By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — When the Major League Baseball draft ended in early June, the uncertainty began for UVa coach Brian O’Connor.
Five of his 12 recruits for the 2009-10 academic year had been drafted, including heralded pitcher Branden Kline, a sixth-round pick of the Boston Red Sox, and O’Connor didn’t know how many of those five would actually enroll at Virginia in August.
“Every summer is a long summer as a college baseball coach,” O’Connor said the other day in his University Hall office. “If you’re going to recruit talented players, professional baseball is equally as interested in them. After the draft happens, it makes it a long summer, because you truly don’t know until that deadline what the group’s going to look like.”
This has been an unforgettable year for O’Connor, whose team won the ACC title and advanced to the College World Series for the first time in school history, and his good fortune seems to be continuing.
The fall semester started at UVa last week, and O’Connor has a dozen new players.
“I thought it was a long shot that all 12 were going to end up here, but they were all very committed to coming,” O’Connor said. “They’re coming here not just for the baseball, but also for the education. But it’s rare [at this level] to get your entire recruiting class to come.”
Ten of the 12 — see the entire list below — are first-years at UVa. The exceptions are juniors Kenny Swab and Cody Winiarski, each of whom transferred to Virginia from a junior college.
In addition to Kline, UVa recruits drafted in June were Stephen Bruno, a 26th-round pick of the Yankees; infielder Reed Gragnani, a 27th-round pick of the Red Sox; first baseman/third baseman Robert Amaro, a 40th-round pick of the Phillies; and Swab, a 48th-round pick of the Reds who plays catcher, first base and in the outfield.
Overall, O’Connor said, “I think it’s possibly the most talented class that we’ve ever brought in here, and we’ve brought in some pretty good recruiting classes. It’s a real athletic class, from a position-player standpoint. There’s a lot of guys with versatility. There’s some physical kids in the class, and I think that there’s five good arms on the mound.”
He added: “This group also academically is a terrific group. I feel like this group of players really fits into what type of player, person and student we’re looking for. There’s some really tremendous students in this group, some who have gained admission to UVa on their own.”
The class includes four full-time pitchers — right-handers Kline, Winiarski and Whit Mayberry and lefty Aaron Stull — as well as Ryan Briggs. A right-hander from Omaha, Neb., a city the Cavaliers hope to visit again in 2010, Briggs can play the outfield but for now is concentrating on his pitching.
In 2009, the Wahoos hit 59 home runs, far and away their highest total in O’Connor’s six seasons. At least three of the newcomers — Swab (6-1, 190), Amaro (6-3, 205) and catcher/first baseman Ryan Levine (6-0, 215) — project “to be players that can hit the ball out of the ballpark, just because of their size and how physical they are,” O’Connor said.
He singled out Bruno, Gragnani, Chris Taylor and Colin Harrington as “middle infielders that are really athletic … I think any time you can get guys that can legitimately play shortstop or the middle of the diamond, you’ve got a good class. But they also have versatility. Somebody could move to third base, some of them can play the outfield.”
Virginia’s starting position players from last season are back. Even so, O’Connor stressed, no one is guaranteed a job.
“These new players will jump right in there and compete with those returning veterans,” he said. “Time will tell. We’ll find out through the course of this year how many of these guys are truly going to make an impact right away.”
Freshmen who did so last season included Steven Proscia, John Hicks, Keith Werman and Danny Hultzen, who became U.Va.’s first ACC freshman of the year.
When that class signed, O’Connor believed it would be a talented group, but he didn’t know how much it would contribute until the team started fall ball in 2008.
“When you get a chance to see a player play every day against this level of competition, you start to get an understanding of what a player is truly capable of doing at this level, day in and day out,” O’Connor said.
“When you go out and recruit players and you see them, you get brief glimpses of them, and you see their athletic ability. But what you don’t know is how a player handles adversity. How does he handle having a bad day and having to come back the next day and be better? And that’s what a lot of it is at this level, being able to make adjustments, and you don’t see whether the player has that ability to make adjustments until you’re around him every day.”
The full effect of the run to Omaha may not be felt for a while, but O’Connor, not surprisingly, expects the CWS experience to make UVa more attractive to prospects.
“Players want to go to a program where they can develop and move on to professional baseball, but they also want know that they’re going to be in a winning program,” he said. “And we’ve shown for six years here that this is a very consistent and winning program, and that players are going to develop and move along to professional baseball and have success in pro ball.
“Also with that, players want to play in the College World Series, and now we’ve knocked that door down and proved to recruits that the University of Virginia can play in Omaha.”
It doesn’t hurt, either, to have former UVa stars Ryan Zimmerman and Mark Reynolds distinguishing themselves at the sport’s highest level.
“Obviously the success we’ve had, going to Omaha and all that, helps,” O’Connor said. “But then when you have players that have success at the major leagues, like a Zimmerman and Reynolds, it proves to recruits out there that you can come to the University of Virginia and have a great winning experience, get your education and, if it’s in the cards, potentially play in the major leagues one day.”
MEET THE NEW ‘HOOS
To a baseball team that last season went 49-15-1, won the ACC baseball title and advanced to the College World Series, UVa coach Brian O’Connor has added 12 recruits. In alphabetical order, they are:
* IB/3B Robert Amaro, freshman, 6-3, 205, Bensalem, Pa.
* RHP/OF Ryan Briggs, freshman, 6-1, 190, Omaha, Neb.
* IF Stephen Bruno, freshman, 5-9, 165, Audobon, N.J.
* IF Reed Gragnani, freshman, 6-0, 175, Richmond, Va.
* IF/OF Colin Harrington, freshman, 5-9, 170, Johnstown, Pa.
* RHP Branden Kline, freshman, 6-3, 190, Frederick, Md.
* C/1B Ryan Levine, freshman, 6-0, 215, Hackensack, N.J.
* RHP Whit Mayberry, freshman, 6-0, 180, Alexandria, Va.
* LHP Aaron Stull, freshman, 6-5, 180, Newport, N.C.
* C/1B/OF Kenny Swab, junior, 6-1, 190, Kernersville, N.C.
* IF Chris Taylor, freshman, 5-11, 160, Virginia Beach, Va.
* RHP Cody Winiarski, junior, 6-3, 195, Franksville, Wis.