OMAHA, Neb. — Brian O’Connor has done just about everything at the College World Series — except win the national championship.
He has his chance now.
The 43-year-old is the local boy who has done well, leading Virginia to the best-of-three finals against Vanderbilt starting Monday night.
The Cavaliers’ 11th-year coach was born in Omaha, grew up across the Missouri River in Council Bluffs, Iowa, and as a kid attended CWS games with his dad at old Rosenblatt Stadium.
When he was a college player at Creighton in Omaha, he pulled cable for ESPN during games every year except one.
That was 1991, when Creighton made its only appearance in the CWS, and O’Connor pitched in a game against Wichita State that people around here still talk about.
The featured player on the “Road to Omaha” statue in front of TD Ameritrade Park is, you guessed it, based on O’Connor’s likeness.
Try as he may, as he did Sunday during a joint news conference with Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin, there’s no downplaying his deep connection to the area and event.
“It doesn’t mean any more to me than it does to coach Corbin or any of our players on either team,” O’Connor said. “A lot is to be made that I’m from here. It’s about these kids’ experience.
“The only difference between me and those young men is my birth record. It says Omaha, Nebraska. That’s it. It’s about their experience and their team, and that’s the way I’d like to keep it.”
Virginia (52-14) and Vanderbilt (49-20) both are in the finals for the first time. The Cavaliers went 3-0 in bracket play, advancing Saturday with a 4-1 win over Ole Miss. The Commodores went 3-1 in their bracket, edging Texas 4-3 in 10 innings Saturday to move on.
Corbin, Vandy’s 12th-year coach, said Virginia’s home-field advantage is palpable.
“It’s neat to be a part of it, and it’s neat the way this tournament set up that it’s in Omaha,” he said before cracking a wide smile. “And we’ll be in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, (on Tuesday) because we’re home team, so we’ll utilize the 400 people who live in my small town and we’ll play there. No statue, though.”
Virginia will start Nathan Kirby (9-2, 1.70 ERA) in Game 1 against Tyler Beede (8-7, 3.80) or Walker Buehler (12-2, 2.27).
Kirby allowed one hit in seven innings of the Cavs’ CWS opener against Ole Miss but didn’t get the decision in the 2-1 win. Beede, the 14th overall pick by the Giants, has had control problems and allowed four runs in 3.2 innings of his start against UC Irvine last Monday. Buehler came on and pitched 5.1 innings of no-hit relief in Vandy’s 6-4 win.
Virginia and Vanderbilt are meeting for the first time. The Cavaliers are trying to win the ACC’s first national title in the sport since Wake Forest in 1955. Vanderbilt is the seventh straight SEC team to make it to the finals.
Vandy’s Bryan Reynolds is hitting .431 in the postseason and .428 in the CWS. The freshman has hit safely in 17 of his past 18 games. Vanderbilt is averaging 3.75 runs in its four CWS games, well above the combined average of 2.5 for the other seven teams that came to Omaha.