had been in this scenario multiple times before and hadn’t done it.

“We’re not really concerned about it. We’re concerned about playing a good baseball game on Monday night.”

The Wahoos, as expected, will start their ace, sophomore left-hander Nathan Kirby, in Game 1.

“It’s quite an honor,” Kirby said Sunday. “I’ve got butterflies just sitting up here thinking about being out there. But I think it’s going to be a lot of fun.”

A first-team All-American, Kirby is 9-2 with a 1.70 earned-run average this season, and he dominated June 15 in Virginia’s first game against Ole Miss, allowing only one hit in seven innings. He’s helped the `Hoos post a CWS-best team ERA of 0.55.

“They have a great pitching staff and great defense,” Vandy second baseman Dansby Swanson said. “They don’t give you much.”

That’s the Virginia way, one of O’Connor’s top players noted Sunday.

“For us it’s all about pitching and defense,” said junior first Mike Papi, who made a spectacular catch in foul territory Saturday against Ole Miss. “It’s what we’ve prided ourselves on all season. And I feel like it’s been a huge thing for us that has gotten us to this point.”

The Commodores’ coach, Tim Corbin, did not name his Game 1 starter Sunday but said it would be Tyler Beede (8-7, 3.80 ERA) or Walker Buehler (12-2, 2.87).

Virginia is expected to start sophomore left-hander Brandon Waddell (9-3, 2.57) on Tuesday night. If a third game if necessary, it would be played Wednesday night at TD Ameritrade Park, where UCLA was crowned NCAA champion last season.

At a press conference Sunday, O’Connor and Corbin, plus two players from each team, fielded questions for about an hour. Not surprisingly, several questions focused on O’Connor’s ties to Omaha. He was born in this city, grew up in nearby Council Bluffs, Iowa, and then played his college baseball in Omaha for Creighton. His parents and his wife’s parents still live in the area.

“I can tell you that certainly there was a moment of reflection [Saturday night],” O’Connor said. “You got back to the hotel with my wife and three children and got a chance for the first time to really decompress a little bit and give them a big hug. When you’re a coach, your family endures a lot through a season, through a career, and to be able to share that with my wife and children is really, really special.”

However, O’Connor added, “I’ll tell you this, it doesn’t mean any more to me than it does Coach Corbin or any of our players on either one of our teams. A lot is to be made that I’m from here but it’s about these kids’ experience. The only difference between me and those young men is my birth record, it says Omaha, Nebraska, that’s it.”

In 11 seasons under O’Connor, the `Hoos have reached the College World Series three times. They went 1-2 in Omaha in 2009 and 2-2 in 2011 and now find themselves tantalizingly close to an NCAA title. That their head coach is so familiar with the event doesn’t hurt.

O’Connor pitched in the CWS for Creighton in 1991 and was an assistant coach on the Notre Dame team that made it to Omaha in 2002.

“He’s been here before,” Kirby said. “He knows how to handle the team. He keeps us calm. There’s a lot of stuff going on. I’ve never been a part of something this big, and he’s kept our focus between the lines.”

UVa and Vandy have met only once in the modern era — in an NCAA tournament game at Davenport Field on June 6, 2004 — but their mutual respect was evident in the players’ and coaches’ comments Sunday.

“When I look at Vanderbilt, I kind of see a little bit of ourselves in them,” Papi said.

Corbin agreed. “I think we’re built along the same lines,” he said, adding that he and O’Connor “both have done our best to maintain high academic standards while trying to reach the pinnacle of baseball.”

In 2013, Corbin said, the Commodores “were perfect for a long period of time, and then at the end of the year we faltered.” That makes Virginia’s accomplishments this season even more impressive to him.

The Cavaliers did not lose back-to-back games during the regular season.

“They’ve done it the entire year,” Corbin said. “They’ve played very consistent, and they have stayed in the moment.”

The `Hoos have reached the NCAA tournament in all 11 seasons of O’Connor’s tenure, and this is the fourth time they’ve won at least 50 games. UVa entered this NCAA tourney as the No. 3 overall seed.

Still, O’Connor stressed Sunday, the journey to Omaha is “not easy. I don’t think that you can script it out. We’ve certainly had years that we felt like we’ve had really great ball clubs and haven’t been able to get here, and you just can’t explain that sometimes. Sometimes you just don’t get that hit, you don’t make that pitch, that’s how hard it is to be here.”

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