UC Irvine feels at home in Omaha

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OMAHA, Neb. - The road to the College World Series definitely has never before passed through B&B Classic Dogs.

But there on Thursday afternoon, nine miles south of TD Ameritrade Park -- where the CWS opens Saturday -- a charter coach of UC Irvine baseball players and staff, after practice at nearby Bellevue East High School, piled into this hot dog shop, where you can order a Nathan's Famous frank topped with mac and cheese, barbecue and bacon.

Why? Because on Wednesday, Diane Bruce, co-owner of B&B, which opened last fall, tracked down the Anteaters' bus driver and made her pitch. Bruce then sent an employee to Irvine's midday practice to offer an invite straight to 74-year-old coach Mike Gillespie.

Gillespie accepted because he was hungry, and, well, because this is the CWS, Omaha's annual festival of Americana and unmatched hospitality. The Anteaters know to go with the flow.

UC Irvine, which lost six straight games and eight of nine before the NCAA postseason, snuck into the field of 64 as one of the final four at-large selections.

Next, it won five games over the past two weekends on the road to earn the CWS trip.

Gillespie's club twice beat Oregon State, the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament. And Irvine swept the best-of-three super regional at Oklahoma State, champion of the Big 12, a league that still qualified three teams this week among Omaha's field of eight.

Those most entrenched in the Irvine program since its rebirth in 2002 understand what's happening here. They can't exactly explain it, but they realize it's uncommon and difficult to achieve.

Most importantly, they're not about to disrupt the chemistry -- just ride the wave.

"It's a circus here, and we've tried to prep these guys a little bit," said Irvine assistant coach Ben Orloff, the Anteaters' all-time hits leader and shortstop on the 2007 team that made this school's only other CWS appearance. "But really, we've just told them to enjoy it. It's so hard to get here. Go have fun."

Fun comes naturally to this group.

Even as they stumbled toward the regular-season finish, a mantra was born that now serves as the drumbeat to the Irvine resurgence: No Prisoners.

Players and coaches -- even Gillespie, whose voice, lost at Oklahoma State, is only starting to return -- wear shirts at practice emblazoned with the phrase coined by junior shortstop Chris Rabago. It was inspired, actually, by Leonardo DiCaprio's character from "The Wolf of Wolf Street," who, in a passionate speech, clubbed his head with his hand and delivered words that resonated with the Anteaters.

During any quiet moment around the Anteaters, the rally cry rings out, followed by fists to the heads of Irvine players.

When their plane landed in Omaha on Wednesday, before the team exited, Rabago grabbed the microphone.

"No prisoners!"

Hey, if it works...

"We were waiting for one of the starters to step up," senior reliever Jimmy Litchfield said.

During the May struggles, he said, players questioned each other and pointed fingers.

"We just wanted everything to work like it had been," Litchfield said. "And once Chris came up with this, it brought the team together. It worked. It might seem like it's fake energy, but no way. It's real."

In Omaha, watch for the head-pounding as Irvine faces Texas on Saturday at 3 p.m. ET to open the CWS.

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