By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Around 12:35 p.m. Monday, cheers erupted from the UVa baseball players watching the flat screen TVs in the home clubhouse at Davenport Field.
They’d just learned who would be joining them at Davenport Field this weekend.
The NCAA announced Sunday night, as expected, that the Cavaliers (47-11) would host a regional in the national tournament. The Wahoos learned the next day, during the selection show on ESPN, that they’d been seeded No. 5 in the 64-team NCAAs, which means they would also host a super regional.
To do so, the ‘Hoos must first win the double-elimination regional in which they’re seeded No. 1. Headed to Charlottesville are No. 2 seed Mississippi (38-22), an at-large representative from the SEC; No. 3 seed St. John’s (40-18), the Big East champion; and No. 4 seed VCU (34-24-1), the Colonial Athletic Association champion.
“It’s going to be really exciting with Ole Miss coming, after we went down there last year,” Virginia sophomore John Hicks said with a smile. “Their fans were all over us the whole time.”
Hicks is happy to host St. John’s as well. He played summer ball in Wisconsin, and his teammates included the Red Storm’s Jimmy Parque.
“I just checked my phone,” Hicks said Monday afternoon, “and he had already sent me a text message that said, ‘See you this weekend.’ “
Bracketologists had predicted that St. John’s and VCU would be sent to Charlottesville. Virginia sophomore Danny Hultzen, the ACC pitcher of the year, said he didn’t give the matter any thought.
“There’s all those projections that are on the Internet,” Hultzen said. “I don’t really like to do that, because the committee’s the one that decides, and it seemed kind of pointless to me to speculate on who was going to come here. But I’m excited that we’re playing at home.”
A season ago, the Cavaliers were on the road throughout the NCAA tournament. First they traveled to Irvine, Calif., where they won what many believed was the tournament’s most challenging regional.
Then the ‘Hoos rolled into Oxford, Miss., where they took the final two games of a best-of-three series with the Rebels to advance to College World Series for the first time in school history.
“The fact that we were matched up against each other in a super regional last year, it’s kind of interesting that [the NCAA] would send them here,” Virginia coach Brian O’Connor said.
UVa will face VCU at 4 p.m. Friday, with Ole Miss and St. John’s to follow at 8 p.m. Friday’s losers will meet Saturday at 1 p.m. in an elimination game. Friday’s winners will clash Saturday at 6 p.m.
Asked Monday afternoon about his pitching rotation for the regional, O’Connor said, “I haven’t decided, and I probably won’t decide for a couple of days, until we get a chance to do a little bit more research on all the teams and what the best thing for our team is.”
In their regular-season meeting, Virginia beat VCU 10-5 on May 5 at Davenport. Freshman right-hander Branden Kline started and got the win for the Cavaliers that night, but O’Connor is expected to go with Hultzen, Robert Morey or Cody Winiarski in the rematch.
This is O’Connor’s seventh season at UVa, and it’s the seventh time his team has earned an invitation to the NCAAs. Never before, however, had the ‘Hoos received one of the tournament’s national seeds, which the NCAA awards to what it deems the top eight teams.
Many analysts predicted that Virginia, which won the ACC’s regular-season championship, would receive one of the NCAA tournament’s top three seeds. But the committee went with Arizona State at No. 1, Texas at No. 2, Florida at No. 3 and Coastal Carolina — a team UVa beat during the regular season — at No. 4.
The ‘Hoos, ranked No. 1 nationally by Baseball America for much of the season, this week included, dropped only one conference series. Virginia then went 2-1 at the ACC tourney in Greensboro, N.C., losing to eventual champion Florida State.
“We couldn’t have done anything more,” O’Connor said. “Maybe won the ACC tournament, but jeez, we won the regular season outright. So I’m just excited, really. It’s the first time in our program’s history that we’ve been a national seed. And that’s all that really matters to me. Which one, it doesn’t matter.”
UVa previously hosted NCAA regionals in 2004, ’06 and ’07. Since the 2007 postseason, Davenport has been expanded several times, and the stadium will seat 4,801 during the NCAA tourney. Virginia shattered its attendance records this season.
“I hope our fans get out immediately and buy up the remainder of the tickets that are available, because we’ve created a really great baseball environment here, and I think this weekend should be no different,” O’Connor said.
“As much as [hosting a regional] is a reward for our players, it’s a reward for our fans that have been so supportive for us all year, that they get a chance to have postseason baseball in Charlottesville. It’s definitely a different environment than it was three years ago when we hosted. Obviously we have a lot more seats now, and it’s just a much more knowledgeable crowd. It’s a baseball crowd that really understands the game and really follows our team.”
Virginia has yet to win an NCAA regional at Davenport, and O’Connor admits that with the host’s role comes pressure.
“I think that there’s something to this, that when you do a host a regional, the expectation is that you win your regional,” he said.
“But I’m not concerned about it with this club. They’ve handled all the expectations all year long, with regards to being the No. 1 team in the country. We had to go down to Miami and win to [clinch the ACC] regular-season title, and we did it. So I don’t think that this team’s going to feel any pressure of playing at home. I think they’re actually really, really excited, because they believe that they earned the right to be a national seed.”