By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — It has become a rite of spring at the University of Virginia: a trip to the NCAA tournament for Brian O’Connor’s baseball team. That’s among the reasons recruits find his program so appealing.
In O’Connor’s 10 seasons as the Cavaliers’ head coach, he’s compiled a 458-159-2 record, and he’s led them to the NCAAs every year. Twice UVa has advanced to the College World Series in Omaha, Neb.
For the fourth straight season and seventh time under O’Connor, UVa is the top-seeded host of a four-team NCAA regional at Davenport Field. Virginia (47-10) opens the Charlottesville regional against No. 4 seed Army (29-21) on Friday at 1 p.m.
“As a recruit and as a high school baseball player, you see all of the excitement going on about UVa baseball, and that certainly helps,” sophomore catcher Nate Irving said Thursday, “to know that you’re coming to a place that is highly respected, that has the goals and has the standards that we do here. It sets a high bar, and it’s something to look forward to and something that excites you.”
All-ACC second baseman Reed Gragnani, a senior who starred at Mills Godwin High School in the Richmond area, saw his brother, Robbie, play for VCU in two NCAA regionals in the early 2000s. Knowing he’d make regular postseason appearances as a member of O’Connor’s program helped sell Gragnani on UVa.
“From a recruiting standpoint, for me, I wanted to go somewhere where I could win,” Gragnani said. “[O’Connor’s] demeanor, his poise, his confidence, you knew that that was the direction it was going to go in. And now, having been to Omaha two years, I think that gives them even more credibility with recruits.”
O’Connor said this week — as he has throughout his tenure — that his No. 1 goal at UVa has always been “consistency, to get into this NCAA tournament every year. Because I think when do you, the players understand, OK, this is what the expectation is. They start to learn and understand what it takes to win at this time of the year.”
Also, O’Connor said, sustained success “has a huge impact on recruiting. When you can go into somebody’s home, or you can have somebody here for a visit, and tell them that you’ve played in the NCAA tournament 10 years in a row, there’s not many programs in this country that can say that they’ve done that.”
Indeed, UVa is one of only eight Division I programs to have advanced to the NCAAs for the 10th straight season.
“In the recruiting process,” O’Connor said, “a player knows, `Well, I can go to the University of Virginia, or I can go to this other university or wherever, and I know that recent history has shown me that [at UVa] I’m going to play in the NCAA tournament, and I’m going to have a chance to go to Omaha, to compete for a national championship.’ And that’s what kids want to do.”
Many programs talk about reaching the College World Series, O’Connor said. “They say, ‘Oh, that’s our goal.’ OK. That’s a lot to talk about unless you’re putting yourself in the NCAA tournament on a fairly consistent basis. You don’t all of a sudden make the NCAA tournament and then start making Omaha … I just think the more you play in the NCAA tournament, the more your players get accustomed to playing at the end of the year, playing when there’s a lot of pressure.”
In the second game Friday, No. 2 seed UNC Wilmington (37-21), an at-large representative from the Colonial Athletic Association, meets No. 3 seed Elon (32-28), the Southern Conference champion, at 6 p.m.
Friday’s losers will meet in an elimination game at 1 p.m. Saturday; the winners, at 6 p.m.
This marks the second straight year that UVa will open the NCAA tourney against Army. The Black Knights will again throw their ace, senior right-hander Chris Rowley. In 2012, Virginia defeated fourth-seeded Army 9-1, but followed that with one-run losses to Appalachian State and Oklahoma, a stunning fall for O’Connor’s club.
“It was an unfortunate ending for us,” Brandon Waddell said Thursday.
At this time last year, Waddell, whose sister attends Oklahoma, was a high school senior who followed the Charlottesville regional from his home in Texas. He’ll be the Wahoos’ starting pitcher Friday afternoon.
A 6-2 left-hander from Houston, Waddell also got the ball first in Virginia’s first game this season, a 14-4 win at East Carolina on Feb. 15. That made him the first freshman to start a UVa opener since 1986.
“We could tell pretty quickly when this young man got here,” O’Connor said Thursday, “that he had a tremendous amount of poise … Nothing fazes him.”
Waddell is 5-2 with a 4.02 earned-run average. He’s coming off a shaky start against Virginia Tech in the ACC tournament — Waddell gave up 10 hits in four innings and took the loss — but says he won’t change his approach.
“You can’t really change anything from one start,” Waddell said. “There might be little mechanic stuff, but really it’s what you know. It’s the same game you’ve played your whole life. So you just go back to your basics, what you can do, and worry about what you can control.”
He said he doesn’t feel added pressure heading into his first NCAA tournament.
“Honestly, it’s the game I’ve played my whole life,” Waddell said. “I’m going to go out there and not worry about the things I can’t control, just take care of what I can. It’s the only way you can really approach it.”
His teammates’ advice for Waddell?
“Do exactly what you’ve done all year,” Irving said. “He’s let everything come to him all year. He’s taken the hits, he’s taken the strikeouts, he’s taken the punches. He’s more than ready for this type of situation.”
Gragnani said: “Just keep doing what you’ve been doing, relax, enjoy the moment. We’ve got all the confidence in the world in him, and he’s been doing it all year. It’s another game. I’m sure he’ll be nervous a little bit at the beginning, but that’s my job and [first baseman Jared King’s] job and all of ours to keep him calm, keep him poised. We’re looking forward to a great start from him.”
Army expects the same from the 6-2 Rowley, who’s 9-3 with a 2.68 ERA this season. A year ago, he entered the NCAA tournament with an 11-0 record and 1.97 ERA, but allowed six runs, walked five and hit four batters in six innings against UVa.
“We fortunately had a good approach against him last year,” O’Connor said. “I think it was more a result of how we train our hitters. Not that we take a bunch of pitches, but we really try and condition our guys to not swing at pitches off the plate, to be disciplined. I think it was more a matter of him just missing rather than someone who was really wild.”
UVa hosted Navy in an NCAA regional game at Davenport Field in 2011. Asked Tuesday about the service academies, O’Connor spoke at length about his admiration for them.
There are “no schools, no programs that you have more respect for than them,” he said. “We can talk all we want about what a student-athlete has on his plate at the University of Virginia or any other university; it pales in comparison to what these young people have on their plate.
“Take all the academics and all the athletics and then add all the training and everything that a student-athlete has to do at a service academy. It’s amazing. These kids, whether it’s Army, Air Force, Navy, whatever it is, what they have to go through, it’s pretty special … I know this about Army or anybody else: They ain’t gonna back down from anybody. They will not be intimidated by the University of Virginia.”
A high of 90 degrees is predicted Friday in Charlottesville. That’s fine with the Texan who’ll start on the mound for the `Hoos, even if his pitching coach, Karl Kuhn, might prefer cooler weather.
“I love it,” Waddell said, smiling. “I’ve been waiting for it to get hot this whole year. It’s finally here. [Kuhn] jokes about it all the time: `This is what you’re used to.’ He calls it pitching in an oven. It’s just the heat, but I really like it.”