OMAHA, Neb. — Brian O’Connor has done just about everything at the College World Series except win a national championship.
He’s got his chance now.
O’Connor, 43, is the local boy who has done well, leading Virginia to the best-of-three finals against Vanderbilt starting tonight.
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 the 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.”
The top assistant coach on O’Connor’s staff is an IUP graduate.
Kevin McMullan, a 1990 IUP graduate, is in his eighth season as the associate head coach and in his 11th season overall at Virginia. He serves as the recruiting coordinator and hitting coach and works defensively with the infielders and catchers.
McMullan is widely considered among the top recruiters and skill developers in the country. In November 2012, McMullan was named the top assistant coach in college baseball in a poll of 70 Division I head coaches, according to the Virginia athletic website.
Virginia (52-14) and Vanderbilt (49-20) both are in the finals for the first time. The Cavaliers went 3-0 in bracket play. The Commodores went 3-1 in their bracket.
Even 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, (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.”
Five things to know about the CWS finals:
1. PITCHING PLANS: Virginia will start Nathan Kirby (9-2, 1.70 ERA) in Game 1 against either 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 Mississippi but didn’t get the decision in the 2-1 win. Beede, the 14th overall draft pick by the Giants, has had control problems and allowed four runs in 3 2-3 innings of his start against UC Irvine last Monday. Buehler came on and pitched 5 1-3 innings of no-hit relief in Vandy’s 6-4 win.
2. FIRST TIME MEETING: Virginia and Vanderbilt will be meeting in baseball 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.
3. REYNOLDS RAPPING BALL: 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.
4. OFFENSIVE LEADERS: Vanderbilt is averaging 3.75 runs in its four CWS games, well above the combined average of 2.5 runs for the other seven teams that came to Omaha.
5. CAMPBELL ANSWERS CALL: Tyler Campbell is 3 for 8 since entering the lineup in place of third baseman Xavier Turner, who was declared ineligible by the NCAA on Friday for a rules violation. Campbell beat out an infield grounder with the bases loaded in the bottom of the 10th inning Saturday for the 4-3 win over Texas that sent Vandy to the finals.