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Underdog UC-Irvine making most of long-awaited CWS trip

Photo: Ted Kirk/AP

Mike Gillespie has guided the Anteaters to Omaha just 12 years after they joined Division I.

Before Mike Gillespie lost his voice for a time last week, UC Irvine's 74-year-old head coach kept muttering one phrase over and over to his assistants: "I can't believe we're going to Omaha."

The Anteaters' trip to the College World Series — their first since 2007 — is partially to blame for Gillespie not being able to talk. Between cross-country travel, late nights and numerous interviews, the veteran coach could barely speak above a whisper last week. Still, he managed to get across his disbelief, and excitement, about Irvine's arrival on college baseball's biggest stage.

His awe is understandable.

Gillespie, now in his seventh season at Irvine, has been to Omaha before. He took Southern California there four times during a 20-year tenure with the Trojans, winning the 1998 national title. But Gillespie hasn't been back since 2001, and this will be his first go-round with Irvine. Two times before, the Anteaters (40-23) came agonizingly close to college baseball's promised land. This season, they were close to being left out of the chase entirely.

Gillespie was so unsure his team, which dropped eight of its final nine games, would make the tournament that he decided it would be best if it didn't have a viewing party when the NCAA tournament field was announced. Forget potentially inviting fans, administrators and boosters — Gillespie didn't even want his club to watch the selection show together.

"He didn't want to facilitate potential depression," explained senior All-America ace Andrew Morales.

But teenagers tend to have selective listening skills, so without their coaches present, the Anteaters gathered in their clubhouse for the ESPN Selection Show at 9 a.m. PT on Monday, May 26. By 9:02, they heard their name called. At 9:15, they were ready for practice.

Irvine drew a 3-seed in the first round, and had to travel to Corvallis to take on top-seeded Oregon State. One of the best programs in college baseball the last decade — and the team that broke Irvine's heart at the 2007 CWS, en route to its second consecutive title — the Beavers were looking to make back-to-back trips to Omaha. But Morales, a 6-foot, 195-pound righthander who was taken by the Cardinals with the 71st pick in this month's MLB draft, had other ideas.

First he tossed a four-hitter as the Anteaters exploded for a 10-3 win over UNLV, the No. 2 seed, catapulting Irvine into the winners' bracket. In their next game, Elliot Surrey took the mound and befuddled the Beavers, surrendering just three hits. Meanwhile, Irvine hit Oregon State starter Jace Fry as hard as he'd been hit all season, humiliating Oregon State in its own park with a 14-2 blowout. The loss was Oregon State's worst of the season. After OSU forced a winner-take-all final on Monday, Morales came back on just two days' rest and threw a two-hitter to advance Irvine to the Super Regionals in Stillwater, Okla. There, the Anteaters would meet Oklahoma State, regular season champs of the Big 12, which would send three teams to the College World Series. But after knocking off the best team in the country on the road, Irvine brimmed with confidence.

"As much as we surprised everybody else I think we surprised ourselves a little too," Morales said. "But after Oregon State, we had a little swagger. It showed us, 'Hey, we can hit and pitch with the best.' We're finally proving it to ourselves."

After another sparkling performance from Morales -- he struck out eight in nine innings as Irvine held on for a 1-0 win in Game 2 -- clinched a spot in Omaha, the Anteaters dog piled on the mound in somewhat subdued fashion.

"We didn't feel we 'upset' anybody," Gillespie explained via email. "We were just tending to business."

If anything, said assistant coach Ben Orloff, the Anteaters were overdue.

In 2008, Irvine won its Super Regional opener 11-5 at LSU, one of the rowdiest and toughest places to play in college baseball. In Game 2 the Anteaters jumped to a 7-2 lead before the Tigers scored five runs in the bottom of the ninth for a 9-7 win. Game 3 was a one-sided contest, as LSU rolled to a 21-7 win. Three years later, heartbreak again: Irvine led Virginia 2-1, with two outs and nobody on in the bottom of the ninth in Game 3 when the Cavaliers loaded the bases and hit a two-run single to erase the Anteaters' Omaha hopes. Orloff, then playing pro ball, recalled watching on TV in the clubhouse, skipping the national anthem in hopes of watching a celebration. Instead, he saw a meltdown.

As Irvine prepared for this postseason, Gillespie and his staff didn't see a reason to bring up the fact that Irvine had been close to the CWS before, or mention the eight losses toward the end of the regular season when the Anteaters couldn't hang onto a late lead. Everyone already knew the history.

"All Coach (Gillespie) talked about with the guys was how proud he was of them for getting so far," said Orloff, a former All-America shortstop for Irvine. "He did mention that he's lost the game to go to Omaha about 10 times though, so it was pretty sweet for him to win it this time."

On the surface, it looks like there's more parity than ever before in college baseball, with just two national seeds reaching Omaha. But Gillespie isn't buying that it's new — people are just finally paying attention.

"Parity has been here," he said. "And it's here to stay."

Irvine intends for that to be the case for its long-awaited appearance at TD Ameritrade Park as well. The Anteaters won their first game of the double-elimination format against Texas last Saturday and face Vanderbilt in a winner's bracket game on Monday night.

Right about the time UC Irvine was beginning that long-awaited College World Series opener, President Obama was addressing the school's graduates at commencement. So as Obama shared wisdom with the team's longest-tenured supporters, the Anteaters were busy trying to pick up a new fan base more than 1,500 miles away. They have only been a playing Division I baseball since 2002, and they are the perfect Cinderella story for the Omaha faithful.

"I don't know if I'd say we've been overlooked, but we don't have the name or the history that other places do," Orloff said. "'UC-Irvine' doesn't carry the same weight as Oregon State or Texas, but I think fans are really going to love our team."

Not everyone has fallen in love with the Anteaters during their journey of course.

"We broke quite a few hearts in Corvallis and Stillwater," said Morales. "And we're looking forward to breaking some more."

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