UC Irvine feels at home in Omaha


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.

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.

"I try to explain to people," said Pope, the longtime administrator. "The College World Series is unlike the Final Four. It's unlike the [football] national championship. It's unique in that the people of Omaha embrace it like no other. These guys don't understand."

Back at the Hilton, Orloff understands. He and pitching coach Daniel Bibona, a freshman on the 2007 squad, can see the ballpark from their hotel room. Orloff snapped a photo on Thursday morning. He and Bibona circulated it by text message to a dozen or so former teammates.

Responses flooded their phones. The coaches hope for more of the same reaction on Saturday and into next week.

"Our guys know that if we play well," Orloff said, "we can beat anybody in the country. These guys believe that. They've embraced it. They play hard. I think the fans here are going to love them."