UC Irvine feels at home in Omaha

And before the game, just as the Anteaters complete stretching, take notice of the elaborate skit outside the dugout. The tradition dates to the 2007 CWS team, and it carries importance with the players.

Junior outfielder Ryan Cooper and sophomore second baseman Grant Palmer have assumed ringleader roles this season. No one is off limits; the skits poke fun at nearly everyone around the team.

All of it builds camaraderie.

"I would say this team has more energy than any team we've had since 2007," said senior associate athletic director Paul Hope, who oversees the baseball program. "Different component pieces, different personalities, but the same type of energy, and they have also that understanding that it doesn't matter what you did; it matters what you're doing."

Hope has worked at the school since 1983. He was there when Irvine cut baseball in 1992 and at the helm when it was reinstated 10 years later. He traveled with the Anteaters seven years ago and, of course, expected a return visit.

"When you're here," Hope said, "you think it's easy to get back. We thought we could do this again and again. It's not that easy."

After the 2007 team went 2-2 in Omaha, coach Dave Serrano left Irvine for Big West rival Cal State Fullerton. Enter Gillespie, who had won a national title at USC in 1998.

The Anteaters in 2008 lost a late lead at LSU that could have secured a repeat visit. A year later, Irvine sat atop the polls for a chunk of the season but lost at home to Virginia in the regional round. In 2011 at Virginia, the Cavaliers, down to their final strike in the decisive super regional game, came back to beat Irvine.

Litchfield pitched as a freshman in that 2011 super regional. Irvine failed to make the tournament in 2012 and 2013. For all but the seniors, the regional two weeks ago at Oregon State marked the first taste of success in June.

The Anteaters spent less than 12 hours at home before the super regional at Oklahoma State. They got two days back in California in advance of the trip to Omaha.

Travel-weary? Not a chance, freshman catcher Alex Guenette said.

"I'm just cherishing the moments," Guenette said. "All of this has brought us real close."

Recognition arrived immediately in Omaha. As Litchfield walked with roommate Elliot Surrey from the Hilton Omaha to D.J.'s Dugout, a nearby sports bar and grill, on Wednesday night, several fans stopped the players to offer well wishes.

"We don't get that in Irvine," Litchfield said.

More often, people in airports, even in southern California, ask about the level of baseball they play. Is it Division I? After practice Thursday -- before the hot dog shop -- several Anteaters posed for photos and signed autographs for a youth team out of Mokena, Illinois.

"It's sweet to see people who actually know your school," Guenette said.

In Omaha, they know. People remember the 2007 team, which played loose, like this group, and with great energy. The Anteaters beat Cal State Fullerton and Arizona State, bona fide West Coast powers, in that CWS and won over thousands of fans for a few days.

On Saturday, 30 minutes before the CWS opens, President Barack Obama is scheduled to speak at commencement back in Irvine. Litchfield is among five graduating seniors who will miss the ceremony.

He wouldn't trade the experience.

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