By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Davenport Field hummed with activity Monday morning. On the suite level, coaches worked in their offices. In the outfield, players tossed the ball around. On the concourse, a crew cleaned and scrubbed in preparation for another season of University of Virginia baseball.
“It’ll be here quick,” said head coach Brian O’Connor, who’s also busy planning for the 10th annual Step Up to the Plate fundraiser, to be held Friday night at John Paul Jones Arena.
For O’Connor’s players, the holiday break ended Sunday. Beginning Monday, players were allowed to work individually and in small groups with the coaching staff, and they’ll do so until practice officially starts Jan. 27.
UVa opens the season Feb. 17 versus Boston College in the Caravelle Resort Tournament at Conway, S.C. (That game won’t count in the ACC standings.) The Wahoos’ home opener comes four days later, against William & Mary at Davenport Field.
“We get so much work done in the fall,” O’Connor said, “not only baseball but the conditioning and the physical and mental training that we get. You get excited when the players come back from the holiday break, because with everything you’ve taught them and everything they’ve learned in the first semester, now it’s their opportunity to put it all together.”
The ‘Hoos have never failed to mesh during O’Connor’s tenure in Charlottesville. His record in eight seasons at UVa is 372-130-1, with eight trips to the NCAA tournament.
His 2011 team was the best in the program’s history. UVa won a school-record 56 games, captured the ACC title and advanced to the College World Series in Omaha, Neb., for the second time in three seasons.
From that team, Virginia lost outfielders David Coleman, Kenny Swab and John Barr, catcher John Hicks, third baseman Steven Proscia and its top four starting pitchers: Danny Hultzen, Will Roberts, Tyler Wilson and Cody Winiarski.
Five Cavaliers were chosen in the first 10 rounds of last year’s Major League Baseball draft, including Hultzen, the No. 2 overall pick. Small wonder, then, that Collegiate Baseball has Virginia at No. 33 in its preseason poll.
“Quite frankly, we’re ranked where we should be ranked,” O’Connor said. “We lost four guys off the mound who threw 70 innings or more. That’s significant. And we lost the career RBI leader in Proscia. We lost our catcher. We lost our entire starting outfield.
“We’ve been in this position before. We’ve got to go out and earn it. We’ve got a lot of guys that need to prove themselves, and I think they’re ready for that challenge.”
The program, of course, is not without talent. Far from it. Among O’Connor’s returning players are seniors Keith Werman, Jared King, Scott Silverstein and Justin Thompson, juniors Chris Taylor, Branden Kline, Stephen Bruno, Reed Gragnani, Whit Mayberry and Colin Harrington, and sophomores Kyle Crockett, Mitchell Shifflett and Artie Lewicki.
Moreover, the Cavaliers added a heralded recruiting class that includes junior-college transfers Chace Mitchell and Joel Effertz and freshmen Nick Howard, Derek Fisher, Branden Cogswell, Brandon Downes, Mike Papi, Nate Irving and Kenny Towns.
“There’s obviously a good nucleus of returning players that have done it at the big-time level,” O’Connor said, “but then there’s a lot of players that haven’t had the expectation put on them yet to be a front-line everyday player or be a major contributor. And I’m excited to see those guys take that step. I think they have the ability to. They just haven’t had to do it yet. Whether it be a first-year, whether it be a second- or third-year, I’m excited to see it all come together.”
Mitchell and Irving are battling to replace Hicks at catcher. Werman, a fixture at second base during his UVa career, is another option behind the plate, O’Connor said. Downes may eventually end up at catcher, he’s likely to be used in the outfield this year.
So who’ll be throwing to them? O’Connor said he’s looking at five potential starters: right-handers Kline, Mayberry and Effertz and left-handers Crockett and Silverstein. Kline posted a 1.88 earned-run average as the Cavaliers’ closer last season.
In relief, look for Thompson and Lewicki to get most of the work, at least initially. Both are right-handers. Thompson made 22 appearances in relief last season and went 3-1 with a 3.46 ERA.
Lewicki pitched in only nine games in 2011, but he’s “got great stuff,” O’Connor said. “He was in a numbers game last year. Thompson’s obviously done a tremendous job for us. He’s a veteran. He knows how to do it, and there’s other guys too.”
O’Connor has tweaked the format of the program’s annual fundraiser. Over the years, Step Up to the Plate has featured such guest speakers as Cal Ripken Jr., Terry Francona, Tony LaRussa, Bobby Valentine, Brooks Robinson and Dave Winfield, each of whom was given about 25 minutes behind the microphone.
“I wanted to make it different than any Step Up to the Plate we’ve ever had before,” O’Connor said, “and because it’s the 10th year we’ve had the event, I wanted to make it more of a celebration of our program, the former players, the accomplishment of last year’s team, than necessarily who the speaker is. Although Kyle Peterson will do a terrific job.”
The ESPN college baseball analyst is the special guest at this year’s event. Peterson made two trips to the College World Series in his three years at Stanford and later pitched for the Milwaukee Brewers.
“He’ll talk about the state of college baseball and covering University of Virginia baseball in Omaha and being with ESPN for nine years and playing colege baseball, playing in the College World Series,” O’Connor said.
Peterson will address the crowd for about 10 minutes, O’Connor said, and then moderate a panel discussion with former UVa stars Ryan Zimmerman, Brandon Guyer, Michael Schwimer, Mike Ballard and Tyler Wilson, who will talk about their experiences in college and in pro baseball.
“I think it’ll be great,” O’Connor said. “We need to celebrate our former players, and this event is a fundraiser for our program and a celebration of our program.”
For more information about Step Up to the Plate, or to order tickets, visit VirginiaSports.com. Tickets for the event also may be purchased in person at the UVa Athletics Ticket Office in Bryant Hall or by phone at (800) 542-8821.