OMAHA, Neb. -- When you walk around outside the grounds of TD Ameritrade Park, you notice several things.
One of the first things you see is the iconic Road to Omaha statue, and yes, that is Virginia’s head coach Brian O’Connor immortalized in bronze. You will also see that Little League-age boys love college baseball and wearing neon colors, but not necessarily in that order.
For the second year in a row both teams were looking to live up to the CWS motto and make a little history and, for the second consecutive year, Virginia and Vanderbilt pushed the College World Series Final to a deciding Game 3.
Vanderbilt was trying to become the seventh school to win back-to-back national titles and the third program to do it in the past 10 years. Virginia was looking to be the first Atlantic Coast Conference team to win the baseball national championship since Wake Forest in 1955.
The Hoos ended the ACC championship drought by claiming the program’s first national title with a 4-2 win on Saturday night.
"It's amazing the text messages I received over the last couple of days from other coaches in our league rooting us on. But we've never discussed in our program about one league against another or us trying to so-called as a league getting over this hump and winning a national championship,” Virginia coach Brian O’Connor said.
“There are great programs in our league. Our conference is a year in, year out, an outstanding conference with great coaches and great players and committed administrations. And I think you'll see more teams up here out of our league sitting on here with the national championship trophy. I'm proud that we did it.”
Virginia put a bow on a season even someone who bleeds Chicago Maroon and Burnt Orange would begrudgingly admit was a magical run. They are just the third champion to lose the first game of the CWS Finals and the first team since Texas in 2002 to win both the first game of the CWS and the last game.
Virginia’s road to Omaha was unusually tough this year. The team was freshman-heavy, as the MLB Draft hit last year’s team hard. Entering the last week of regular-season play, Virginia wasn’t even guaranteed a spot in the ACC tournament, let alone the NCAA tournament. They were able to grind it out and earned a No. 3 seed in the NCAA regional.
“This was a crazy ride this year,” O’Conner said. “We are so proud of this championship.”
Virginia won this deciding game in similar fashion to six other wins during the tournament -- a come-from-behind victory featuring gutsy plays that have been a hallmark for this team during the finals. Virginia finished the tournament with a 10-2 record and seven of the wins were the comeback wins.
Virginia freshman Pavin Smith evened the game in the 4th inning with home run and pushed the momentum to the Cavaliers’ side. Smith did not have a RBI in the CWS leading up to Game 3, and finished the night with three. His play changed the feeling on the Wahoos’ bench.
“We didn't score again but [Smith’s home run] just kind of got the team up, got our spirits up a little bit,” Virginia third baseman Kenny Towns said. “And we were able to put together some quality innings after that.”
O’Connor preaches every player has a job to do and starting pitcher Brandon Waddell did his with another brilliant performance from the hill.
“I thought [Brandon] Waddell, in a lot of ways, was left for dead but he just got himself up in the fifth, sixth and seventh, he turned the game around,” Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin said. “He went one, two, three, one, two, three, one, two, three. And when they brought Kirby out, he pitched with a lot of adrenalin. And you know just shut us down. You have to give them a lot of credit.”
Vanderbilt jumped on the scoreboard with two runs in the first and it looked like the Commodores were going to be get Waddell on the ropes early, but he was able to keep the Vandy lineup in check the rest of the night.
“I thought he did a pretty good job keeping the ball in the outer half of the plate, and a lot of his misses were out, more so than over the middle of the plate,” right fielder Rhett Wiseman said. “You know, it's just one of those days where we hit some balls hard right at guys. On the whole we have nothing to hang our heads about. We'll walk out of here with our heads as high as ever.”
It wasn’t difficult for Waddell to get back into his groove, despite his rough start to the game.
“It's just a matter of taking a breath, getting your mind right, kind of simplifying things. I knew what I had to do. So it's a matter of going out there and executing. So I got focused back on those things,” he said. “I knew 2-0 wasn't going to be the final score. I knew our offense was going to score, you know they were going to put up some runs. So at that point it was a matter of trying to keep them to two, keeping our team in the ballgame as long as I could.”
He kept them in the game longer than expected. He planned to throw three innings but ended up eating seven innings. The lefty made his school-record 53rd career start and his fifth career CWS start, tying him for fifth-most all-time with eight other men.
Both Virginia and Vanderbilt have been on both sides of the championship celebration.
“Momentum has a big place in college athletics as a whole. Yeah, [Virginia] had it in Game 2. But I wasn't really concerned. I thought the verbals by the kids after last night were right on point. I thought they were very ready to play this particular game, and they were,” Corbin said.
“And thought we had momentum for a time, but we seemed to lose it. And they regained it. And then as we got deeper into the game and we were behind, our at-bats were probably trying to do too much. These kids are very deliberate and they care a lot about what they're doing, and they're trying like hell to make something happen. And we just couldn't.”
Vanderbilt does not have a single senior on the roster with seven juniors taken this year in the MLB Draft. Corbin has said over and over how special this group of players are to him. The feeling is mutual because shortstop Dansby Swanson and right fielder Rhett Wiseman were nearly overcome with emotion after the game.
“I mean, when you're able to come together, 35 strong each year and basically have 34 new best friends every year, it's a special moment,” Swanson said. “And that's what we create. We have a family. It's not just 35 players; it's 50, because we have all the staff and the coaches that put so much effort in. So it's a special thing. I've never been a part of something this amazing in my life.”
Wiseman agreed with Swanson adding this moment was a little tough for him, but he is sharing with his 30 brothers and ‘the best dad anyone could ask for’ as wrapped his arm around his head coach.