Whit Mayberry experienced college baseball royalty status in 2011 when he and his Virginia teammates loaded onto a bus to go from their hotel to TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Neb., with a police escort leading the way.
Oh, and that team hotel. Mayberry had never put his head down on a pillow in a palace like that one. Those are just some of the perks of the College World Series, and U.Va.'s baseball team is getting a taste of the good life again beginning 8 p.m. Sunday with its first game in this year's CWS against Mississippi.
"Some things really stick out about that (2011) trip and I'll never forget it," said Mayberry, a senior pitcher who is the only player on U.Va.'s roster to have played in a CWS game, pitching a third of an inning and recording one out in a 7-1 loss to South Carolina.
"I have really fond memories of the 2011 College World Series. I remember some parts like really vividly. I'm extremely excited to make some new memories. I'm not really thinking about the past. I'm thinking about this team."
Along with Mayberry, senior pitchers Artie Lewicki and Austin Young also were on the roster for U.Va. (49-14) on that journey to the '11 CWS. Otherwise, it's going to be an entirely new setting for U.Va.'s players, and one coach Brian O'Connor has tried to prepare his players for this week.
He's been to the CWS with four different teams. He's done it at U.Va., as an assistant coach at Notre Dame and Louisiana State, and as a pitcher at Creighton. In addition, he grew up in Council Bluffs, Iowa, which is about 15 minutes from the epicenter of the CWS in Omaha.
During a Tuesday team meeting, O'Connor tried to tell his players what they're in for at the CWS.
He told them to make sure they got all their allotted complimentary tickets in the hands of the people they want to have them as soon as possible, so players didn't have to deal with that potential mess in Omaha. He gave them a head's up about the endless hordes of kids that will constantly ask for autographs, balls, batting gloves — essentially everything not nailed in dugouts.
"I think it's important that they embrace all that, but ... when it comes time for us to work and for us to be focused on what the task at hand is, they need to be 100 percent engaged in that," said O'Connor, who traveled Thursday with his team to Omaha. "Certainly, the media attention that goes on with it, the fanfare and everything, it's great, but they need to handle it the right way."
While the peripheral hoopla is nice, it's not why U.Va. is in Omaha. As the national No. 3 seed, and the best of the remaining two national seeds in the NCAA tournament, U.Va. is expected to finish the job this time.
It was only around for four games in the '11 CWS — gone in less than a week. U.Va.'s trip to Omaha in '09, the first CWS for the Cavaliers, was even shorter. Just three games.
Sophomore pitcher Nathan Kirby (9-2, 1.73 earned-run average) will be among U.Va.'s players making the CWS voyage for the first time. After ending up on losing end of the decision in U.Va.'s 5-4 loss to Maryland in Game 1 of the super regional, Kirby has personal and team motivation.
"I just think it's more something I wipe clean from my memory," said Kirby of his loss in the super regional, in which he gave up seven hits and five earned runs in his shortest outing of the season (4 2/3 innings). "I was throwing strikes, but I almost feel like I was throwing too many strikes. A lot of the pitches I was throwing were just right down the middle. No matter what pitches you throw, if they're right down the middle, it gives an added advantage to the hitter."
As for the CWS, he thinks every player in a U.Va. uniform will soak it in with wide-eyed amazement.
"I don't think anyone knows what to expect," Kirby said. "It's been a while since Whit has been there, and I think he's almost in the same as we are. It's a totally different team now."
U.Va. third baseman Kenny Towns has competed on the field at TD Ameritrade Park, which opened during that '11 CWS, more recently than any of his teammates. Last July, after the CWS was over, he and participated in an invitational college home run derby in Omaha — a competition teammate and current U.Va. outfielder Derek Fisher also participated in two years ago.
Towns' trip to Omaha only lasted two days, and it had nothing to do with the CWS, but he still knew it was a place he wanted to return to — and soon. That's exactly what he told his teammates when he got back to Charlottesville.
"I just told them, 'It's the place to be. It's the place where you want to play,'" said Towns, a junior who went undrafted last week, but who remained focused enough in the super regional to go 6-for-9 in the last two games, including a four RBI effort in Game 3. "There was a great crowd out there in Omaha, so I told them how awesome it was. I can't wait to be there and actually play with my teammates."
Wood can be reached by phone at 757-247-4642.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun