OMAHA - Each year, the good people here look to adopt a plucky underdog, the team that wasn't supposed to be at the College World Series.
By all indications, this year it'd be UC Irvine, the only non-power conference program in Omaha.
The Anteaters of the Big West conference made the postseason by the skin of their snouts, in spite of losing six straight games to end the season. They got hot upon arriving in Corvallis, Oregon, blitzing UNLV 10-3 and No. 2 seed Oregon State 14-2. In an elimination game against the Beavers, UC Irvine prevailed, 4-2. The next weekend the Anteaters swept No. 7 seed Oklahoma State to punch their ticket to Omaha.
A host of friendly Midwesterners wait to welcome the Anteaters, to pat them on the backs and hand them a Zesto milkshake, just for making it.
UC Irvine might oblige, begrudgingly, as the underdog. But according to staff ace Andrew Morales (11-2, 1.53 ERA), who starts Saturday against Texas, his team is no summer revelation.
"From the people outside looking in it might be a huge surprise we're here, but to us it's no surprise," Morales said. "We were ready to go. All we needed was that playoff berth."
Led by legendary Southern Cal coach Mike Gillespie, the Anteaters practice helper skelter on the base paths. They don't steal many bases, but they're constantly active.
"Coach Gillespie has been here and won the national championship before for USC," Texas coach Augie Garrido said. "The game hasn't' changed. He's one of the more masterful coaches in the game. He's a very daring coach. You see his bases-loaded squeeze bunts with two strikes. That takes a certain tenacity."
Said Texas starter Nathan Thornhill, who faces the Anteaters Saturday (2 p.m., ESPN2): "It's like looking into a mirror."
Having dispatched Oregon State and Oklahoma State, UC Irvine isn't likely to be intimidated by a different shade of orange.
"You approach everybody the same," Morales said. "We play our game, we can play with the best of them. … We've proven ourselves and we're ready to break some hearts."