By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Early in Brian O’Connor‘s tenure at UVa, he rarely saw his incoming freshmen on Grounds this time of year. Now it’s a common occurrence, and the trend delights O’Connor, head coach of a baseball program that has played in two of the past three College World Series.
“It’s kind of evolved into this, and it’s a really, really positive thing,” O’Connor said Tuesday in his office at Davenport Field.
Eight of Virginia’s recruits chose to attend UVa’s final session of summer school, which began July 11 and ends Friday. The move-in dates for first-year students are Aug. 19 and 20, and classes begin Aug. 23. The freshmen who were here for summer school will have a significant jump on their classmates.
“Now they know where everything is,” O’Connor said. “They get the lay of the land of the University. They know how study hall works. They know how the tutors work. They know the entire bus system. They know where all the classes are.”
The eight are Derek Fisher, Mike Papi, Brandon Downes, Nick Howard, Barrett O’Neill, Kenny Towns, Brett Lisle and Nathaniel Abel. In the Major League Baseball draft in June, Fisher went to Texas in the sixth round, Papi to Anaheim in the 30th, and Downes to Boston in the 43rd. The other five were not picked.
The deadline for draft picks to sign pro contracts is not until Aug. 15, so O’Connor is unsure exactly what his first-year class will look like. He has already lost two recruits to the pros this summer: left-handed pitcher Kevin Matthews and catcher Nolan Clark.
Still, if the next 13 days unfold as O’Connor believes they will, the Wahoos figure to head into the new academic year having addressed many of their needs.
“This is a really talented class,” O’Connor said.
That’s not unprecedented at Virginia, where O’Connor’s record in eight seasons is 372-130-1, with two ACC championships and eight trips to the NCAA tournament. Recruits who enrolled in 2007 included Dan Grovatt, Jarrett Parker, Phil Gosselin, Kevin Arico, David Coleman, Tyler Wilson and John Barr.
“That was one heck of a recruiting class,” O’Connor said, and so was the one that arrived a year later. Its members included Danny Hultzen, Steven Proscia, John Hicks, Keith Werman and Will Roberts.
“This incoming class is one of those kind of classes,” O’Connor said.
NCAA rules prohibit O’Connor and his assistants from working with players during the summer, but the recruits have been training with Ed Nordenschild, the team’s strength-and-conditioning coach, and they’re allowed to do baseball drills on their own.
Moreover, O’Connor noted, the newcomers will be “three or six credit hours ahead, and there’s now this friendship, this bond, between these guys.”
From a team that won the ACC title and advanced to the College World Series semifinals, UVa must replace such players as Coleman, Hicks, Proscia, Barr, Roberts, Wilson, Cody Winiarski, Kenny Swab and, in all likelihood, Hultzen. Virginia finished 56-12 in 2011, by far the most victories in school history.
FAREWELL: Eddie Smith, O’Connor’s No. 3 assistant and first-base coach for the past three seasons, is headed back to the West Coast.
Smith, who’s from Olympia, Wash., accepted an assistant coach’s job at Santa Clara University in California. In all, Smith spent five seasons at UVa, the first two as director of baseball operations, a position he was the first to fill.
“I’m really excited for Eddie,” O’Connor said. “Eddie’s been as loyal as you can be the last five years.
“I think the guy’s really, really good, and I think Santa Clara is lucky to have him. He was really looking to try to get back to the West Coast, where he’s from, and I think it’s a tremendous opportunity for him. I think he’ll do a fantastic job out there.”
Smith is a Notre Dame graduate. His successor at Virginia is expected to be announced next week.