The one and only Omaha

USA Today photo

USA Today photo

Since 1950, the city of Omaha has been hosting the College World Series, steadily building momentum and popularity, along with attendance, in becoming one of the top sports events in the United States.

The two weeks in June aren’t just circled by fans from around the country, but for administrators as well. Dave Keilitz, the Executive Director of the ABCA, has made the trip for nearly 30 years running. “It’s amateur baseball at its greatest,” he said. “It’s an absolutely tremendous atmosphere for the players, the schools involved, and the fans.”

NCAA Vice President for Champions and Alliances Dennis Poppe is also a veteran of Omaha, serving in multiple capacities at the event since 1988. “It’s all about family. My kids have grown up there and I’ve spent a good part of my adult life running this event; it’s a very unique experience.”

From the tournament format to the venue where it’s played, the CWS has undergone abundant changes along the way, including a near-seamless move from the legendary Rosenblatt Stadium to TD Ameritrade Park (TDA). “Rosenblatt had great, great tradition for over 50 years,” noted Keilitz, who served on the planning committee for the new stadium, “and TD Ameritrade is just a phenomenal facility.”

“It’s not all about bricks and mortar, but with four clubhouses and the best playing conditions we can provide, [TD Ameritrade] was built for the College World Series,” added Poppe, who was heavily involved with the planning as well. “It all starts with the field and moves out.”

While many teams set out each year to make it to Omaha, being prepared for the moment it actually happens is nearly impossible. Current University of Tennessee head coach Dave Serrano can relate. “Walking into the gates with UC-Irvine in 2007 with a team that nobody ever imagined- including ourselves- that [Omaha] would be a reality is a memory that stands up there with getting the final out against Texas in 2004 (with Cal-State Fullerton’s national championship team). To see the faces of that team and those players as we pulled up on 13th street with the stadium in the distance, and the kids’ eyes as we walked on to that field, you saw the dreams come true for a lot of young men.”

“The teams that get there have played in great atmospheres, but getting to Omaha is something that every college baseball player thinks about,” Keilitz said. “The funny thing is that people refer to is as simply ‘Omaha.’ That opening ceremony, when the teams march in and the highlights are on the video board and thousands of people are cheering them on, that’s something really special.”

“I know of one very well-known team with sophisticated young players,” Poppe reminisced, “but first time they made it to the College World Series, the kids on the bus fell silent until and one of them just said, ‘Holy ____!’ Personal memories like that are what people take away. Baseball fans see some of the best plays they’ll ever see. Everyone’s playing like it’s their last game. It’s an exceptional competitive environment.”

The environment isn’t just on the field, or in the stands filled with tens of thousands of fans. It’s all around the stadium, all around Omaha.

“It’s a town festival if you will,” said Poppe. “It’s part of Omaha’s tradition. The College World Series signals the beginning of summer. There are so many families that make it gathering- reunions, father’s day, etc. If you ever come and bring your son, or your dad, or your brother, you’re coming back. It’s that kind of tradition. It’s infectious.”

Indeed, the people of Omaha are something special when it comes to their College World Series.

“Even when I played in Omaha, the experience in the community is what makes it special,” said University of Oregon head coach George Horton. “Even though they’ve changed venues, there’s still that feeling that it belongs in Omaha, and that’s a tribute to the community and the people there. When I was a player, a teammate of mine and I were asking for walking directions to go somewhere, and a young man described about a 20-25 minute walk, but since he was going to a concert for a couple hours, he said, ‘well, why don’t you just take my car?’ I think the way the community of Omaha embraces coaches and players makes it that much more special.”

“If I could only go to one sporting event each year, it would always be the CWS,” added Keilitz. “The city of Omaha is just something extra special. People may not have any affiliation with any of the schools that are there, but they’re at the ballpark to enjoy great baseball. Of all the times I’ve been there, close to 30 years, you can count on one hand the boos you hear. The atmosphere is just so positive.”

That positive atmosphere is felt by the players, too. Current University of Kentucky head coach Gary Henderson remembers being in the bullpen with Brad Wilkerson (who is a 2012 National College Baseball Hall of Fame inductee) with Florida’s 1996 team that finished a game away from the finals. “He was warming up and he looked at me and said, ‘Hey Hendu, this is fun, huh?’ I’ll never forget that.”

In the off-chance that you happen to be looking for something to do outside the confines of TD Ameritrade, Omaha offers plenty of great attractions and fine dining.

“Cascio’s was my first steak there,” Horton remembered fondly, “I kid to my players that there’s no better steak in the universe than in Omaha. Sullivan’s, Austin’s, downtown, any of those places, the quality of the steak is unparalleled in my opinion.”

“The people watching is great,” Serrano added. “I think it’s always been great to see the enjoyment of people about the event that’s going on in Omaha. The outpouring of support and people that are vesting themselves in a college event is fantastic. There are people everywhere, in restaurants, at the stadium, at the zoo, it’s amazing. The town stops for two weeks, and its one sole thing, and that’s Omaha.”

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