July 20, 2013

By Jeff White (jwhite@virginia.edu)

CHARLOTTESVILLE — The baseball season ended June 10 for UVa, but head coach Brian O’Connor’s schedule hasn’t eased much.

As he does every summer, O’Connor has stayed busy recruiting, working camps, monitoring the performance of UVa players in summer leagues, welcoming first-year players to the University, dealing with recruits as the major league draft deadline approaches, and preparing for the coming school year.

O’Connor has also, as in summers past, had to dispel rumors linking him to other high-profile Division I jobs, speculation that’s perhaps not surprising, given the Cavaliers’ remarkable success during his tenure.

In 10 seasons under O’Connor, Virginia is 461-161-2. The Wahoos have won two ACC championships. They’ve played in the NCAA tournament every year and in 2009 and 2011 advanced to the College World Series in Omaha, Neb.

Virginia is one of only five programs to compete in an NCAA super regional in at least four of the past five seasons. UVa has totaled 245 victories over the past five seasons — the most of any Division I program.

“When you have the success that this program has had over 10 years, there’s always speculation and rumors out there about myself and our assistant coaches connected to other job openings,” O’Connor said in his office at Davenport Field.

O’Connor, who has three years left on his latest contract, said in no uncertain terms Friday morning that he plans to be at Virginia in 2013-14 and beyond.

“This is the best job in the country,” he said.

Also back for their 11th years at UVa, O’Connor said, will be associate head coach Kevin McMullan and pitching coach Karl Kuhn.

“I’m here to tell you that we all feel as a staff that this is one of the best programs in the country,” O’Connor said, “and we have the opportunity to win ACC championships and national championships here at UVa.”

The Cavaliers finished 50-12 this year after losing to Mississippi State in an NCAA super regional at Davenport Field. O’Connor’s club began the season unranked in many polls, but that won’t be the case in 2014. UVa already is being touted as one of the favorites to make it to Omaha next year, and the high expectations don’t bother O’Connor.

“I think it’s great,” he said. “We should be. Based on the talent that we have returning, that doesn’t surprise me at all. We’ve got a really experienced team, especially position player-wise, returning.

“We’ll have to find a closer. We’ll have to find another [starting pitcher] or two, depending on what we do with Nick Howard, but we have some good options coming in. This team is very similar to the way it was in 2010 and 2011, when the expectations were really high.”

Four UVa recruits were picked in last month’s Major League draft, and one of them, left-handed pitcher Austin Nicely, signed with the Houston Astros. The other three — right-handed pitcher Connor Jones, infielder Daniel Pinero and catcher Matt Thaiss — will enroll at Virginia as planned for 2013-14.

Ideally, O’Connor said, the `Hoos would never lose recruits to pro baseball, and “we didn’t lose any [in 2012]. But we’re recruiting a high-caliber player that the professional people are interested in too, and they should be.”

Of the nine freshmen who will join the program in 2013-14, six are already at UVa for summer school, O’Connor said. The exceptions are Thaiss and pitchers Jack Roberts and Ben Carraway.

Roberts and Carraway are more familiar with the University than most newcomers. Each has an older brother — Will Roberts and Andrew Carraway, respectively — who starred in O’Connor’s program.

Roberts, a recent graduate of James River High in Chesterfield County, went 6-1 with a 1.04 earned-run average this year. He’s considered one of the jewels of a recruiting class headed by Jones, a graduate of Chesapeake’s Great Bridge High who last month was named Group AAA player of the year.

Jones and Roberts could play key roles as freshmen.

“They both have really good arms and good frames,” O’Connor said. “But you know, once they get here there’s an adjustment period, because the game is so much more detailed and so much faster. People can do things on the bases that they couldn’t do in high school, and there’s a lot from a managing-the-game standpoint that they’ve never had to deal with it. But certainly they have the kind of stuff, the kind of arms to make immediate contributions. I think a couple of the other guys in that class could as well.”

Those players include Pinero, who’s from Canada; Thaiss, from New Jersey; outfielder Tyler Allen, from Powhatan High; and infielder Tony Butler, from Wisconsin. The freshman class also includes pitchers Alec Bettinger (Northern Virginia) and Adam Bleday (Pennsylvania).

“When you have a team with the talent, position player-wise, like we have moving into next year, there’s going to be great competition,” O’Connor said.

The Cavaliers averaged 7.9 runs per game this season. Of the 10 players who appeared in more than 30 games, each hit at least .284. Six of them hit better than .300.

Virginia returns eight players who started at least 47 games: outfielders Mike Papi, Joe McCarthy, Brandon Downes and Derek Fisher (who was used extensively at designated hitter), catcher Nate Irving, shortstop Branden Cogswell and infielders Howard and Kenny Towns. Howard, who started 12 games on the mound, began the season at third base when he wasn’t pitching and then moved to short after Cogswell suffered a late-season injury.

O’Connor will have to replace only two starters in the field: second baseman Reed Gragnani (.304) and first baseman Jared King (.288). Among those competing for the job at second will be rising sophomores John LaPrise and George Ragsdale and freshmen Pinero and Butler.

Towns distinguished himself at first base in an ACC tournament game that King missed because of an illness, and he’s one of several possibilities at that position. Others Cavaliers who have experience at first base are Papi, McCarthy and Howard.

“We have a chance this coming year to have a lot of versatility and options that I don’t feel like we’ve had in a couple of years,” O’Connor said. “So we’ll look at the options this fall.”

Howard, a right-hander, went 6-4 with a 3.38 ERA. He hit .323 with 38 RBI.

“Certainly we’ve got to find a way to get these different guys in the lineup,” O’Connor said.

He emphasized that Virginia’s freshmen will have “an opportunity to show what they can do. And you know what? They might beat somebody out. [In 2005], Mike Campagna played every game for us at shortstop, and the next year he started five games, because there was a guy” — Greg Miclat — “that came in and beat him out.”

On the mound, UVa must replace All-America closer Kyle Crockett, who signed last month with the Cleveland Indians. Crockett went 4-1 with a 1.70 ERA this season. The `Hoos also lost starter Scott Silverstein (10-2, 3.15), but they return such pitchers as Howard, Nathan Kirby, Brandon Waddell, David Rosenberger, Josh Sborz, Whit Mayberry, Artie Lewicki and Austin Young.

“UCLA showed that you can win the national championship if you have superior pitching,” O’Connor said. “So hopefully we’ll be better even better on the mound than we were this year, and we really had a great year on the mound.”

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