By Jeff White (

OMAHA, Neb. — Around 11:15 a.m. local time Wednesday, the Virginia Cavaliers’ flight touched down at Eppley Airfield, returning them to the city that Brian O’Connor calls “college baseball’s promised land.”

Their goal is to extend their seventh visit to Omaha for as long as possible.

The NCAA tournament started late last month with 64 teams. Eight remain, and each is hoping to win the Men’s College World Series, which begins Friday at Charles Schwab Field Omaha.

UVA (46-15), North Carolina (47-14), Tennessee (55-12) and Florida State (47-15) are one side of the bracket, and Kentucky (45-14), NC State (38-21), Florida (34-28) and Texas A&M (49-13) are on the other.

Tennessee entered the 64-team NCAA tournament seeded No. 1 overall. Kentucky was No. 2, Texas A&M was No. 3, UNC was No. 4, FSU was No. 8, NC State was No. 10, and Virginia was No. 12. Florida wasn’t seeded.

Only two of the eight programs have won NCAA titles in baseball: UVA in 2015 and Florida in 2017.

Each bracket will play a double-elimination tournament, with the winners advancing to the best-of-three championship series. The Wahoos have made it that far twice.

In 2014, Vanderbilt edged Virginia 3-2 in the third and final game of the series. The Hoos avenged that loss a year later, defeating the Commodores 4-2 in the decisive third game.

As in 2015, the Cavaliers have reached Omaha for the second consecutive year, but this time they’re not coming off an extended run at the MCWS. In 2023, the Hoos went 0-2 in Omaha, losing by a single run in each game.

“I think most of the time experience matters,” head coach Brian O’Connor said Wednesday. “Now, Coastal Carolina won the national championship [in 2016] without being here before. But it certainly helps. It slows it down a little bit for the players, gets them to focus on truly what you need to do to be successful here. Those two years, obviously, we had great ball clubs, but I definitely think that being here as long as we were in ‘14, and the taste in our mouth of losing the national championship, certainly helped that 2015 team.”

However painful the one-run losses were for UVA in Omaha in 2023, “I believe that that’s going to help those guys that were here last year be ready to go on Friday,” O’Connor said.

In the opening game of the MCWS, Virginia meets ACC rival North Carolina at 2 p.m. ET. Also on Friday, Tennessee takes on FSU at 7 p.m. ET.

Brian O'Connor at practice Wednesday

From the airport, the Cavaliers bused directly to Schwab Field, where got a first-hand look at the 24,000-seat stadium. They did the same last year, too, but O’Connor noticed a difference Wednesday in his veterans’ responses.

“Last year, there was a lot of wide-eyed, oh-my-gosh type faces,” O’Connor said, “and this year, there was a lot more, ‘OK, this is what it is,’ because they were here last year.”

Key players back from UVA’s 2023 team include shortstop Griff O’Ferrall, catcher/designated hitter Ethan Anderson, right-fielder Casey Saucke, left-fielder Harrison Didawick, second baseman Henry Godbout and pitchers Evan Blanco, Chase Hungate and Jay Woolfolk.

Even though he knew what to expect Wednesday when he walked out of the tunnel at Schwab Field, Saucke said, it was still a thrill.

“Oh, yes. This is beautiful,” Saucke said. “It’s still so surreal. I’m fortunate to have the experience and be back two years in a row, but the stadium holds so much history and it’s special here, and I can’t wait to see what we can do.”

Saucke made his MCWS debut last year against Florida in front of 24,801 fans.

“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous,” Saucke said. “I was just looking around, and when you see two decks and people in both of those decks filling them out, you’re like, ‘Wow, this is pretty special.” I don’t think it will faze me as much this time because I’ve been in that environment before, and to that point, a lot of our starting lineup has been in that environment, which is going to be an advantage for us, I think.”

The Cavaliers’ coaching staff this year includes student assistant John Hicks, one of the program’s all-time greats. Hicks, who helped Virginia advance to Omaha in 2009 and 2011, returned to the University last fall after retiring from Major League Baseball to finish work on his bachelor’s degree in foreign affairs.

Hicks played at Rosenblatt Stadium in 2009 and at Schwab Field, then known as TD Ameritrade Park, in 2011, the MCWS’ first year at the new venue. Accompanying Hicks this year are his wife, Leslie, and their young sons, Walker and Kash.

“It’s still awesome, but it’s a different feeling,” Hicks said Wednesday at Schwab Field. “I’m a little less nervous. I don’t have to play like these guys.”

The Hoos practiced Wednesday afternoon at the University of Nebraska Omaha. Afterward, O’Connor noted how little separates the teams that reached the MCWS.

“Not only has everybody earned the right to be here, they are ultra-talented in every facet of the game,” O’Connor said. “So the margins are very, very small in each facet of the game, and you’ve got to play them all really consistently. And then candidly, it comes down to that one player stepping up or that one moment, whether it’s Kenny Towns diving for a ball down the third-base line and throwing across and Pavin Smith having great footwork at first base to make the play, or it’s Thomas Woodruff having two knocks in Game 2 of the championship series [in 2015].”

At Charles Schwab Field Omaha

O’Connor grew up in Council Bluffs, Iowa, across the Missouri River from Omaha, and as a boy he attended the Men’s College World Series regularly with his father. O’Connor played in the MCWS as a Creighton pitcher, and this will be his eighth appearance as a coach. (His first was as a Notre Dame assistant.)

“I’m so excited to be here, because this opportunity is about this team and these players,” O’Connor said. “Fortunately, we as a coaching staff have had opportunities to be here numerous times, but this is their opportunity, and these young men earned the right to be playing here in Omaha and I’m just so excited for the opportunity that they have in front of them.”

Current Cavaliers who were elsewhere last season include graduate transfers Joe Savino (Elon), Jacob Ference (Salisbury) and Bobby Whalen (Indiana) and freshmen Henry Ford and Eric Becker.

Almost from his first practice at UVA last fall, Savino said, it felt “like you have an actual chance to go to Omaha and win it. Not saying we didn’t have a chance at my previous school, but it just feels more real here, and it’s exactly why I came here.”

Savino is a pitcher. Ference is a catcher who helped Salisbury make three trips to the Division III Men’s College World Series in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The Sea Gulls were NCAA champions in 2021 and runners-up in 2022.

“Obviously, making a World Series in itself is just a special experience,” Ference said, “and to do it at a different level is going to be a lot of fun.”

From playing on Division III’s biggest stage, Ference said, he learned the important of “trusting your teammates and not making the moment too big and just having fun out there. Obviously, at Cedar Rapids there weren’t as many fans, but the situation was the same where you can’t make the moment too big. You’ve just got to play for each other and play loose and have fun, because at the end of the day it’s still baseball and you’re going out there to win a ball game.”

Ference was in high school in 2016 when his travel team played in a tournament in Omaha. The MCWS was going on at the same time, and “we got to watch a bunch of games [at Schwab Field],” Ference said. “I was there as a spectator, and now I get a little different perspective of the stadium.”

For the first time since 2015, Virginia needed only five games in the NCAA tournament—three wins in its regional and two in its super regional—to clinch a spot in Omaha.

“Certainly, our pitching has majorly stepped up and been the best that it’s been all year,” O’Connor said Tuesday at Disharoon Park. “And what a time for it to be the best. We were all excited about what we were doing offensively all year long. But to get to Omaha, you’ve got to pitch and you’ve got to defend, and you’ve got to pitch and defend to win in Omaha. It’s a big ballpark like ours, and there’s a lot of high-quality teams.”

Virginia, which hasn’t faced Tennessee this season, lost to Florida State in the ACC tournament. The Hoos hosted UNC in an ACC series in early April at the Dish, where they won the first game 14-11 and the second 7-2. The Tar Heels took the third game 12-7 to avoid a sweep.

“I think we’re better on the mound [now],” O’Connor said. “Those were high-scoring games the last time we played North Carolina. I’m sure they’re better as well. And that happens throughout the season. But listen, they got a great ball club, and we’re going to have to do the little things it takes to be successful. And it’ll be a war out there in Omaha on Friday afternoon, because one of the keys that I’ve learned over the years in this tournament is it’s really important to go 1-0.”

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