3:59 PM EDT, June 18, 2011
Danny Hultzen called Virginia's 2009 march to the College World Series trip "a joyride." Brian O'Connor dubbed it "a perfect storm."
Such is life for a first-time CWS program and a coach who grew up a ground-rule double from the event's venerable home in Omaha, Neb.
But as indelible as the memory is for the Cavaliers, the experience was, ultimately, disappointing.
Virginia lost two of three games in Omaha, including its opener to eventual champion LSU.
"It's much different this year," junior catcher John Hicks said.
Yes, the Cavaliers are back in the CWS, far better prepared for the distractions, obligations and competition.
"This time, we know what to expect," said Hultzen, Virginia's scheduled starter Sunday against California.
A first-team All-American and the No. 2 pick of the Major League draft, Hultzen started two CWS games as a freshman, without a decision. Hicks, third baseman Steven Proscia and second baseman Keith Werman also were in the lineup two seasons ago.
Then, the Cavaliers were college baseball's Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn, crashing the high-society soirée. Now, they're the NCAA tournament's No. 1 seed, complete with a gaudy 54-10 record and fresh off a dramatic Super Regional victory over UC Irvine.
"Our players have earned this opportunity and they are very proud of it," said O'Connor, Virginia's eighth-year coach. "That being said, they understand that we are going there (with) a job to do, and (that) the goal has not been met."
The Cavaliers may lack a national championship, but they have played at that level all season.
They dropped consecutive games only once, in a three-game sweep at North Carolina, and rebounded immediately to win the ACC tournament. They lead the nation in ERA and winning percentage and rank fifth in fielding percentage, 16th in scoring.
"I'm not saying we expected to go (to the CWS)," Hicks said. "But we felt confident we were one of the best teams in the country."
That confidence was probably more prevalent inside Virginia's clubhouse than outside. After all, the Cavaliers lost starting outfielders Phil Gosselin, Dan Grovatt and Jarrett Parker, shortstop Tyler Cannon, catcher Franco Valdes and national saves leader Kevin Arico from a top-10 squad that came within one victory of the CWS.
O'Connor's recruiting and coaching overcame those departures as players such as shortstop Chris Taylor, closer Branden Kline, starting pitcher Will Roberts and outfielders John Barr, Kenny Swab and David Coleman embraced primary roles.
"So many guys in the lineup and on the mound have rose up for this team the entire season," O'Connor said.
O'Connor's Omaha homecoming was the dominant storyline two years ago. This time he's happy to be replaced by subplots such as the city's new stadium and Cal's return to the CWS for the first time in 19 years.
Cal announced Sept. 28 that baseball was among four sports being purged by budget cuts. But alums and boosters ponied up $9 million to save baseball, and the Golden Bears paid immeasurable dividends.
And if Virginia faithful think the Cavaliers' down-to-their-last strike escape against UC Irvine in the Super Regional was amazing, consider Cal.
The Golden Bears trailed Baylor 7-1 in a regional elimination game, 8-5 entering the bottom of the ninth. Four runs, three hits and a Baylor error later, Cal was celebrating a 9-8 victory, the winning runs scoring on Devon Rodriguez's two-out, down-to-the-last-strike single.
Like Virginia, Cal (37-21) leans on its pitching. Led by Kevin Miller, the Golden Bears rank 11th nationally in ERA.
In fact, pitching is the calling card of all eight CWS teams. Virginia, Texas and Vanderbilt are Nos. 1-3 nationally in ERA, with South Carolina fifth, Texas A&M 13th, Florida 20th and North Carolina 31st.
O'Connor will be the first to testify to the Tar Heels' pitching. Virginia managed all of three runs in losing three games at Carolina last month before edging the Tar Heels 3-2 in the ACC tournament.
That's six runs in four games for those of you scoring at home. Translation: The Tar Heels aren't afraid of an arms race.
Virginia starters Hultzen, Tyler Wilson and Roberts are 31-4 combined and allowed two runs in 18.2 innings against Irvine. Cody Winiarski, Justin Thompson and Kline anchor the bullpen, with freshman southpaw Kyle Crockett (1.73 ERA) of Poquoson a valuable weapon against left-handed hitters.
"That's what it takes to get to Omaha and have a chance to win it," O'Connor said of a deep, versatile staff.
Add CWS experience to the mix and you have an imposing team.
Not that familiarity guarantees success. This is North Carolina's fifth World Series in six years and ninth overall, Florida's third this decade and seventh overall.
Neither has won.
Florida State, which lost to Texas A&M in this year's Super Regionals, has reached Omaha 20 times without a title.
"Everybody around the country says the goal is to get to Omaha," O'Connor said. "We have never talked about that this year with our club. I never hear them talk about it. … That can't be the goal. If that's your goal, you are selling yourself short."
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