By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — About 130 miles separate Danville and Davenport Field, and it’s a drive Floyd and Karen Thompson have made countless times since their older son, Jacob, made his debut for the University of Virginia baseball team in 2006.
After three seasons at UVa, Jacob Thompson left to pursue a professional carer, but his parents still had reason to journey up Route 29 to Charlottesville (and then back to Danville). Their younger son, Justin, enrolled at Virginia not long after his big brother left in 2008. This is the seventh straight season that the Thompson parents have been fixtures at Davenport Field.
“They love baseball,” Justin said. “They love coming up and watching. I think they would still be coming up even if I wasn’t here.”
Like Jacob, Justin is a right-handed pitcher who starred at Tunstall High School. Several SEC schools, as well as some of UVa’s ACC counterparts, recruited Justin. But he had fallen for Virginia over the course of the family’s trips to see Jacob play, and “I knew this was where I wanted to come,” said Justin, a 6-1, 200-pound senior.
“I’m so happy that he chose to follow his brother,” UVa coach Brian O’Connor said. “Justin Thompson has as much pride in our program and pride in our uniform as anybody we have out there.
“He’s played on the three most successful teams in our history, and he’s a tremendous leader in our clubhouse. He understands what it takes every day for our team to be successful. I think he’s doing a really good job of teaching and inspiring our young players to get them to understand what it takes.”
Jacob, who stands 6-6, was a unanimous first-team All-American as a UVa sophomore in 2007. Still, Justin never worried about the comparisons he would face by following Jacob to Charlottesville.
“I had grown up kind of in my brother’s shadow,” Justin said. “It’s something I never backed down from. He’s a great player, and it’s hard for anyone to compare to that, so I just tried to make my own way. I just saw the way this place was and the way the coaches treated everyone, and the academic aspect also.”
Justin, a history major, is on track to graduate in May. He’s interested in one day becoming a teacher and coaching baseball. “I’d like to stay in the game as long as I can,” he said.
For now, though, he’s focused on trying to help the Cavaliers advance to the NCAA tournament for the ninth straight year. Heading into Virginia’s game with VMI on Wednesday at Davenport Field, Thompson is 2-0 with a 0.82 earned-run average. In 11 appearances — all out of the bullpen — he has struck out 10, allowed 8 hits and walked 5 batters in 11 innings.
“He’s pitching in a variety of different roles,” O’Connor said last week. “He closed two huge ballgames for us against Virginia Tech, and he’s also pitched as a setup guy.”
As a freshman in 2009, Thompson threw only 8 innings. His role grew in 2010 (20.2 innings) and again last season (39 innings). He entered his senior season with a career record of 6-1 and a 3.45 ERA.
“He’s gotten better and better every year,” O’Connor said. “He’s a bulldog out there. He goes out there, and he attacks the hitters. He’s got supreme confidence in himself, and he’s certainly matured through his career as a pitcher here. He’ll do whatever we ask him to do.”
Jacob’s role at UVa was more defined. He was a starter throughout his college career. That’s not the only difference between the brothers.
“Jacob was taller and more quiet and reserved,” O’Connor said. “Justin is a free spirit. He keeps the locker room very loose, but he understands when it’s game time that he’s ready to play, and he gets his teammates ready to play.”
They never played together at UVa, but the brothers were teammates growing up in Danville.
“He was always the quiet type,” Justin said of Jacob. “He just went about his business. He was passionate about the game, but I guess I am more vocal. I like to have fun in the locker room. I try to be a leader for the guys, but I try to loosen everybody up too.”
After a short pro career, Jacob retired from the Atlanta Braves’ organization in May 2011, and he’s now finishing work on his degree at UVa.
“He comes up here [from Danville] three days a week,” Justin said, “and he spends the night with me for two nights. It almost feels like high school.”
Jacob played on UVa teams that won 47, 45 and 39 games, respectively. The Wahoos won 49 games when Justin was a freshman, 51 when he was a sophomore and a school-record 56 last season. The ‘Hoos ended the 2009 and ’11 seasons in Omaha, Neb., at the College World Series.
“It’s been unbelievable,” Justin said. “I never imagined I would come to a place and have two trips to the College World Series and two ACC championships out of the three years so far. It’s been everything I expected and more. I couldn’t be happier with my decision and how my career has turned out from high school.”
His coach feels the same way.
“Justin is his own man, and I don’t think he’s ever felt like he’s been following in his brother’s footsteps,” O’Connor said. “I’m really glad that we’ve had the Thompson family in our stands for seven consecutive years.”