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Ordinarily, getting on a plane to fly to somewhere is something to be endured. Few enjoy air travel. But let me tell you, if you’ve won your super regional, boarding the flight to Omaha for the College World Series is one of the greatest experiences of your life.
Just getting on that plane and flying is the highlight of your season until you get to Omaha. The guys on that plane know you are headed to the destination you have been focused on for months. Stepping on that plane is bigger than any game you’ve played so far. It’s bigger than the dogpile at the super regional.
When you step onto that plane, that’s when you realize you’re on a plane to Omaha. You’re going to the College World Series.
Every moment in Omaha seems bigger. When our UC Irvine team made the trip to Omaha in 2007, myself and assistant coach Sergio Brown were the only two members of our traveling party who had been there before.
On our first day in Omaha, we loaded the bus. Our players thought we were on our way to a workout at a local high school. But before that, on our way, I had set up with the bus driver to make a run by Rosenblatt Stadium, then home of the CWS. As the bus was heading down 14th Street and the stadium appeared on the horizon, I had every person on the bus put their heads down. They weren’t allowed to look up until I said so.
As we approached the beauty of Rosenblatt sitting up on the hill I said, “Men, don’t ever let anyone tell you that your dreams can’t come true.”
As every person raised their head and saw the stadium in the distance, a roar erupted on our bus. As a coach it was a moment I will never forget. We proceeded to take the team by the empty—but open—stadium for pictures and to see where we would be playing when the CWS started.
I’ve been fortunate enough to make that trip seven times as a coach, both as an assistant with Tennessee and Cal State Fullerton and as head coach for UC Irvine and Fullerton. Each trip contributed a new lesson. Here is what I learned.
1. GET COMFORTABLE BEING UNCOMFORTABLE
In 2003, Jason Windsor was our ace at Cal State Fullerton. He handled everything we threw at him. He was the hard-nosed bulldog coaches dream of having. He was exactly the pitcher you wanted starting your CWS opener.
And in the first inning of that Game 1, I had to head to the mound to try to calm him down. Of course it was humid. It’s Omaha in June. But when I got to the mound, Windsor was perspiring at a level I’d never seen from him before.
Windsor told me, “Coach, I can’t even breathe right now.”
He eventually settled down, but if the moment could affect Windsor, it could affect anybody. You have to learn how to get comfortable being uncomfortable, as sports psychologist Ken Ravizza liked to say to our team, because you are going to be uncomfortable.
The game speeds up for everybody, not just players, but coaches as well. You have to embrace it and adapt to it, because it’s impossible to ignore it. The teams that embrace it quicker have more success.
2. PLAYERS BENEFIT FROM MAKING RETURN TRIPS TO OMAHA
While certain programs expect to make frequent trips to Omaha, that’s not the big advantage of repeat appearances. The advantage comes from having players who have been there before. Our 2003 Cal State Fullerton team was more talented than our 2004 team, but the 2004 team is the one that won the national title. That team had an advantage because most of the players had experienced Omaha before.
Remember what it was like learning to drive? Those first few weeks, you feel nervous at red lights or merging into traffic. But before long you get comfortable doing the routine aspects of driving.
Playing in Omaha never becomes routine. But players who have been to Omaha before are more comfortable, and they can help reduce the stress for players on the team making their first Omaha appearances.
3. DOMINANT PITCHING TEAMS CAN BENEFIT FROM OFF DAYS
Making it through a regional or super regional can push a team’s pitching staff to the limit, especially if it has to claw back from an early loss.
The good news about Omaha is that your pitching staff actually goes further because of all the off days. With a four-team bracket and alternating off days—so long as a team stays out of the loser’s bracket—you can reach the finals with a two-man rotation. Your ace starts the first game, your No. 2 starter pitches two days later and your ace returns on full rest to pitch the clincher to the finals. Teams with deep pitching staffs stand to benefit, especially with TD Ameritrade being a pitcher’s park. Because of the off days, pitchers are going to end up being used in different roles than normal. Your regular Sunday starter may turn into a bullpen arm for your opener, since he’s not going to throw for three or four days.
But you need to prepare the team for what’s about to happen. You need to prepare your team that you’re not panicking—it’s just a different setup for a different tournament. You don’t want your team to think that seeing a starting pitcher enter in the middle innings of the first game is a sign that the team is in trouble.
You also can’t get too far ahead of yourself. Don’t worry about the next game until you win the current one. Case in point: I went away from my Friday guy in 2009 and started our Saturday starter in Game 1 because I thought it was a better matchup. It blew up on me, and we went 0-2.
4. DEVELOP A NEW ROUTINE
Just accept that your old routine is obsolete and you have to adjust to a new one. Playing in Omaha is unlike anything you’ve experienced during the season. You’re working out at other fields. You have off days between games. You’re facing much more intense media attention. And you’re playing in front of more people than ever before.
But there are subtle changes as well. If your team isn’t normally on TV, your starting pitchers often have some leeway in terms of warming up. At Cal State Fullerton, some of our starters would take their time getting ready and the game would start when they were ready. In Omaha, a 7:07 p.m. start means exactly that. Your team better be out there with your pitcher on the mound. That speeds guys up because it takes them out of their routine, so you have to figure out how to make sure your pitchers are ready.
Also, West Coast teams often haven’t dealt with a weather delays. So you just have to learn to sit, wait and stay ready when rain or lightning becomes an issue. The CWS also is different because it’s a tournament. During the regular season, coaches aren’t allowed to scout games in which your team isn’t playing (unless it’s a tournament). In Omaha, there are two seats behind home plate for each team’s coaches to scout. The players get to sit in the stands and watch the other games, and we always encouraged our players to go to games. That way they get a feel for the other team.
5. THREAD THE LINE OF FUN AND FOCUS CAREFULLY
Any team in Omaha needs time to have fun. There are dinners, hospital visits, media day and a variety of other team activities. But there also is a lot of down time. They have earned the right to have fun and enjoy every moment in Omaha.
The focus and maturity of your team goes a long way toward success. Players should have fun, but you have to remind them that it is a business trip for about five hours every other day. That’s from the time you load the bus until the final out.
You get concerned as a coach. You don’t want to be overbearing. You don’t want to have too many video sessions. You don’t want your team thinking you aren’t allowing them to have fun. You want them to have fun. But you also want them to be prepared.
Things become real after the first game. After that game, you’ve now experienced everything you’ve dreamed of. If you won your first game, you know you’re on track. If you lost, you know you have to fight to stick around.
You want the team to have fun. Of course, when you are winning, every day becomes fun.
6. PLAYERS AND COACHES WILL WALK AWAY EXHAUSTED
When the CWS is over you are exhausted, both emotionally and physically. In 2004 when we won it at Cal State Fullerton, I had lost my mom a few years before, so the realization she wasn’t there hit me hard. After we won the title, it all arrived with a wallop after I got back to the room that night.
When I laid on the bed I realized we had just become the best team in the country. I reflected on everything we did. I just broke down in tears by myself on that hotel bed. Everything we had experienced over the last year, what we had accomplished, it took me awhile to overcome my emotions.
The marathon started in August and stretched until the end of June. You get very little sleep in Omaha because your mind never stops. It’s hard for players to get sleep because of the emotions and excitement. Your sleep pattern changes. You have a lot of obligations, such as dinner events, media events and charity events. It’s the best time of your life, but you are going 100 mph and you feel you can never stop.
Whether you win or lose, you will be exhausted.
7. A TEAM THAT GOES TO OMAHA FORMS A SPECIAL BOND
Teams that go to Omaha have experienced at least two dogpiles together—in the regional and super regional. Maybe they have experienced a conference championship dogpile too. That brings your team closer together because you got to share that collective enjoyment.
The teams that go to Omaha are the teams that come back more for alumni events. They are the teams that stay in touch and come back to watch their school play. They were able to climb to the top of the mountain. They experienced a pinnacle moment together. That brings everyone closer together.
Every team has dysfunction during the season, but that all gets brushed away with a trip to Omaha. I can honestly say of my seven trips to Omaha. I could remember hard discussions during those seasons where we said “we can’t do this.” But once you experience the trip to Omaha, you don’t remember those rough moments any more.
But the harsh reality is that seven of the eight teams aren’t going to go leave Omaha happy. I think it’s harder for teams to give that goodbye hug in Omaha than in any other scenario. You’ve experienced so much together, and at the highest level, that it’s harder to take that uniform off.
8. OMAHA IS THE GOAL, THE NATIONAL TITLE IS GRAVY
Sure, the ultimate goal is a national title. But the goal is getting to Omaha.
You control your destiny to get to Omaha. You have to earn a spot in the Field of 64. You have to win a regional and a super regional.
Once you get there, it’s somewhat the luck of the draw. The wind is blowing out when you’re pitching, and sometimes it shifts and blows in when you’re hitting. There are rain delays that change the momentum. There are bad calls.
In 2003, we were playing Stanford in Game 3. Windsor, our ace, splits his fingernail on his throwing hand. There is blood all over the ball, and we have to take him out. He’s done, and then we’re done. That’s bad luck. A freak deal and our best guy can’t pitch anymore. It happens.
You are disappointed for not finishing it at the end, but after a short while, you are thrilled that you got there.
Whether you succeed or fail in Omaha, it’s always satisfying to reflect on your accomplishment.
You made it to Omaha, and just eight teams that year can say that they did. It’s a memory you will have as a team that will last the rest of your life.