(Photo courtesy of UVA Athletics)
The Virginia Cavaliers have been to Omaha before. The two superstars on this year’s team, Jake Gelof and Kyle Teel, have been here before. For Head Coach Brian O’Connor, this is his sixth time leading his program to the pinnacle of college baseball. But for most of Virginia’s roster, despite the program having been here just two years ago, this is their first experience.
“I just can’t wait to see it, get hopefully fully packed for tomorrow night,” said sophomore first baseman Ethan Anderson. “From the fall and the summer, we always break it down to Omaha. This is what we play for.”
“It’s an incredible experience, honestly,” added graduate transfer Nick Parker, whom O’Connor confirmed will start on the mound against Florida on Friday night. “I’ll be very excited to see what tomorrow brings and the atmosphere.”
The ‘Hoos were the first of the eight teams to arrive in Omaha on Wednesday, and the first thing the team did was head to the ballpark. O’Connor stressed the need to get a feel for the stadium and the need to enjoy the experience. He wanted the players to, as he said, "see what this place is like because for many of them, it's mythical."
Even Gelof, one of the handful of players who’d been to Omaha before, wasn't immune to the impact of returning to Charles Schwab Field. When asked whether the feeling had worn off a little bit this time around, the Delaware native responded, “No, definitely not… I did a couple of sprints, warmed up my arm a little bit, but I didn’t feel like I even needed it.”
The players are enjoying the moment, but make no mistake, the team is here to win. O’Connor revealed that he’s kept a journal of UVA’s previous trips to the College World Series. The journal includes the team’s previous itineraries, so that the coaching staff can best strategize when to give the players downtime and when to focus on baseball. Throughout Thursday’s press conference, the theme for Virginia was consistency.
“We haven’t changed anything,” Anderson said. “The approach has been the same.”
“We’ve been having a great approach all year,” added Gelof. “At the end of the day it’s about getting here and winning a National Championship.
“I think one of the things that's really important to do when you get here to Omaha is to stay in character, right?” said O’Connor. “We had that conversation with our dugout on Monday. We continue to talk about it. You know, talk about things about staying in character and doing what we do. Those are important things, having success all year long, and they become very important here in Omaha.”
After a slump in April, the 'Hoos have rebounded and gone 15-2 since they lost last a series. Unlike their previous trip to Omaha in 2021, they're arriving as one of the nation's top eight seeds. While Wake Forest, Florida, and LSU might be seen as the favorites, the Wahoos are by no means underdogs. They believe they have the talent and the experience to win a National Championship.
“It's not about just being in Omaha. It's about the opportunity that they have in front of them, out in that stadium over the next two weeks,” said O'Connor in his opening statement to begin the press conference. "This year's version is a really, really special team that's had a tremendous year wire-to-wire and is very, very good in every phase of the game."
Virginia is 50-12 on the year and leads the nation in batting average and doubles. They’re the only team left that’s Top 10 nationally in batting average and ERA. It’s arguably Virginia’s most complete team since they won the National Championship in 2015. There is no question this team can handle the big moments and the bright lights, as they have proven throughout the season, particularly last weekend after dropping the first game against Duke in the Super Regional. They stormed back the next two games by scoring 26 runs to punch their ticket to Omaha. O’Connor and the players are confident.
“In these big moments, when you are in a bigger stadium, when it means as much as it ever has, they can handle the moment. Listen,” O’Connor said. “They’re prepared. They’re excited.”
Virginia opens up their College World Series campaign against Florida at 7:00 PM on Friday. The game can be watched on ESPN.