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Va coach yearns for 1 more trip to Rosenblatt

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Rosenblatt Stadium is hosting the College World Series for the 61st and last time next month and the coach of top-ranked Virginia can't help but feel nostalgic.

Brian O'Connor's ties to the venerable ballpark in a working-class south Omaha neighborhood run deep.

He grew up a few miles away, pitched in the 1991 CWS for the hometown Creighton Bluejays and was the inspiration for the "Road to Omaha" statue at Rosenblatt's front door.

Last year, he coached Virginia to its first College World Series berth and the Cavaliers are a good bet to come back this year. They're 40-9 and on an 11-game winning streak heading into this weekend's series with North Carolina.

"I've had the unique opportunity to grow up in that stadium, going to games every year in my youth and having the fortunate opportunities to play in the stadium and also to coach in it," O'Connor said. "Rosenblatt Stadium's been a part of that community for so long. You hate to see history like that go."

To secure a 25-year commitment to keep the College World Series in Omaha, the city promised the NCAA it would build the bigger and better TD Ameritrade Park a few miles away.

In the estimation of city leaders, Rosenblatt, with its small concourse and lack of amenities, had become rundown to the point of no return. The CWS will be played at Rosenblatt for the last time June 19-29/30 before moving downtown in 2011.

Known by locals as the "diamond on the hill," Rosenblatt was built in 1948 and got the CWS two years later. It became nationally known in the 1980s thanks largely to ESPN and CBS telecasts.

The 39-year-old O'Connor grew up across the Missouri River in Council Bluffs, Iowa, and started going to Rosenblatt with his dad and brothers at age 3 or 4 to watch the minor-league Omaha Royals and the CWS.

He recalled hounding players for autographs — a Texas pitcher named Roger Clemens among them — and chasing foul balls and dreaming of someday playing on the pristine field.

"For the people in the community, that was your big leagues, and those were the superstars you looked up to," O'Connor said.

O'Connor pitched for the 1991 Creighton Bluejays, the only hometown squad to make it to the CWS. He was the pitcher of record in what some still consider the greatest CWS game ever: the Bluejays' 3-2, 12-inning loss to Wichita State in front of 18,206, at the time the largest crowd to see a CWS game.

Later, Omaha sculptor John Lajba used a photograph of O'Connor as inspiration for the "Road to Omaha" statue, which portrays a group of players celebrating victory.

O'Connor came back to Rosenblatt as a Notre Dame assistant coach in 2002, then last year as head coach of the Cavaliers.

The Cavaliers have the Atlantic Coast Conference's dominant pitcher in Danny Hultzen (7-1, 2.00 ERA), the national saves leader in Kevin Arico (13) and one of college baseball's top shortstops in Tyler Cannon (.961 fielding, .358 batting).

Even if O'Connor's team doesn't make it to Omaha, the coach will be back to visit family and watch CWS games with his dad, John, and his son, Dillon.

Brian O'Connor wouldn't miss it. Sure, Rosenblatt might be outdated, and some folks call it a dump.

"That's part of what made Rosenblatt great, the fact it was tight and narrow in the concourse," he said. "Sure, it didn't have all the amenities. That's what makes Wrigley and Fenway special, the fact they are older. It's the same with Rosenblatt."

As sad as he is that Rosenblatt's days are numbered, O'Connor said he's happy the event will stay in Omaha for at least another 25 years.

"The people in that community," he said, "are what make the College World Series."