By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — In 2009, Brian O’Connor‘s baseball team entered the conference tournament as the No. 6 seed. UVa left Durham, N.C., as ACC champion.
A year later, Virginia earned the No. 1 seed for the ACC tournament. The Wahoos went 2-1 in Greensboro, N.C., but lost a tiebreaker with Florida State and did not advance from pool play to the championship game.
The No. 1 seed, then, is no guarantee of success in the 2011 ACC tournament, which starts next Wednesday in Durham.
“It doesn’t give you a bye, and you don’t have to play any less games or anything like that,” said O’Connor, the Cavaliers’ eighth-year coach. “Any of the eight teams that are going to be in the tournament are capable of winning.”
That said, Virginia will not lack motivation in its final regular-season series, which begins Thursday night in Chapel Hill, N.C. UVa (22-5 ACC, 45-6 overall), ranked No. 1 by Baseball America, is scheduled to play three games against No. 17 North Carolina (17-10, 41-12).
A win in one of those games — or a loss by No. 12 Georgia Tech — would clinch the No. 1 seed for the ‘Hoos. Georgia Tech (20-7, 37-16) closes the regular season with a three-game series against Virginia Tech (10-17, 29-23) in Blacksburg.
“We have a chance to win the regular-season championship in the ACC in back-to-back years, and that’s been a goal of ours from the start of the year,” O’Connor said. “I think over a 30-game conference schedule, to come out on top is quite an accomplishment.”
Virginia hasn’t played since beating the 16th-ranked Miami Hurricanes in an ACC game Sunday at Davenport Field. The ‘Hoos were scheduled to host High Point there on Tuesday night, but that became their second rainout of the season. Mother Nature usually prevails this time of year.
“Since I’ve been the coach here, we’ve never played the full 56 games in the regular season, and it’s rare for anybody to do that,” O’Connor said. “Just because obviously if you have rainouts late in the season, there aren’t dates to make them up. They don’t extend the season because of it.
“It is what it is, and you move on. Fortunately we’ve done the job all year so that playing two less games than the NCAA allows you to isn’t going to hurt us at all.”
That the Cavaliers will host an NCAA tournament regional at Davenport Field is a given. Their goal, though, is to also be one of the top eight seeds in the 64-team tourney. That would assure them of hosting a super regional if they advanced past the tournament’s opening weekend.
A year ago, Virginia was the No. 5 seed in the NCAA tournament, “and I feel like we’ve worked really hard to be in that position again this year,” O’Connor said.
“With our body of work going into the final regular-season weekend, what we’ve done up to this point, we clearly should be one of the top eight national seeds, if not the top seed in the tournament. But again, we don’t play for that. That stuff kind of takes care of itself. We just do the best that we can, and in the end you hope that the committee that decides those things feels like your team is worthy of being in that position.”
In recent weekend series, O’Connor has started junior left-hander Danny Hultzen in the opener, senior right-hander Tyler Wilson in Game 2, and junior right-hander Will Roberts in the finale.
Against UNC, though, O’Connor plans to go with senior right-hander Cody Winiarski on Thursday, Hultzen on Friday, and Roberts on Saturday. That would leave Wilson well-rested for Virginia’s ACC tournament opener in Durham.
This will be the Cavaliers’ 10th ACC series. They won each of their first nine, with sweeps of Clemson, Maryland, Virginia Tech and Duke.
To win every series in a conference as powerful as the ACC, which has six teams in Baseball America’s latest Top 25, would be an amazing accomplishment. That the ‘Hoos are in position to do so “speaks to the consistency with which we’ve played all year long,” O’Connor said. “We have a goal: If you’re going to win the regular-season title, you’ve got to try to win every series. If you win every series the entire year, you’ve got a chance in the end to win the regular season.”