Virginia, Tennessee, Florida expect experience from '23 College World Series to provide an edge


OMAHA, Neb. - The game's the same. It's what happens away from the field and how players deal with it that can affect how long a team sticks around at the College World Series.

The CWS opened Friday with North Carolina (47-14) playing Virginia (46-15), and Florida State (47-15) facing Tennessee (55-12) in Bracket 1, but games were not complete by press time. North Carolina State (38-21) meets Kentucky (45-14), and Florida (34-28) plays Texas A&M (49-13) in Bracket 2 on Saturday. Winners in double-elimination bracket play square off in the best-of-three finals beginning June 22.

Virginia, Tennessee and Florida are here for the second straight year, and each brought back the majority of their lineups.

"I can tell you that last year was the first time any of us had played in front of 25,000 fans," Virginia's Casey Saucke said. "It was electric and you love hearing the stadium like that, seeing the stadium like that. It's not going to faze us as much this year with the core of our lineup returning. We've already played in front of that, so when you're getting in the box for the first time, you're not as nervous."

The Cavaliers lost two one-run games in the shortest of their six CWS appearances, and Saucke and his teammates said they learned a lesson about the importance of being fully dialed in on the field and not getting caught up in the pomp and pageantry of the event.

There are autographs to sign, outings to the city's nationally known zoo and other attractions, team dinners and media responsibilities. Players also try to carve out time to spend with family members who come in from around the country.

Virginia coach Brian O'Connor said he offers advice about time management, and this year for the first time he had returning players address teammates about how to handle the distractions. Griff O'Ferrall said he tried to describe to the CWS newbies what would happen in and around the games so there are no surprises.

"The first couple of innings, you are a little bit in awe and just a little bit in shock just with the atmosphere itself and how many people are in the stands," O'Ferrall said. "We've been trying to talk to the young guys and the guys who haven't been here, just giving them a heads-up on what it's like. Our main message has just been to not try and do too much. We're here for a reason. As long as we do the small things and do what we're capable of, the moment doesn't get too big."

Texas A&M has three key members of its pitching staff and a utility player back from its 2022 CWS team and NC State still has seven players from the 2021 roster that was sent home by the NCAA after three games because of COVID-19 protocols.

North Carolina is here for the first time since 2018, and Florida State for the first time since 2019. Kentucky is making its first appearance.

Tennessee, like Virginia, hopes to have a longer stay this year. The Volunteers lost their opener to LSU and Paul Skenes and beat Stanford before getting knocked out with a 5-0 loss to LSU, the first time they were shut out in 133 games.

The Vols' Hunter Ensley said the atmosphere can knock players off their games.

"I think a good message to relay to the guys is trying to slow everything down," he said. "I know sometimes you get out on the field and get under the lights, you want to go a little too fast or do too much."

Florida has seven everyday players, including two-way star Jac Caglianone, back from the 2023 team that was national runner-up.

The Gators' young pitchers struggled early in the season, and it took until the final regular-season weekend to lock up a winning record, which made them eligible for an NCAA Tournament at-large bid. They've won a regional at Stillwater, Oklahoma, and a super regional at Clemson, South Carolina, to return to Omaha, where they were national runners-up to LSU a year ago.

"Beginning of the year, we wanted to get back here," Caglianone said. "So having guys who have played here and know what the atmosphere is like, I think, is going to play in our favor."