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June 26, 2014

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OMAHA, Neb. — As fireworks exploded beyond the outfield walls at TD Ameritrade Park, signaling the end of the 2014 College World Series, freshman Daniel Pinero trudged back to the home dugout Wednesday night, his dejection shared by all who waited for him there.

For the University of Virginia baseball team, a season that began Feb. 14 with a one-sided defeat to Kentucky concluded some four months later with a one-run loss to Vanderbilt.

In between, the Cavaliers won 53 games and stamped themselves as the greatest team in the history of a program that dates to 1889. The Wahoos started the season ranked No. 1 in two polls and, with hardly a misstep along the way, advanced to the third game of the best-of-three CWS Finals before being eliminated.

“Unfortunately in sports, somebody’s going to come out on the wrong end, and we came out on the wrong end tonight,” UVa coach Brian O’Connor said after his team’s 3-2 loss to Vandy, the fourth SEC team to win the NCAA title in the past six seasons.

“But I can tell you, I’m so proud of every member of this team, of every coach. We had a special season, and it’s unfortunate how it ended, but we played a great ball game and the competition was good. The University of Virginia baseball program will be back here in Omaha at some point, and maybe the next time we can win it all.”

In the first two games of the CWS Finals, UVa (53-16) rang up 28 hits and 15 runs. In Game 3, however, its offense sputtered in front of a crowd of 18,344 that included O’Connor’s coaching colleagues Tony Bennett and Brian Boland and many Virginia baseball alumni.

The Cavaliers totaled only five hits against Vanderbilt pitchers Carson Fulmer, Hayden Stone and Adam Ravenelle — all singles.

Twice in the final four innings, the `Hoos loaded the bases with one out. But they pushed only one run across in those situations, and that was because of a Vanderbilt error.

“It’s just a bad feeling, looking around [after the game] and seeing some guys that you may never play with again,” sophomore right-fielder Joe McCarthy said, “when you wish you could have sent them off with a win and a national championship. But it just came down to us not getting those hits tonight.”

O’Connor said: “We had opportunities, and it just didn’t happen for us.”

Virginia’s starting pitcher, sophomore right-hander Josh Sborz, struggled through a first inning in which Vandy, aided by catcher Robbie Coman’s throwing error, scored the game’s first run.

At the start of the second, O’Connor and pitching coach Karl Kuhn turned to senior right-hander Artie Lewicki, who delivered yet another stellar postseason performance before giving way to All-America closer Nick Howard after the seventh.

In six NCAA tournament appearances — five of which were in relief — Lewicki did not allow an earned run. Against Vandy in Game 3, he scattered four hits and struck out five in six innings.

“I thought Artie was tremendous,” O’Connor said. “He gave us a chance to win the ball game. We just didn’t have enough.”

The game was tied 2-2 after seven innings, but the Commodores (51-21) struck a decisive blow in the top of the eighth. With one out, John Norwood hammered a 97-mph fastball from Howard, a junior right-hander who came in with a 1.77 ERA, into the left-field bullpen.

The home run was only the third given up this season by Howard, the 19th pick in this month’s Major League Baseball draft, and only the third one hit in this College World Series.

“I said it the other night: A lot of times in the history of [the CWS] somebody has a defining moment,” O’Connor told reporters, “and Norwood stepped up, took a great swing and drove the ball out of ball park.”

UVa didn’t panic, though, and began the bottom of the eighth on a promising note. Junior Mike Papi led off with a single, and McCarthy followed with a walk. That brought up No. 5 hitter Derek Fisher, the 37th overall pick in this month’s MLB draft. Fisher was 10 for 50 in this NCAA tourney, and the coaching staff chose not to gamble with him at the plate.

Fisher’s flawlessly executed sacrifice bunt moved the runners to second and third, and then Ravenelle hit junior Kenny Towns with a pitch, loading the bases. Alas for the `Hoos, what could have been a game-changing comeback never materialized.

Sophomore John La Prise hit a weak grounder back to the mound, and Ravenelle threw home to force out Papi. Junior Brandon Downes followed with a grounder to second, and the inning was over.

Virginia, which came to Omaha hoping to become the first ACC team since Wake Forest in 1955 to win the CWS, went quietly in the ninth. Ravenelle retired the Cavaliers in order to secure Vanderbilt’s first NCAA title in this sport.

It did not come easily. The `Hoos outplayed Vanderbilt for most of the first two games. In the first, a 9-8 victory for the Commodores, all nine of their runs came in a half-inning in which UVa self-destructed. In Game 2, the Cavaliers romped 7-2.

“It’s a heck of a baseball team,” Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin said. “We talked about them a lot during the course of the week, so we had to play very, very well in order to beat them.”

For UVa’s three seniors — Lewicki and fellow pitchers Whit Mayberry and Austin Young — the final game in Omaha marked the end of their college careers. It was also, in all likelihood, the final games as Cavaliers for such juniors as Papi, Howard, Fisher, Downes and Branden Cogswell, each of whom was picked in the first seven rounds of the MLB draft.

Lewicki, who overcome an elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery in the summer of 2012, went to the Tigers in the eighth round.

“I don’t think it’s really sunk in yet,” Lewicki said late Wednesday night, “but I’m sure later on there will be some time to reflect and probably deal with some emotions. But the most prevalent emotion right now is disappointment, I guess, not for me and my career here, but more for us and our team and the great year we had.”

In the home locker room at TD Ameritrade Park, the Cavaliers’ coaching staff met briefly with the players before the postgame press conferences began.

This is part of life, O’Connor said he told his team. “There are disappointments, and I think [men are] measured on how they handle it at times when there is disappointment in their life.”

He’s confident his players will “handle this the right way,” O’Connor said, “and in a strange kind of way, the lessons that they learn through this whole experience that they’ve had this entire season — and in Artie’s case in his career — I really think will help them at some point in their life. They need to walk out of here proud of who they are and who their teammates are and what program they play for.”

O’Connor, who grew up in the Omaha area and played his college ball at Creighton, has posted a record of 514-177-2 in 11 seasons as the Cavaliers’ head coach. He’s guided UVa to the NCAA tournament every spring and to Omaha three times.

Not until this year, however, had the `Hoos reached the CWS Finals. They finished 4-2 in Omaha and 9-3 in the NCAA tournament.

“Just being here and being able to experience this type of feeling with these teammates and this coaching staff, we’ve really grown a lot as a family,” said McCarthy, who figures to be one of the Cavaliers’ cornerstones in 2015.

“Even though we came up a little short today, I’m extremely proud of what me and my teammates and coaches have done this year. But we’re still motivated to make it back next year.”

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