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Shatel: Virginia coach O’Connor’s CWS exploits becoming a work of art

Shatel: Virginia coach O’Connor’s CWS exploits becoming a work of art

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We are two Virginia wins away from the answer to the most compelling question at the College World Series.

Can a statue come to life?

One of the celebrating players’ faces on the “Road to Omaha” statue is modeled after Virginia coach Brian O’Connor. So, if the Wahoos take the CWS championship this week, would O’Connor show us how it’s done?

O’Connor laughed. But he didn’t say no.

“I don’t know ... I might,” O’Connor said. “I’m sure we’d probably hug as coaches and let the players do it.”

A Virginia national championship would cap an amazing journey — for the coach and the school.

You probably know the O’Connor story. Raised across the river in Council Bluffs. Pitched at Creighton.

He played in the CWS, on the 1991 Creighton team, one of the most storied sports teams in local history. He coached in the CWS as an assistant at Notre Dame.

O’Connor leading his team to history this week would be one of the great local sports stories in the history of local sports stories.

We’ve had area kids grow up to win national championships or professional titles. But have there been any Omaha-area kids who grew up to coach a team to a college or pro championship?

It’s got to be a short list, and

O’Connor could be on it.

That’s for the storytellers. O’Connor has been so focused — his team plays that way, too — he hadn’t thought such things. But after his team clinically dispatched Ole Miss on Saturday 4-1, O’Connor did allow himself to think about that kid who grew up going to the CWS, now with a chance to win it.

“I hadn’t thought about it,” O’Connor said. “But now you’re in a situation where you’re in the national championship series. And with all the family here, my wife’s family, all of our friends, it’s special.

“I played in the series, coached in it. When I wasn’t playing in it, I was pulling cable for ESPN (Creighton baseball players used to assist ESPN at the CWS). All those things, and now we’re playing for the title.”

His old coach at Creighton, Jim Hendry, stopped by Virginia’s practice the other day. Hendry and those Jays will always have that year, that legacy, the unforgettable game with Wichita State. They didn’t win, but in many ways, being there was victory for Creighton.

Now, one of those Jays has a chance to finish the job.

What Virginia is doing now in baseball is a lot like that Creighton accomplishment, bigger than life, unthinkable at one time.

UVA has won 19 national championships in the past 72 years, in boxing (1), women’s indoor track (1), women’s cross country (2), men’s lacrosse (6), women’s lacrosse (3) and men’s soccer (6).

Baseball? The program had been to the NCAA tournament three times in 115 years and had never advanced past the regional round. So, in 2002, Virginia officials considered dumping the sport.

Instead, they invested in a new stadium and a new coach. Guy named O’Connor. Smart moves.

“I don’t know the history behind it,” O’Connor said. “But I know that 12 years ago Virginia made a tremendous commitment to baseball. And when I arrived, my athletic director, Craig Littlepage, assured me they were serious about baseball. Given what we had to offer as a school, and with the ACC, I was very confident in what we could do.”

O’Connor repaid that chance with loyalty. He’s had several feelers and phone calls in recent years from programs inquiring about his services. He’s turned them all down.

“I believe the dream job is the job you’re in,” O’Connor said. “In my opinion we have everything you need at UVA to compete for the title — and win.”

O’Connor showed up with a plan. His teams are a mirror image of their coach, a thorough man, big on details, teaching, repetition. They pitch and play defense. They don’t make a lot of mistakes.

They’ve got his poise, too, and they’ve showed it this season.

Virginia started this season at No. 1, but nobody knew if the pitching would live up to that number. It did, with Nick Howard becoming a top closer, and Nathan Kirby, Josh Sborz and Artie Lewicki became a dominant staff. Especially in June.

The Cavs have won 14 one-run games, living on the edge, but having the confidence to win, too. That confidence is high, and O’Connor wanted nothing to do with a question about the pressure of this moment.

“I don’t think there’s any pressure,” O’Connor said. “We’ve never been in this scenario before. Maybe if we had been in this situation multiple times and hadn’t done it. We’re concerned about playing a good baseball game on Monday night.”

This is a business trip. That’s what O’Connor told family and friends in Omaha this time, that there wouldn’t be the distractions of the past two CWS trips. No offense. But there’s a story going on here, a good one, a story to finish.

It might be the best local angle yet.

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