Sunday marked the final practice day of the season for the last two college baseball teams in the country still standing.
Virginia and Vanderbilt both got their workouts in on Sunday afternoon at Omaha's TD Ameritrade Park, where the best-of-three championship round of this year's College World Series starts Monday night.
Both teams are playing for the first national championship in program history, after reaching the CWS finals for the first time.
"It's been a very exciting journey," Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin told reporters at Sunday morning's pre-practice news conference. "I guess when you get here, you tell the kids to pack for 12 or 13 days. But you never know whether or not that's going to be a reality or not. So for us to be in this position, we're proud."
"When you get to Omaha, things change," said UVa coach Brian O'Connor. "And it becomes even more difficult, because there's eight teams that have all earned the right to be here to play for a national championship."
"In the three ballgames we've played, we've played really good, consistent baseball," O'Connor added. "And that's the kind of baseball it's going to take to win the next series."
Both coaches confirmed their pitching plans for Monday night's championship opener. The Commodores will go with the combination of junior right-hander Tyler Beede -- the first-round pick of the San Francisco Giants earlier this month -- and sophomore righty Walker Buehler. Buehler pitched 5 1/3 no-hit innings in relief of Beede in Monday night's 6-4 Vanderbilt win over UC-Irvine in Omaha.
The Cavaliers will counter with their ace, sophomore All-American Nathan Kirby. The lefty pitched into the eighth inning for UVa in the Wahoos' CWS opener against Ole Miss, taking a no-decision after giving up one hit and one run in the Cavaliers' 2-1 win.
"Oh, it's quite an honor," Kirby said of getting the Game 1 start. "Last year was a lot of ups and downs, more downs than ups. But last year is behind me. And to be out here this year with this team, and how well we've played, I think it's great. I've already got butterflies just sitting up here, thinking about being out there. But I think it's going to be a lot of fun."
"He's one of those kids that you're glad he's on your team," said UVa sophomore outfielder Joe McCarthy. "You face him in practice, and you're like, "Man. This kid good. He's got it." And we're just happy, he goes out there and competes for us every day he's out there."
"Our chances are good, no matter who we're starting. Our starting pitchers have been awesome all year," said UVa junior outfielder Derek Fisher. "But Nathan Kirby speaks for himself. He's been clutch, he's been big-time all year. Just as long as he goes out there and throws strikes, and does what he's been doing every single start this year, we're going to be pretty good."
Kirby's emergence as one of the top pitchers in the country is a big reason why UVa was able to live up to the lofty expectations they played with throughout the season. The Cavaliers began the year ranked No. 1 in the country by Baseball America, and spent much of the regular season on top of those national rankings.
Now the Cavaliers find themselves where they were expected to be, entering this final week of baseball. And they say they reached this point by taking a day-by-day approach to the season.
"You can't really think about making it all the way to the finals on the first game of the season," said junior first baseman Mike Papi. "And having that game-by-game mentality, and coming to the field and giving 110 percent every day, and having the confidence that the coach has in us, in giving us the comfort and allowing us just to relax and go out and play, I think has led us all the way here."
"I think the coaches' expectations have, throughout the whole year have been higher for us than anyone outside the baseball stadium," said Kirby. "So I think by them going and pushing us, I think we can kind of break down the barrier of anything outside the white lines. Because we've gone out, we've played our way all year, and we know we're here. And that's all that matters."
"We had to step up and prove ourselves. We had that No. 1 next to our name before we played a single game the entire year. So for us to prove that we are one of the best teams in the country, it matters at the end of the season more so than at the beginning."