By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — The most talented group of players he’s had at UVa?
Brian O’Connor pondered the question Wednesday in his University Hall office. After a few moments, the Cavaliers’ baseball coach went with his 2007 team, which included Sean Doolittle, David Adams, Jeremy Farrell, Jacob Thompson, Greg Miclat and Brandon Guyer.
His most successful team?
That’s not open to debate.
In 2009, their sixth season under O’Connor, the Cavaliers advanced to the College World Series for the first time in school history. Also last season, UVa won the ACC tournament for the first time in 13 years and then, some 2,500 miles from Charlottesville, won an NCAA regional for the first time.
At that regional, in Irvine, Calif., Virginia beat previously invincible Stephen Strasburg of San Diego State. The Wahoos then traveled to Oxford, Miss., where they won the final two games of their best-of-three super regional with Mississippi to secure a spot in the CWS field.
UVa’s magical season finally ended June 17 with a loss to Arkansas in extra innings at Omaha, Neb. The Cavaliers finished with a record of 49-15-1.
Four months later, the team’s togetherness stands out most to O’Connor, whose overall record at Virginia is 265-104-1.
“It was a very, very tight-knit group, and a group that did not back down from challenges,” he said. “We continued to be challenged all year long, whether it be in the regular season, losing a heartbreaking one-run game in the league and then coming back the next game and winning, or in postseason.
“They just never quit, and I think all that came together at the end of the year when we were forced with some really daunting challenges — being sent out to Irvine, facing Strasburg, going to Ole Miss, everything. Their togetherness and what they went through during the year all came together to help us to go on.”
Fans are invited to honor the team Friday at Davenport Field. In a ceremony that’s scheduled to start at 6 p.m., rain or shine, rings commemorating the Cavaliers’ ACC title and their run to Omaha will be presented to players, coaches and support personnel from the ’09 team.
“It’s going to be cool,” said Andrew Carraway, who’s flying in from Atlanta on Friday morning. “I don’t know if it’ll be an emotional experience, but it’ll be something neat.”
This will be the first reunion for the 2009 club, whose members scattered after returning home from Omaha. Underclassmen dominated that team, but it included four seniors — Carraway, Will Campbell, Brad Grove and Robert Poutier — and two juniors, Jeff Lorick and Matt Packer, who turned pro after the season.
All of the ’09 Cavaliers except Lorick, who has an out-of-town obligation, are expected to be at Davenport.
“We’ve been through a lot together, and it’s amazing how much something like that brings you together,” said Carraway, who’s now pitching in the Seattle Mariners’ farm system.
“It’s fun for me, because even thought a lot of these guys are two, maybe three years younger than me, it doesn’t feel like that. It’s a very tight-knit group of guys, and they let us old guys in.”
The weather forecast for Friday isn’t promising, and the Orange and Blue World Series game scheduled for around 7 p.m. may be postponed. The ceremony, however, will proceed as planned, regardless of the weather, for a simple reason.
“We’ve got former players flying into town for this, and families of the players coming in,” O’Connor said.
“If it is raining, we will do it on the concourse of the stadium, so we can still use the video board. Our video-services people have four really great videos put together: one of each step” — the ACC tournament, the NCAA regional at Irvine, the super regional at Ole Miss and the College World Series in Omaha.
Game 5 of the Orange and Blue World Series, scheduled for Thursday night, has been postponed because of weather. The ‘Hoos will try again Friday night.
“As long as it isn’t raining, we’ll play,” O’Connor said. “It doesn’t matter the temperature.”
There’s no charge for admission Friday, and the first 2,000 fans will receive free hot dogs and Pepsis.
O’Connor’s 2010 team will look a lot like the ’09 edition, with players such as Danny Hultzen, Jarrett Parker, John Hicks, Steven Proscia, Dan Grovatt, Tyler Cannon, Phil Gosselin, Tyler Wilson and Franco Valdes back.
No one will be shocked if the ‘Hoos make it back to the College World Series next season, but that’s not a subject O’Connor raises regularly.
“In the context that we talk about Omaha, it’s more about what you have to do every day in practice, and what do you have to do every game, in order to have a chance for that to happen,” O’Connor said. “We found out last year how hard it is to get there.
“I look at all the close games and what we had to do to win out in Irvine. That’s not easy to do, and the difference between winning and losing those games a lot of times is one play or one pitch. And then down in Oxford, to lose Game 1 and be five outs away [from losing Game 2 and series] and find a way to come back, I mean, it very easily could have been Ole Miss in Omaha and not us.
“So I know our players understand that it’s a very, very fine line at the end of the year. This time of the year, as long as they don’t give days away in practice and keep that edge about them, then you’ll have a chance to be in that position.”