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May 29, 2015

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LAKE ELSINORE, Calif. — The University of Southern California was still practicing at Lake Elsinore Stadium when the University of Virginia baseball team arrived Thursday afternoon.

UVa’s players stayed on the team bus until the Trojans wrapped up their 75-minute session. Then it was the Cavaliers’ turn to practice on a warm, cloudless day in front of thousands of empty seats.

The scene promises to be more charged Friday at the home of the Lake Elsinore Storm, the San Diego Padres’ Class-A Advanced affiliate. At 6 p.m. Eastern, in the first-ever baseball game between these schools, third-seeded UVa (34-22) and second-seeded USC (37-19) will open the NCAA regional hosted by UC Santa Barbara.

ESPN3 will stream the game online.

The temperature is expected to climb into the mid 90s by game time Friday, but humidity, compared to that found in Charlottesville in late May, is almost non-existent here.

“It’s a beautiful ballpark and a beautiful setting,” Virginia coach Brian O’Connor said Thursday. “Hopefully there’s magic in this place, and we play some of our best baseball.”

Top-seeded UCSB (40-15-1) takes on fourth-seeded San Diego State (42-21) in the second game of this double-elimination regional Friday, around 10 p.m. Eastern.

For the Wahoos, this is their 12th season under O’Connor and 12th straight appearance in the NCAA tournament. For the first time since 2009, though, they’re spending the tournament’s opening weekend somewhere other than Davenport Field in Charlottesville.

In 2009, the `Hoos went 3-0 to win the NCAA regional in Irvine, Calif. A year earlier, they went 1-2 in Fullerton, Calif.

“When we went in to start planning this thing, once we heard where we were going, we had to pull out some old files, because we’ve hosted for five straight years,” O’Connor said.

“So we had to look back and find out what we did when we went to Fullerton, what we did when we went to Irvine. So certainly it’s a little bit of an adjustment. Yesterday was a long day” — the team bused Wednesday from Charlottesville to Northern Virginia, from which the `Hoos flew to Los Angeles — “but a great day, because we’re here and we’re playing in the NCAA tournament.”

On a day when he confirmed sophomore right-hander Connor Jones (5-2, 3.05 ERA) as his opening-game starter, O’Connor ruled All-ACC pitcher Nathan Kirby (5-2, 2.28 ERA) out of the regional.

Kirby, a junior left-hander, has not pitched since April 17, when he strained his left latissimus dorsi muscle. O’Connor and pitching coach Karl Kuhn evaluated Kirby’s workouts this week.

“I just can’t put him out on the mound unless I’ve seen it at 100 percent, and I haven’t seen that yet,” O’Connor said. “So he will not pitch at all this weekend.”

For Jones, this will be his second appearance in an NCAA tournament game. The first came May 30, 2014, when he pitched the eighth inning of Virginia’s 10-1 rout of Bucknell in the opening game of the NCAA tournament’s Charlottesville regional.

“Looking back to last year, I still remember it wasn’t pretty,” Jones said Thursday. “I was fortunate to get that opportunity last year. I’ve learned a lot and come a long way since last year, I feel like, as far as just maturing and figuring myself out there.

“But it’s exciting. We’re out here in California, amongst these three California teams. So I think everybody’s really excited. New teams, new faces, so I think we’re all ready to go.”

In his past five starts, Jones has totaled 46 strikeouts while allowing only eight earned runs in 37 innings.

“He’s a guy you want on the mound,” Virginia third baseman Kenny Towns said.

Junior left-hander Brandon Waddell (3-5, 4.52) is the Cavaliers’ probable Saturday starter. The decision to give Jones the ball Friday wasn’t a difficult one.

“Connor’s been pitching our most consistent baseball for us as a starter,” O’Connor said, “and when we had a chance to sit down and look at the [Trojans] and see what kind of team they are, it was glaringly obvious that this was the right thing to do, and hopefully he gets us off to a good start [Friday].”

USC will start junior right-hander Kyle Davis (3-2, 4.23) against UVa. A converted closer, Davis has made 19 appearances this season, with four starts.

Virginia, last year’s NCAA runner-up, is seeking its first national title in baseball. The Trojans are in an NCAA regional for the first time since 2005, but they’ve won 12 national championships, the most recent in 1998.

“Certainly when you think of storied college baseball programs, you think of Southern Cal,” O’Connor said. “All the national championships that [former head coach] Rod Dedeaux won there over the years, and all the great players that they’ve had, certainly speaks volumes for their program.”

USC’s standouts include left-fielder Bobby Stahel (.379 batting average), second baseman Dante Flores (.315) and catcher Garrett Stubbs (.330), the Pac-12 defensive player of the year.

When he met with media members Monday afternoon in Charlottesville, not long after the NCAA tournament was announced, O’Connor knew little about USC, which went 18-12 in Pac-12 games. He knows plenty about the Trojans now.

“There’s a lot of talk that maybe they should have hosted, and watching them play on film, they look like they’ve got a very athletic offensive team,” O’Connor said.

“They steal a lot of bases, and they’ve got guys with power. They’ve got a veteran offensive ballclub. It looks like they can score runs from anywhere in their lineup. Their pitching looks very solid. The depth looks really good, and certainly I know the league that they’re competing in, and they did a great job in that league.”

Of the Cavaliers projected to start Friday, only Towns is a senior, and he’s keenly aware this is his final NCAA tournament.

“Especially being out here, being in a place that we’ve never been before, it kind of makes it more memorable for me,” Towns said. “I’m just excited to get after it. We have a chance to do something special here still.”

UVa enters the NCAA tournament on a three-game losing streak. At the ACC tournament last week in Durham, N.C., Virginia routed Georgia Tech 11-0 in a play-in game that was stopped after seven innings. Then the Cavaliers stumbled, losing to Miami, Notre Dame and NC State, respectively, by a combined score of 27-11.

The `Hoos have tried to put Durham behind them. The invitation to the NCAA tourney allowed Virginia “to kind of hit the reset button, and we knew that we had just as good a chance as anyone to come out here and win this thing,” Towns said.

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