By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — The congratulatory e-mails continue to pile up in Brian O’Connor‘s in-box, and UVa’s baseball coach plans to answer them. But it will be a while.
“I don’t even look at them right now,” O’Connor said Tuesday afternoon in his office at Davenport Field. “I’ve got to prioritize. For the good of our program, we have to as coaches prioritize and focus on what’s the most important thing. Right when we got back [from the College World Series], it was our players and our team. And once we’ve taken care of that, which we have, now it’s recruiting. And once we get recruiting under control, then you can handle some of those other things.”
The longest — and greatest — baseball season in UVa history started Feb. 18 in Auburn, Ala. It ended more than four months later in Omaha, Neb., where Virginia lost Friday night to eventual NCAA champion South Carolina at the College World Series.
Along the way, the Cavaliers set attendance records at Davenport Field, captured the ACC championship, earned the No. 1 national seed in the NCAA tournament and advanced to Omaha for the second time in three seasons. They needed only three games — the minimum — to win the NCAA tourney’s Charlottesville Regional. A week later, the Wahoos staged an unforgettable comeback in the bottom of the ninth inning to eliminate UC Irvine in the deciding game of their best-of-three NCAA super regional at Davenport.
In its eighth season under O’Connor, Virginia won 56 games, smashing the previous school record of 51, and lost only 12. No team had more victories this season. After going 2-2 in Omaha, where they advanced to the CWS final four, the ‘Hoos flew back to Charlottesville on Saturday afternoon. More than 1,000 fans, including the University’s president, Teresa Sullivan, came out to Davenport that evening to salute the team one last time this season.
“I thought the welcome-back celebration was really special for our players and coaches, to be able to see how many people care about our baseball program,” said O’Connor, who was born in Omaha and grew up in nearby Council Bluffs, Iowa.
“It showed that we’ve really built a baseball community here and that the fans are very passionate about our players. It’s rewarding as a coach to have all those conversations with those people and hear how much they enjoy supporting our program.
“For that many people to come out on short notice just goes to show we’ve built a serious baseball community and following here.”
UVa’s seniors this season included outfielders David Coleman, John Barr and Kenny Swab and pitchers Cody Winiarski and Tyler Wilson. The ‘Hoos may also lose four juniors who were drafted early this month: pitchers Danny Hultzen and Will Roberts, catcher John Hicks and third baseman Steven Proscia.
But O’Connor has never had a team at UVa that missed the NCAA tournament, and he sees continued success ahead for his program. In an interview with VirginiaSports.com, O’Connor reflected on the 2011 season and looked ahead to next year. The highlights follow.
JW: How would you compare the team’s first trip to Omaha with this one?
O’Connor: “Well, the neat thing about 2009 was it was so unexpected, because we had finished sixth in the regular season in the ACC. It was just such a magical run for us that year, and 2009 will aways be special because it was the first time it happened at Virginia. This year, since we had been there before, it was more relaxed. Everybody understood what this thing was about, and we could focus more and concentrate more on what it took to win the games.”
JW: Your homecoming was a huge storyline in 2009, and everybody in Omaha wanted a piece of you, it seemed. Was it different this time?
O’Connor: “The demands were the same, but I didn’t agree to do a lot of the demands, and that was the difference. I learned from the first time being there as a head coach that you can’t do everything, and you’ve got to limit what you expose your players and your coaches to, and you need to focus and concentrate on preparing them to have success.”
JW: College baseball isn’t often on TV during the regular season, but your games in the super regional and at the College World Series were nationally televised. What does that ESPN exposure mean for your program?
O’Connor: “There are so many people connected and dialed into the NCAA tournament when it starts, and all the super regionals are on television. We were one of the last two super regionals, and when our Game 3 was played, we were the only game on television, so everybody that follows college baseball was able to watch it. And then when you get to Omaha, they’re all on. There’s no question it impacts a lot of things. It impacts awareness of your program throughout the country, but also makes a significant impact on recruiting. The incoming recruits, and the ones that you’re still trying to get, they have an opportunity to see you play, so it absolutely helps.”
JW: You’ve taken Virginia to the College World Series twice. Do you see any reason why UVa can’t win an NCAA title?
O’Connor: “I don’t think so. The bottom line is, you look at a program like the University of Florida. The University of Florida has never won a national championship in baseball. And [the Gators] have every advantage that you can possibly imagine. They’re in the best state in the country for high school prospects, and they play in a really great league. That’s not a knock on Florida, but that puts things in perspective about how difficult it is to win it all. It’s just a matter of whether things go your way. Look at South Carolina. South Carolina isn’t any more talented than we are. Things have gone their way.”
JW: Major improvements have been made to Davenport Field during your tenure, and attendance there has steadily increased. What would you like to see happen next?
O’Connor: “I think it’s to continue to get more and more fans on a consistent basis, so we don’t wait to fill this place until right at the end of the year. If we’re going to get over 5,000 people for a regional or a super regional, why can’t we get it when we play Georgia Tech or Virginia Tech or Clemson in a big ACC series at home? And so that’s the next step that we need to take as a program. Can we sustain that kind of attendance?”
JW: In addition to losing such position players as David Coleman and Kenny Swab and John Barr, you may have to replace your top four starting pitchers. Many observers are saying this will be the biggest rebuilding job you’ve faced at UVa. Is that fair?
O’Connor: “I think that’s fair. But I think position player-wise we’re going to be in a pretty good place. It’s just going to be a matter of which of those pitchers are going to step up and emerge. It’s nice to know that you have somebody the quality of Branden Kline and Kyle Crockett and other guys coming back, but there’s no question that from a pitching standpoint we have a ton to replace.
“I think there are [pitchers] coming in that can contribute. We’ll have to wait and see if any of them are weekend-type guys.”
JW: How good is the incoming class?
O’Connor: “I think this recruiting class is a lot like the senior class that just left and the junior class that’s here. I think it’s very talented, especially from a position player standpoint. And there’s some really good depth to the class. But we’ll see. It’ll be a long summer. There’s still some guys that may consider signing [with professional teams].”
JW: If John Hicks turns pro this summer, you’ll lose your starting catcher. Who’ll be behind the plate in 2012?
O’Connor: “We’ve got two junior-college catchers coming in, and we’ve got two high school catchers coming in. We’ll just have to see how it goes. It probably won’t be one guy. It’ll probably be a couple of them. That’s why we went out and got a couple of junior-college guys, because they’ve had some playing experience at a different level. But it’s no different than the year Franco Valdes came in [as a junior-college transfer] and John Hicks was a freshman. They adapt pretty quick.”
JW: Stephen Bruno missed most of the season with a hamstring injury. How is he doing?
O’Connor: “He is expected to make a full recovery. He’s expected to start to play summer ball at some point.”
JW: [Associate head coach] Kevin McMullan and [pitching coach] Karl Kuhn have been on your staff since your first season at UVa, and they’re among the most highly regarded assistants in college baseball. Do you expect them back in 2012?
O’Connor: “Yeah, I do. I don’t want to speak for them, and I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I’ve said it all along, the continuity of our coaching staff is one of our biggest assets as a program. I’m sure when the right opportunity comes up for them, they’ll strongly consider it, but I don’t know if that’s right now or not.”
JW: You haven’t had much down time since getting back from Omaha. What’s your schedule this summer?
O’Connor: “It’s crazy nuts. You’re trying to get recruiting up and running. You’re trying to close this season and prepare for the next. That’s why you’re recruiting. You love all the well-wishers and everything, but it’s a lot of work.
“Both Kevin and Karl are going to be out on the road. I’m going to be out on the road next week. We’ve got a big high school summer travel team tournament here, starting Thursday night [and running] through Sunday. So we’ll be here for that, and then I’ll go out on the road all next week recruiting, and we’ll be gone pretty much the whole summer recruiting.
“This is the most important time. You don’t want to be anywhere else but in Omaha in June, but the problem is, you’re four weeks behind 250 other Division I programs in evaluating players. It takes time to catch up a little bit. But once you figure out who those players are, it helps you to be able to get them when you’ve been having the success we’ve had.”
JW: What are your thoughts on 2012?
O’Connor: “I’m excited about next year. I think we got a really good core of players back. Our players understand what it takes to win at the end of the year. That takes some time to figure out when you’re developing a program. You can win during the regular season, but it takes time for the players to learn and understand what it takes to win at the end of the season. And we’ve got a really good core of players back for next year that understand what it takes to win at the most important time.”