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June 7, 2013

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CHARLOTTESVILLE — UVa has not always fielded physically imposing baseball teams during Brian O’Connor’s tenure as head coach. In part, of course, that’s because the Cavaliers’ starting second baseman for most of O’Connor’s first nine seasons was one of the Werman brothers — first Kyle, who was listed at 5-7, 155 pounds, and then Keith, who checked in at a robust 5-7, 150.

O’Connor’s 10th team at Virginia, though, looks good getting off the bus, as the saying goes. This is not only one of the most talented groups O’Connor has had — the Cavaliers are 50-10 heading into a best-of-three NCAA super regional with Mississippi State at Davenport Field — it’s an impressive collection of size and athleticism.

UVa’s pitchers include 6-6, 240-pound Scott Silverstein, 6-4, 225-pound Austin Young and 6-3, 225-pound Josh Sborz. The Wahoos’ top four outfielders are listed at 6-3, 225 (Joe McCarthy), 6-3, 195 (Mike Papi), 6-3, 190 (Brandon Downes) and 6-3, 210 (Derek Fisher), respectively.

And then there’s Nick Howard, who plays shortstop and third base when he’s not pitching. Howard stands 6-3 and weighs 215 pounds. Not every player in the lineup has that stature — see 5-11, 185-pound Kenny Towns — but size can be an asset, O’Connor knows.

“The physicality of a player is important, to be able to endure an entire season,” O’Connor said. “That’s why all you see the guys playing on TV in the big leagues, they’re physical specimens. And the pro people like these guys too, because when you’re playing 160 ball games in professional baseball, it’s a grind, and the more physical you are, the better you hold up.

“You look at our lineup, 3 through 7, and you’re talking about big, physical but most importantly athletic guys that can run. They can last longer, they’re better late in the season. When you’re not as physically gifted, your body wears down quicker throughout an entire season.”

Associate head coach Kevin McMullan is also UVa’s recruiting coordinator. Neither McMullan nor O’Connor believes Virginia’s recruiting philosophy has changed significantly over the past decade. It’s hard to predict, McMullan said, the size of the players in a particular class who will have the skills that make them attractive to the Cavaliers.

However, McMullan said, when “you recruit, you want to look for some kids that are projectable kids” — for example, a 175-pounder with the frame to easily carry 190 pounds.

“You don’t go out and get a 5-5 guy and say, `This guy’s going to be 6-2,’ ” McMullan said.

As impressive as the size of many of his players, O’Connor said, is their athleticism, and that’s a priority in recruiting. The Wahoos target prospects who in the field “maybe can play a few different positions,” O’Connor said.

“Every one of those guys that plays for us in the outfield, every one of them could play center field. I’d have complete confidence in putting [Fisher, Papi or McCarthy] there.

“That means they all can run. They also happen to be physical guys. They’re all 6-2, 6-3, they all happen to be able to hit the ball out of the ballpark, they’re all middle-of-the-lineup kind of guys. They could all play center field, so they all cover good territory in the outfield. And so it’s been a conscious effort of recruiting guys that don’t just hit. They can run, they can get down the baseline, they can be valuable players every day, even if they’re not getting two hits and driving in runs.”

The elite Division I athlete who played multiple sports in high school athlete may be a vanishing breed, but it’s not extinct. O’Connor’s program includes such examples as McCarthy, Downes, Papi, Young, Jared King, Whit Mayberry and Rob Bennie, and the ‘Hoos are always looking for more.

McCarthy, the ACC freshman of the year, also starred in football and basketball at Scranton High in Pennsylvania. Downes played quarterback and defensive back at South Plainfield High in New Jersey. Papi was an all-conference basketball player at Tunkhannock High in Pennsylvania, and Young was a three-year letter-winner in hoops at Atlee High in Mechanicsville.

O’Connor starred in baseball, basketball and football in high school. McMullan played football and baseball at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

Noting that former UVa baseball greats Steven Proscia and John Hicks were also football standouts in high school, McMullan said, “We do like those guys. A lot of times parents ask us if we’re going to ask their sons not to play football. It’s funny, because we respond, `If he doesn’t play football, this opportunity at Virginia is not going to be there for him.’ We like those guys that like to compete.”

O’Connor agreed.

“I’ve always said that if I have a choice between the same player, and one played high school football and one didn’t, I will always choose the guy that played football,” he said. (Joe McCarthy is a great example of that. There’s a toughness and a competitiveness that comes from that that I love, and I think that’s part of what makes him the player that he is.

“That being said, in today’s day and age, there’s not many guys out there that are doing it, because baseball’s become a year-round sport. They play in the fall, the spring and the summer, and they’re training in the winter.”

To enhance the players’ natural size and athleticism, the coaching staff emphasizes weight training. That’s contributed to the program’s extraordinary success under O’Connor. The `Hoos have made 10 consecutive trips to the NCAA tournament and, with two victories this weekend over Mississippi State, would advance to the College World Series for the third time.

“It starts at the top, and both Kevin and Brian since I’ve gotten here have been all about the weight room,” said Ed Nordenschild, UVa’s director of strength and conditioning. “That gets translated to the athletes, and they take it and run. I don’t think it takes much to get guys to believe in the weight room.”

McMullan said: “I love our plan in the weight room. I love the way Ed handles our guys. He’s a teacher. He’s going to teach them techniques. He doesn’t just throw weight on the bar. It’s fundamental. It’s technical. It’s a reflection of a lot of the things we do with our players. It’s a seamless transition [from the weight room to the field].”

The benefits of weight training are many, Nordenschild said.

Bigger, stronger players are “a little more injury-resistant, for sure,” he said. “They have better armor, so to speak. And to be honest, that’s the biggest reason why any athlete should hit the weight room: injury prevention. After that it’s performance enhancement. But their performance becomes secondary if they’re injured. If they’re sitting on the bench, they can’t help us.”

Silverstein is a fifth-year senior, but players such as McCarthy, Howard, Fisher, Papi, Downes and Sborz will be back next year, so the `Hoos won’t lose much size or athleticism. If anything, they may be more imposing after the incoming recruits arrive.

“We got some more of them coming that are really good athletes,” O’Connor said.

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