Mike Bianco knows firsthand how difficult it can be to coach a team to the College World Series.
"The road to Omaha isn't a straight one," Bianco, the head coach at Ole Miss since 2000, told reporters on Friday. "It's very windy and bumpy, and nobody knows that more than we do. This is our fifth super regional, and finally punched our ticket to be here. We're excited to be here."
Bianco's Rebels open play in the program's first CWS appearance since 1972 on Sunday night against No. 3 national seed Virginia. The four coaches on that side of this year's bracket spoke to reporters at a press conference at TD Ameritrade Park late Friday morning.
Brian O'Connor's UVa team is making its third appearance in the past six years -- including beating Bianco's Rebels in a 2009 super regional series -- but the Cavaliers' coach also talked about the challenge of advancing to college baseball's biggest stage.
"It's a tremendous challenge to get to Omaha," O'Connor said. "There's a lot of teams that, their seasons are over, and we all understand how difficult a journey it is throughout the season. But then when you get to postseason play, to do what it takes to get here, not only do you have to have a good baseball team. You also have to have a little bit of good fortune."
Sunday's game will be matchup of pitching aces for both teams. O'Connor confirmed that the Wahoos will go with left-handed sophomore All-American Nathan Kirby, who will take the hill with a 9-2 record and 1.73 ERA. Bianco said the Rebels will counter with junior right-hander Chris Ellis, who enters the CWS at 10-2, with a 2.45 ERA.
"At the end of the day, he's been our ace. He's been our ace all year long," Bianco said Friday.
Both pitchers are coming off losses in last weekend's super regional opener for their respective teams. Kirby gave up a season-high five run on seven hits in 4.2 innings against Maryland, while Ellis surrendered five runs on one hit and three walks in 2.1 innings against Louisiana-Lafayette.
But at practice on Friday, Kirby said that his last start was well behind him.
"All I remember is the dogpile from last week," he joked.
The lefty was also asked about facing Ole Miss, but admitted he still had some homework to do before Sunday.
"I know they've made it to the College World Series, and they're probably pretty good," he said. "But we're playing in a pretty big ballpark. Hopefully that will play to my advantage."
Omaha's TD Ameritrade Park has similar, spacious dimensions to the the Cavaliers' home ballpark at Davenport Field. The could play to the favor of a UVa team that ranks fifth in the country with a 2.31 staff ERA, and third nationally -- and best among the eight teams still standing -- with a .982 fielding percentage.
"Our defense was an area that I thought we needed to improve from last year. And we did," O'Connor said. "I think we have a really skilled infield defense. And we have three outfielders that can run and go get it, cover some territory. So it's an area that's really important to us, and I think we've done a pretty good job with it all year."
"We've got a very defensively sound team. It's something we've talked about all year," said junior outfielder Derek Fisher. "We've been out here today, and obviously it's a lot of ground to cover. And it's a pretty big field. But our pitchers definitely, they're going to throw strikes, and we're going to play some baseball behind them."