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June 13, 2015

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OMAHA, Neb. — Little more than a year has passed since two powers from rival conferences — Virginia of the ACC and Arkansas of the SEC — met on the baseball diamond. But the results of those two games, both UVa victories at Davenport Field, figure to have little to no bearing on the teams’ clash Saturday in the College World Series opener at TD Ameritrade Park.

“We beat `em in the regional last year, but you can’t go off that,” Virginia outfielder Joe McCarthy said Friday. “They’re a completely different team, we’re a completely different team, so we really haven’t referenced back to that at all.”

At last year’s NCAA regional in Charlottesville, the Cavaliers blanked the Razorbacks 3-0 to advance to the championship game. A day later, Virginia hammered Arkansas 9-2 to advance to a best-of-three super regional.

As the Razorbacks headed back to Fayetteville, head coach Dave Van Horn said Friday, he raved to his assistants about the Wahoos.

“I told our coaching staff, that’s the best team we’ve played all year,” Van Horn recalled Friday.

That Virginia team, of course, entered the NCAA tournament as the No. 3 overall seed and reached the championship series in Omaha. Head coach Brian O’Connor‘s latest team was much less heralded entering the NCAA tourney, but the `Hoos are back in Omaha for the fourth time in seven seasons.

“Every team is different,” O’Connor said. “This team is certainly different than last year’s ball club. A lot of those position players are [now] in professional baseball … We don’t probably have as much depth this year as we had on last year’s ball club. Last year’s club from an offensive standpoint could stand at the plate and just swing more. This ball club maybe could manufacture runs more than last year’s team. Love them both. They’re just different.”

For the Cavaliers, who arrived in this city Thursday afternoon, game day has finally arrived. At 3 p.m. (EST) Saturday, Virginia (39-22) meets Arkansas (40-23) in a game ESPN will televise.

The winner advances to play Miami (Fla.) or Florida in the winner’s bracket Monday night. The loser will face the Hurricanes or the Gators in an elimination game Monday afternoon.

Virginia, Arkansas, Miami and Florida make up Bracket 1 at the CWS. Bracket 2 consists of LSU, TCU, Cal State Fullerton and defending NCAA champion Vanderbilt.

UVa’s roller-coaster ride through the regular season has been well-chronicled. Arkansas, which is making its eighth appearance at the CWS and first since 2012, followed an unconventional route to Omaha as well.

The Hogs headed into April with a 14-14 record.

“It’s been a journey for us,” Van Horn said. “I’ve given all the credit to the players. I think that they’re a pretty strong, mentally strong bunch. It’s been fun watching them get better week by week and find ways to win on the weekend and win just enough to get to a regional and then win a regional [and] a super regional.”

On an explosive offense that’s totaled 52 home runs this season — Virginia, by comparison, has hit 32 — outfielder Andrew Benintendi wields the most dangerous bat.

Collegiate Baseball’s national player of the year, Benintendi has 19 home runs this season. The Boston Red Sox chose Benintendi, the SEC player of the year, with the No. 7 overall pick in the Major League Baseball draft Monday night.

Benintendi, who’s hitting .380, also has a team-high 23 stolen bases this season.

“Andrew is as good as they come in the college game,” O’Connor said. “The thing I’ve been impressed with is, when you look back at the year he’s had, the consistency that guy has played with. He’s very, very skilled, consistent for them, and obviously has a lot to do with how they go.”

O’Connor knows well, though, that pitching and defense often trump hitting at TD Ameritrade Park, where home runs have been few and far between in recent years, and the Cavaliers have full confidence in Connor Jones.

The sophomore right-hander will start Saturday, and he’s eager to make his CWS debut.

“I’m just really excited to be able to go out there and pitch in Omaha this year and be able to show them what I got out there,” Jones said. “Last year I was more of a spectator. But I’m just excited to be able to go out there and pitch in front of a crowd like that.”

Jones (7-2, 2.96 ERA) has worked at least seven innings in each of his past seven starts.

“He’s just been consistent,” UVa pitcher Nathan Kirby said of Jones. “If you go out there and give up [only] one to two runs every game, that’s giving your team a chance to win. We’ve got to score one to win anyway, and if we can limit the other teams, especially in the postseason, when it becomes such a momentum game … it’s going to give us a chance to win every time.”

As has become their custom when Jones pitches, the `Hoos will wear camouflage uniforms Saturday. Jones isn’t superstitious, he said, but his coaches are, and they see no reason to vary their routine now, on the college game’s biggest stage.

More important than what Jones wears, of course, is how he pitches, and for the past two months he’s shown why he was such a coveted prospect coming out of high school.

When Kirby strained his left latissimus dorsi muscle April 17 against Miami, Jones took over as UVa’s No. 1 starter.

Jones has been “tremendously consistent since he’s moved into the first spot,” O’Connor said, “so I’m excited to see him go out and compete Saturday. He’s very, very talented … I think he’s got a very, very bright future.”

Arkansas will start junior right-hander Trey Killian (3-4, 4.74), who struggled in his first encounter with UVa. At last year’s NCAA regional in Charlottesville, Killian lasted only 3.1 innings and took the loss in the Hogs’ 3-0 defeat.

Virginia’s starter in that game was Kirby, who struck out nine and allowed only one hit in eight innings against the Razorbacks.

“I remember they were an aggressive team,” Kirby said Friday. “They swung at a lot of pitches early in the game. Not saying that’s their game plan this year. I was very fortunate. I went back and looked at the film, and a lot of my pitches weren’t where I wanted them, but that’s pitching. You throw the ball over the plate and hope they don’t hit it out.”

Kirby hasn’t appeared in a game since suffering his lat injury April 17, but his workload in practice has increased, and he’ll be available in Omaha, most likely in a relief role.

“I’ve been clawing at the bullpen,” Kirby said Friday, smiling. “I’ve been the bullpen coach for the past six weeks. So I want to be out there, but I’ll go out there when the time’s right and when the coaches tell me to.”

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