June 11, 2015
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OMAHA, Neb. — After landing at Eppley Airfield on a gray, rainy afternoon, the University of Virginia baseball team boarded a charter bus Thursday and headed downtown.
The Cavaliers’ ultimate destination was their hotel. On the way, though, the bus driver took a detour and dropped the team off at TD Ameritrade Park.
“It’s like we never left,” sophomore catcher Matt Thaiss said in the locker room.
Virginia, which played on the final day of last year’s College World Series, is one of three teams in Omaha for the second straight season, along with Vanderbilt and TCU. Vandy edged UVa 3-2 in the third and final game of last year’s CWS championship series.
The trip downtown from Omaha’s airport is one the Wahoos are starting to know well. This marks the fourth time in seven seasons the `Hoos have advanced to the eight-team College World Series.
“It was weird how everything was familiar [Thursday],” Thaiss said. “Last year was a once-in-a-lifetime experience that we were lucky enough to have, and things like that you don’t forget. So coming in — landing, seeing the skyline, the stadium, our hotel — it all seemed so familiar.”
There’s at least one major difference this year. This is the first time UVa (39-22) has arrived in Omaha with fewer than 48 victories.
In last year’s NCAA tournament, Virginia was the No. 3 overall seed and hosted an opening-weekend regional for the fifth straight season. This year, UVa was sent to California as the No. 3 seed in the four-team Lake Elsinore regional. The Cavaliers went 3-0 to win that regional and then needed only two games to oust Maryland last weekend in their best-of-three super regional at Davenport Field.
The `Hoos are not used to being cast as underdogs, but they’ve embraced that role in this NCAA tournament.
“I think it’s great, because it keeps an edge,” said junior Kevin Doherty, one of Virginia’s heroes in the super regional. “We’re not satisfied. We know going into each game that people haven’t viewed us as as good of a team as we think we are. So I think it gives us a great edge going into each game and not letting us get satisfied with where we are.”
The teams at the College World Series are split into two brackets, the winners of which will meet in the championship series, starting June 22 at TD Ameritrade Park.
Bracket 1 consists of two teams from the ACC — UVa and Miami (49-15) — plus Arkansas (40-23) and Florida (49-16). Making up Bracket 2 are LSU (53-10), TCU (49-13), Vanderbilt (47-19) and Cal State Fullerton (39-23).
The CWS begins Saturday afternoon, when Virginia meets Arkansas at 3 o’clock (EST).
“It’s going to be fun to get out there and try to win this thing,” Thaiss said. “That’s our goal. We’re really excited for it.”
Thaiss is among the prominent players on this year’s team who were essentially spectators in Omaha last June. Others include Doherty and sophomore pitcher Connor Jones, who’s expected to start Saturday.
“I think it definitely adds to the excitement,” Jones said Tuesday at Davenport Field. “Speaking on Matt’s and my behalf, we’ve been there. We’ve seen it all. We’ve been [in Omaha] for two weeks and seen about all the games we could possibly see there. I think it could be overwhelming if you’d never been there before and you’re being thrown into a big role. But having been there and seen it all last year and been able to soak it in, and then this year going out there and playing, I think it can really help build your confidence.”
When he was in Omaha last year, Jones said, he didn’t think much about 2015, but players “always want to get back there. It’s just such an amazing atmosphere. I tell people all the time, `If you’re a baseball fan, you gotta go to Omaha. It’s absolutely amazing.’ I didn’t quite look that far into the future to think about playing there this year, but it’s pretty cool to think that it’s going to become a reality.”
Head coach Brian O’Connor said that with the players such as Thaiss, Doherty and Jones, “and other guys as well, certainly you’d like for them to have playing experience, but they were absolutely a part of it, and they felt the emotions that you feel being on the field and being in the games and being a part of it, and I really believe that that will serve them very, very well on this trip.”
Not everyone in UVa’s lineup, of course, has the benefit of that experience. At least three freshmen are expected to start Saturday against the Razorbacks — Pavin Smith, Ernie Clement and Adam Haseley — and a fourth, Jack Gerstenmaier, might be used as a designated hitter.
Thaiss’ advice for the newcomers?
“I would tell them to enjoy every second of it,” Thaiss said Thursday. “Last year we were here for, what, two weeks? But it flew by. These freshmen are experiencing it for the first time. I hope for the next two, three, four years, we come back every year. But ask some of the older guys, it’s not as easy to do. It’s very difficult, but we hope we can.”
O’Connor, who’s in his 12th season as Virginia’s head coach, grew up in Council Bluffs, Iowa, across the Missouri River from this city. He pitched in the College World Series for the hometown school, Creighton, in 1991 and was an assistant coach on the Notre Dame team that reached Omaha in 2002.
“This is as special as it gets,” O’Connor said Tuesday of Virginia’s latest 1,186-mile trip to Omaha. “This team has been so much fun. It’s been a challenging journey throughout the year, but what they’ve accomplished over the last few weeks is pretty darn special, and this group is still having fun. They’re still enjoying what they’re doing and enjoying this ride.”
The Cavaliers closed April with three straight losses and entered the final stretch of the regular season in danger of missing the NCAA tournament for the first time under O’Connor. But they refused to accept that fate.
That his players surged late and booked another trip to Omaha did not surprise O’Connor, “because they have grown up and been around a baseball program [for which] this is the standard,” he said. “We’ve been in this situation, what, four times since 2009? So when they all entered this program, the standard was for them to get to the College World Series. And so that’s the expectation, and we’re excited to be doing that again.”