OMAHA, Neb. -- Cal players leaned against their dugout railing and gazed at the College World Series stage a final few seconds once their magical season ended Thursday night.
"We made it to Omaha, something a lot of people said couldn't be done, and we did it with our best buds," catcher Chadd Krist said after a 8-1 defeat to Virginia. "We're disappointed, but we've gotta celebrate the season a little bit, too."
Along the way, Cal's program went from death row to college baseball's Omaha oasis. Told in September this would be their final season because of budget woes, the Bears parlayed their April 8 reinstatement into a captivating postseason.
"It's been a year that really has taught them, as well as myself, a whole lot about human spirit," said Cal's David Esquer, who will return home as the nation's Coach of the Year after Tuesday's honor from the National College Baseball Writers Association.
Athletic director Sandy Barbour beamed with pride about this season's drastic revitalization. Nine months ago, she helped explain Cal's cost-cutting rationale to eliminate baseball, plus three other sports, as well as rugby's demotion to club status.
"Our entire community learned a lot from these tremendous young men," Barbour said. "It was never say die, the power of positive thinking and perseverance. They're a reflection on their coaches and the community around them. They wouldn't let anybody say it was over."
Virginia (56-11) had the final say for this season, at least. Cal's usually reliable defense committed three errors that accompanied each of the three innings in which the Cavaliers scored.
A four-run outburst in the sixth inning crushed Cal's chances, even though two-run rallies in the third and ninth innings would have been enough to send Virginia on a Friday's date against South Carolina. "Obviously we're disappointed with the way we went out," Krist said. "It was very uncharacteristic of us."
Quiet bats, sloppy defense and ineffective pitching escorted Cal (38-23) out of TD Ameritrade Park, which drew a record crowd of 25,833. The Bears tallied only six hits, including five off Virginia starter Tyler Wilson in his 72/3 innings.
But Cal took solace in this being its first CWS trip since 1992. Unlike the Bears' previous two appearances, they won a game, for the first time in 31 years. A 7-3 victory Tuesday over Texas A&M was sandwiched between losses to Virginia.
"It was a great run," said left fielder Austin Booker, who singled twice Thursday. "I'm proud of all my teammates and how we were able to go through so much and end up here."
Pac-10 Player of the Year Tony Renda tried not to let Thursday's finale spoil a remarkable season.
"To be standing here in Omaha sad, disappointed and let down -- I feel like a jerk for being this way," Renda said. "We were one of only eight teams to make it."
Renda drove in Cal's only run, delivering a two-out, infield single in the eighth to score Darrel Matthews.
If there was only one memory they could take from this season, several players pointed to their last walk-off victory: a 9-8 thriller over Baylor on June 6 to win the Houston regional. Cal overcame a 7-1 deficit and was down to its last strike before Devon Rodriguez's game-winning hit.
Cal's final swing this season resulted in a fly out to center field by pinch hitter Vince Bruno.
After gazing for several seconds Cal players emerged from their dugout to shake hands with the victors from Virginia. The Bears then exchanged bear hugs in the dugout and a few players, including closer Matt Flemer, clapped to the crowd in appreciation.
"One of the first things I thought of was, 'Is it really over?' I couldn't believe it," Renda said. "My second thought was, 'Well, let's win it next year.' "
Esquer is in the final year of his contract and said he wants to return. Barbour said an extension will get done. Asked what his diary entry would be for this season, Esquer replied: "Got a chance to go to Omaha with a very special team in a really crazy year. Our program and our players proved a lot to themselves that they'll take with them for the rest of their lives."