By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — For Keith Werman and the other seniors on UVa’s baseball team, this is it: their third and final NCAA regional at Davenport Field.
“It’s sad,” Werman said Tuesday. “I really enjoy playing in front of these fans.”
For the Cavaliers’ freshmen, a precocious group that includes slugger Derek Fisher, this is, they hope, the first of several regionals in Charlottesville.
“It’s great to be able to play any game here,” Fisher said Thursday. “Our fans are great. They’ve been great to us all year, and to be able to host something like this at Davenport Field is something special. It’s something that I’m going to look forward to, hosting all four years that I’m here.”
For the third straight season and sixth time in nine years, UVa is the top-seeded host of a four-team regional in the NCAA tournament. Virginia (38-17-1) opens the Charlottesville Regional against No. 4 seed Army (41-13) on Friday.
“I’m excited that we get the opportunity to host again for the fans,” said Werman, a fixture at second base for three-plus seasons. “That’s the main reason why I wanted to play at home. It’s always fun to go somewhere else and experience a different atmosphere, but it’s a great opportunity to be at home in front of all the fans.”
With inclement weather expected Friday, the starting time for the UVa-Army game has been moved up from 4 p.m. to 11 a.m. Fifty minutes after the first game ends, No. 2 seed Oklahoma (38-22) is scheduled to take on No. 3 Appalachian State (39-16).
Virginia coach Brian O’Connor confirmed Thursday that Branden Kline (6-3, 3.68 ERA) will start against the Black Knights, whose ace also is a junior right-hander, Chris Rowley (11-0, 1.97).
These schools haven’t met in baseball since 1913, when Army beat Virginia 9-3. The Black Knights are in the NCAA tourney for the fourth time in nine seasons. Army won a best-of-three series with Holy Cross to secure the Patriot League’s automatic bid to the NCAAs.
The Patriot is not to be confused with the ACC, which has seven teams in the NCAA tournament. Still, O’Connor said in no uncertain terms Tuesday, the Cavaliers won’t overlook the Black Knights.
“Let me tell you something,” O’Connor said, “you win 41 ball games, I don’t care where you’re playing or whatever level it is. When you win 41 ball games out of 54 that you play, you’ve done something right, you’ve got a pretty good club, and Army certainly does.”
The Black Knights’ associate head coach, Matt Reid, is a University of Richmond graduate whose father, Jim, is defensive coordinator on UVa’s football team. The younger Reid has helped Army set a school record for victories in a season.
“They’ve got guys that can run, they got guys that are athletic,” O’Connor said of the Black Knights. “They’re the kind of team that’s going to peck your eyes out and work the count and try to get on base. They’re going to bunt, they’re going to move runners … It’s kind of interesting. It’s kind of how we play a little bit. Hopefully we’re prepared for it, because that’s what we see in intrasquad scrimmages every day.”
Unlike Army, UVa does not enter the NCAA tourney as a conference champion. But the Wahoos have won 14 of their past 16 games and are coming off a 7-0 victory over Florida State, the No. 3 overall seed in the 64-team NCAA tournament.
That win over FSU, in the Cavaliers’ final game at the ACC tournament in Greensboro, N.C., came one day after they were humbled 17-5 by Georgia Tech. The ‘Hoos knew heading into the FSU game that they had no chance to advance to the ACC final, but that didn’t deter them.
“This club has suffered some tough losses, and every time they’ve bounced back,” O’Connor said. “What a great quality for a ball club to have, and I’m sure we’ll need that quality again at some point in the remainder of this season. I just told them that the game is not meaningless, that every game matters and you’re playing for the pride of this team, and they certainly responded.”
UVa’s starters against FSU included four freshmen: Fisher (left field), Branden Cogswell (designated hitter), Brandon Downes (center field) and Nate Irving (catcher). Two other first-year players, Kenny Towns and Nick Howard, have also played regularly for Virginia in recent weeks.
“I think they’ve exceeded my expectation, really,” O’Connor said of the team’s freshmen. “And the exciting thing is, they’re going to be in our uniform for a couple more years.”
Fisher said: “It’s just great to see all of us first-years out here making such a big contribution and helping out this team the way we are.”
The 6-3, 210-pound Fisher, a sixth-round pick of the Texas Rangers in last year’s MLB draft, leads Virginia in home runs (seven), triples (eight) and RBI (50). He’s batting .309.
On the day before his NCAA tournament debut, Fisher looked around Davenport Field and marveled at “being able to come here and see all this stuff going on, and the NCAA signs and stuff like that. It’s pretty cool, but we’re going into a weekend just like every other weekend. It’s just against teams we haven’t played before. We’re just going to go in and play the same baseball.”
Fisher, who’s from Rexmont, Pa., has followed the NCAA tournament for years.
“I grew up liking college baseball more than professional baseball,” he said. “I don’t exactly know why. Just the way they played. I always looked at the regionals, the super regionals and the College World Series. I was always watching those games, and for some reason it always appealed to me more than professional baseball did.”
Fisher committed to UVa in the fall of 2009, during his junior year at Cedar Crest High School. He remembers watching the Virginia team that advanced to the College World Series in 2009, the Virginia team that lost to Oklahoma in an NCAA super regional in 2010 and, of course, the Virginia team that made it back to Omaha, Neb., last year.
“To be a part of it now is something very special,” Fisher said.
For the Cavaliers’ freshmen, this “is their first experience with it, their first time in NCAA postseason play,” O’Connor said. “But that’s what the ACC tournament is for. It gets them prepared for what it’s like at tournament time. You try to get them to believe, which I know they do, in what their abilities are and that their contributions were certainly significant to getting us to this point. Now they’ve just got to relax and go out there and compete and play.”
UVa, 25-8 at Davenport Field this season, is one of only four schools to have been awarded an NCAA regional for the third straight year. (The others are Florida, South Carolina and UCLA.)
Not until the final weeks of the regular season, O’Connor said, did he begin to feel confident about the Cavaliers’ prospects for opening the NCAA tournament at home again.
“We certainly earned this regional host for what we did in the last four or five weeks of the year,” O’Connor said. “That’s satisfying, obviously. We came out and we earned it, and we deserved this opportunity. A lot of teams faded down the stretch, and this club got better, and that gives us a lot of confidence moving into this weekend.”