By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — The NCAA baseball tournament lasts nearly a month, during which time 63 of the 64 teams will be eliminated.
As the tournament’s No. 1 seed, Virginia clearly is capable of advancing to Omaha, Neb., and winning the College World Series. But the Cavaliers’ coach does not want his players focusing on an NCAA title.
“That’s too big to think about,” Brian O’Connor said Tuesday at Davenport Field. “We have no chance to play for a national championship unless we win this weekend. And then we don’t [have a chance], again, unless we win the following weekend. And then once you get to Omaha, it’s a long, two-and-a-half-week grind.
“Just because somebody puts the No. 1 seed on your head doesn’t mean that ‘OK, now we go win the national championship.’ Would we like to win the national championship? Absolutely. But there are so many steps that need to be taken along that road.”
For ACC champion UVa (49-9), the journey starts Friday at 1 p.m. with a first-round game against Patriot League winner Navy (33-23-1) at Davenport Field. The other teams in this double-elimination NCAA regional — No. 2 seed East Carolina (39-19) and No. 3 seed St. John’s (35-20) — follow at 6 p.m.
“We’ve got a lot of baseball out in front of us,” O’Connor said, “and it’s a long road to get to that position at the end, and a lot of things have to go right for you … You have to be really, really good starting this weekend, but you also have to have some breaks.”
O’Connor’s record in his eight seasons at UVa is staggeringly good: 365-127-1. The Wahoos have advanced to the NCAA tourney each year during his tenure and reached the super-regional round twice (2009 and ’10).
“Having that experience definitely is an advantage,” left-fielder John Barr said Thursday.
In 2009, the ‘Hoos made it all the way to Omaha, and the many holdovers from that team would love to return this year. But O’Connor has taught them well.
“I think once you start thinking ahead too much, you lose sight of what’s in front of you,” Barr said. “There’s no doubt about that. We really are just focused on Navy, and after that game we’ll focus on who we play next.”
Barr, a senior from Ivyland, Pa., is among the Cavaliers for whom this is the fourth — and final — NCAA regional. His classmates include right-handed pitcher Tyler Wilson and outfielder David Coleman.
“You’re going to treat this fourth one just like it was the first one,” Wilson said. “I’m just as excited about this one as I was my first year. It’s kind of old hat, now that it’s the fourth time around, but every trip into the postseason is special in its own way.”
That this is their final NCAA tournament has occurred to UVa’s seniors. Some of the Cavaliers’ juniors are likely to turn pro this summer, and so this is it for them, too.
“I try not to think about it,” Barr said. “I don’t want to get worked up and caught up in that emotional side of it. It is my last regional. You just try and treat it as a great opportunity and something to look forward to, rather than, ‘Wow, this is a ton of pressure. This could be my last shot.’ ”
Wilson said: “I know that everybody on our team goes out and plays hard, irregardless of whether it’s their first game or it’s going to be potentially their last game. I know that I’m going to go out there and leave everything that I have on the line, and I know that everybody there playing behind me and here on the bench is going to do the exact same thing.”
When O’Connor arrived in Charlottesville after nine seasons as a Notre Dame assistant, the ‘Hoos had never hosted an NCAA regional. It has since become almost a rite of spring at Virginia. UVa previously hosted in 2004, ’06, ’07 and ’10.
“I think that having the home fans on your side, for when things don’t go your way, is definitely great for momentum,” Barr said. “You score a couple runs, and the next thing you know you got the crowd roaring, you get 4,000 or 5,000 people on your side, and all of the sudden you can kind of pour it on a team.”
Junior right-hander Will Roberts (10-1, 1.78 earned-run average) will start for UVa against Navy. Junior left-hander Danny Hultzen (10-3, 1.59) will get the ball Saturday. If the Cavaliers win at least one of those games, their starter Sunday is likely to be Wilson (7-0, 2.41).
In the regular season, Wilson was UVa’s Saturday starter in weekend series. Unless he’s pressed into relief duty Friday or Saturday, he’ll have to wait longer to pitch in this regional. Wilson says he’s fine with that.
“I get to watch Will Roberts pitch,” he said. “I get to watch Danny Hultzen. These guys are incredible pitchers, and I’m just excited that I get an opportunity to have a front-row seat. Of course, I really want to get out there and get a chance to get the ball, but at the same time I’m just enjoying the game.”
Hultzen, who last week was named ACC pitcher of the year for the second straight season, lost three of his final four regular-season starts. Save several shaky innings, however, Hultzen was his usual dominant self in those games, and his confidence level remains high.
“I’ve felt good every time I’ve gone out there,” said Hultzen, who’s projected to be taken in the first round of the Major League Baseball draft Monday night.
“I’m not out there to get the win. I’m out there to put my team in a position to win. A couple times I wasn’t able to do that. I learned from what happened during those starts, and I’ve just moved on from it. I have not worried a single minute about my record or the fact that I’ve gotten the losses or anything like that.”