June 19, 2015

By Jeff White (jwhite@virginia.edu)

OMAHA, Neb. — On Friday afternoon, the University of Virginia baseball team plays Florida in a pivotal College World Series game at TD Ameritrade Park.

Like all CWS games, this one will be nationally televised, and the Cavaliers will happily take another turn in the spotlight. One of the team’s most memorable experiences in Omaha, however, took place away from ESPN’s cameras.

Before heading to Creighton University for practice Thursday morning, the Wahoos visited the Children’s Hospital & Medical Center in this city. There, players and coaches stopped in to meet patients, including a teenage girl whose parents are former Charlottesville residents.

“It was really special,” sophomore catcher Matt Thaiss said. “I’ve never been to something like that. It was good for our team. It was good for a lot of our guys to see how lucky we are and how easy it is to give back.

“All the kids were awesome in there. They were fighting in there, but they had a great sense of humor, especially the older ones we met. It was a great experience. We’ll never forget it.”

The visit, junior pitcher Brandon Waddell said, gives “you time to step back and think about how fortunate you are — and how blessed you are, really — to be able to go out and play this game every day. There are kids all over the world that would love to be out here playing baseball or have a chance to play sports every day, and to see them in there hits your heart.

“So to be able to go in there and kind of cheer them up, see a smile on their face … it was a really, really great experience for us. Hopefully it was for the kids as well, but I know for me personally and a bunch of the guys on the team, we took a lot from it. We really cherished the time we had there, and I’m really thankful for the opportunity that we had to go over there.”

UVa’s head coach, Brian O’Connor, is an Omaha native and Creighton alumnus. The Cavaliers are in the College World Series for the second straight season, and they tried, unsuccessfully, to set up a visit to the children’s hospital last year.

“I’m glad that we got the chance to do that this year,” O’Connor said.

“Obviously you go there to see the young children, and when you have a ball player like ours walk in the room, you can the smiles on their faces, and it’s great for our guys too.”

The visit affected O’Connor, who has three children, on a level he hadn’t expected. As he and a group of players approached a room near the end of a hallway, O’Connor was told that the patient inside and her parents were avid UVa fans.

When O’Connor entered the room, he recognized the parents, who had lived in Charlottesville. Moreover, O’Connor knew the patient’s mother from his days at Creighton.

“I was shocked to walk in the room and see a couple that I’ve known for a long, long time,” O’Connor said. “Certainly it puts things into perspective, and those kids there are fighters.”

This is the Cavaliers’ fourth trip to the College World Series in their 12 seasons under O’Connor, and they’ve become familiar with the city and many of the residents who support the event each year.

Those people include Lt. Ken Kanger, who commands the Omaha Police Department’s gang unit. In 2014, when the `Hoos advanced to the CWS Finals, Kanger provided security in their dugout. And so the Cavaliers tried to support Kanger when they learned that one of his officers, Kerrie Orozco, had been shot and killed in the line of duty May 20.

Early Tuesday morning, after their 1-0 victory over Florida, the `Hoos gave Kanger an engraved bat, signed by the team, in honor of Orozco, whose survivors include an infant daughter.

Two other bats will be presented to the police department, ESPN reported, and a third will be donated to an auction that will benefit the family of Orozco, who coached youth baseball in the city.

“You have a community here in Omaha that has wrapped their arms around the eight teams that come here every year,” O’Connor said. “I think the police department is a very important part of that, the service they provide to the teams, the families.

“Everybody involved with the College World Series is unbelievable, and there’s so many different groups here that do that. But [the police] give us escorts, they look after us while we’re here, and to hear the tragic story about one of their members, and how she had fallen, is terrible. We felt just in our close relationship that we have had with Officer Kanger, who’s been in our dugout the last two years, and his involvement with her, we needed to try to do something to help the cause.”

Kanger told ESPN, “It’s just incredible to have that kind of support. Not for me, but for the unit, for the Omaha Police Department and, more importantly, for Kerrie Orozco and what she stood for, because the University of Virginia stands for the same thing.”

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