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June 15, 2015

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OMAHA, Neb. — Like many others in the college baseball world, University of Virginia head coach Brian O’Connor was stunned by what transpired Sunday afternoon at TD Ameritrade Park, where TCU romped 10-3 over LSU, one of the favorites heading into the College World Series.

“It’s hard to predict what happens out here,” said O’Connor, who has guided UVa to Omaha for the fourth time in seven seasons.

And that’s one of the reasons the Cavaliers (40-22), who opened the CWS with a 5-3 victory over Arkansas, are conceding nothing as they prepare to face Florida (50-16) in the winners’ bracket Monday night, weather permitting.

Never mind that the Gators, who entered the 64-team NCAA tournament seeded No. 4 overall, embarrassed the Miami Hurricanes 15-3 on Saturday night and have won 10 consecutive games. Virginia has won six straight and will send its most experienced pitcher, Brandon Waddell, to the mound Monday night.

Waddell, a junior left-hander from Houston, has a 4-1 career record (and 2.17 ERA) in the NCAA tourney, and he had two quality starts in last year’s College World Series, the second a complete-game victory over eventual champion Vanderbilt.

“If there’s one pitcher I want out there, it’s Brandon Waddell,” sophomore catcher Matt Thaiss said Sunday morning before practice at Creighton University, O’Connor’s alma mater.

UVa, last year’s NCAA runner-up, meets Florida at 8 p.m. (EST) Monday, on ESPN2, and it’s difficult to overstate the significance of the game. The loser will have to play an elimination game Wednesday night. The winner won’t play again until Friday afternoon, in the championship game of the CWS’ Bracket 1. (TCU, LSU, Vanderbilt and Cal State Fullerton make up Bracket 2.)

“So it’s a huge advantage,” O’Connor said. “We were in that position last year where we went 2-0, and I think it made a big difference for us.”

The Wahoos’ first game at the CWS ended late Saturday afternoon. Back at their hotel that night, many of the players and coaches tuned into ESPN and saw the Gators dismantle the Hurricanes.

“It shows how great of a team they are,” Thaiss said. “We played Miami, what, four times this year, and they put up a bunch of runs against us and they pitched well. For Florida to go out there and play the way they did shows how good a team they have.”

Virginia’s pitching coach, Karl Kuhn, is a Florida alumnus. He watched the Gators pile up 15 hits against Miami, the No. 5 overall seed in the NCAA tourney.

“I was kind of hoping the game would keep going,” Kuhn said Sunday, smiling. “Nothing against Miami, but I was kind of hoping that the [Florida] hitters would get tired of swinging and the runners would get tired of running around.”

Florida blew the game open in the fourth inning, scoring 11 runs. That tied the CWS record for most runs in an inning.

“Yeah, they’re good,” Kuhn said of the Gators.

O’Connor noted that “an inning like that doesn’t really happen in the College World Series, because the level of the teams is so good. So you tip your hat to them for their ability to go out and have an inning like that.”

Waddell said: “They can swing it. You know that going in, and they’ve been a good offense all year. That’s something they really take pride in. They’re good hitters. They’re going to make you be in the zone, they’re going to hit good pitches.”

UVa and Florida have not met in baseball since 1989. The Gators are in their eighth season under head coach Kevin O’Sullivan, a Virginia graduate whose record at the SEC school is 342-171, with three trips to Omaha.

Before taking over in Gainesville, O’Sullivan was an assistant coach at several schools, include UVa and Clemson. The Gators have long had a powerful program, but “Coach O’Sullivan’s taken them to a new level,” O’Connor said.

O’Sullivan, for his part, marvels at what O’Connor, Kuhn and associate head coach Kevin McMullan have accomplished at Virginia, which for decades was an afterthought in ACC baseball.

O’Connor’s record in 12 seasons with the `Hoos is 554-199-2, with 12 appearances in the NCAA tournament.

“Coach O’Connor and his staff have taken that program to another level,” O’Sullivan said. “They’ve been as consistent as anyone in the country the last 10 or 12 years. I admire their staff and what they’ve done. It’s one thing to do it over the course of a few years, but to do it at the length that they have has been very, very impressive.”

In their CWS opener, Virginia faced two of the SEC’s top pitchers — Trey Killian and Zach Jackson of Arkansas — and “obviously I know how good those guys are,” O’Sullivan said.

Like the Gators, the Cavaliers are 6-0 in this NCAA tournament. But that, for the most part, is where the similarities end. Virginia is averaging 6.3 runs per game in the NCAAs, to 11.3 for Florida.

To beat the Gators, O’Connor acknowledged, his team might need to be more productive than usual at the plate Monday night. However, he said, “you never know. I think a lot of it comes down to our starter, and how Waddell does, and does he keep us in the game for the first six or seven innings. And if he does that, that formula has worked for us in the postseason this year.”

Waddell believes his experience at TD Ameritrade, where more than 24,000 fans watched the CWS opener Saturday afternoon, should pay dividends.

“The crowds, really the atmosphere, is what consumes a lot of people,” Waddell said. “So to be able to have that under my belt is comforting going into it.”

In five of his past six starts, Waddell has worked at least seven innings, and in the other one he lasted six. UVa is hoping for another extended appearance from him Monday night. Closer Josh Sborz (5-2, 1.86) went three innings and threw 40 pitches Saturday, and O’Connor said the junior right-hander probably would not be available for more than two innings against Florida.

Waddell, who graduated from UVa in three years, said he knows he needs to “eat innings and kind of save our arms. This tournament can be grueling. After a while it can kind of wear down on you, so as many guys as we can save for later games on, it would be huge.”

Florida plans to start sophomore A.J. Puk, a 6-7, 225-pound left-hander who’s 9-3 this season, with a 3.96 ERA.

Waddell’s numbers aren’t as impressive. He’s 3-5, with a 4.15 ERA. But he’s a well-regarded pro prospect — the Pittsburgh Pirates selected Waddell in the fifth round of last week’s Major League Baseball draft — and the Cavaliers’ faith in him is absolute.

“He’s pitched in these big games in Omaha, a couple of them last year, so he knows what to expect,” O’Connor said. “He’s been on this big stage. He’s got more experience than anybody that can start for us right now, and he’s certainly the guy that we’d want facing [Florida] right now … He won’t back down from it, and hopefully he makes his pitches.”

For O’Connor, his fourth trip to the CWS as a head coach has been his most enjoyable in at least one regard: The media’s focus this time has been more on his team and less on him.

O’Connor grew up in Council Bluffs, Iowa, across the Missouri River from Omaha. Later, as a pitcher, he helped Creighton advance to the CWS in 1991, and returned to Omaha as a Notre Dame assistant coach in 2002.

On the famous statue that’s now outside TD Ameritrade Park, one of the players depicted bears his likeness, and during O’Connor’s trips to Omaha with UVa in 2009, ’11 and ’14, he grew weary of the countless questions about his ties to Omaha and the College World Series.

“It’s been less and less this year, and less and less every year, and I’m really happy about that, because these guys have worked so hard,” O’Connor said Sunday morning, motioning to his players. “They’ve stayed together to be here in Omaha, and this is their experience. They won that game yesterday [against Arkansas]. They earned the right to be here, and it’s all about them, and I’m extremely happy for them.”

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