By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Never mind the snow that’s covering Central Virginia. Where the NCAA calendar is concerned, spring has sprung at UVa.
In softball, Virginia has already played five games; in men’s lacrosse, two; in women’s lacrosse, one.
In tennis, the UVa women opened their spring season Jan. 15. The men’s team played its first dual match nine days later.
Two more Cavalier teams will open this weekend: women’s golf at the Florida State Match-Up, Friday through Sunday in Tallahassee; and baseball at the Hughes Bros. Challenge, Friday through Sunday in Wilmington, N.C.
“We’re excited to get things going,” baseball coach Brian O’Connor said Monday at Davenport Field.
O’Connor’s club, which won 50 games and advanced to the NCAA super regional last year, enters the season ranked No. 1 nationally by Baseball America and Perfect Game.
“Obviously the polls are nice,” junior outfielder Derek Fisher said, “but you gotta do it [on the field].”
O’Connor said: “I told the players, `It’s an honor. You should feel good about it. You should be excited. I’m excited.’ ”
However, he added, the rankings are meaningless once the games begin. O’Connor knows his team is deep and talented, but it has yet to be tested. The Wahoos will play three games in North Carolina this weekend — against Kentucky on Friday, VMI on Saturday and host UNC Wilmington on Sunday — and O’Connor believes the experience will be invaluable for them.
“We need to find out where we’re at,” he said. “Certainly we know we have experience, we know we have talent. How we handle difficult points in the ballgame is yet to be determined. Hopefully we come out of the weekend on a good, positive note and continue to move forward.”
The Cavaliers’ veterans include juniors Brandon Downes, Mike Papi, Branden Cogswell, Nate Irving, Kenny Towns, Nick Howard and Fisher, and sophomore Joe McCarthy, the ACC freshman of the year in 2013.
Howard, who played third base and shortstop last season when he wasn’t pitching, is the leading candidate to replace Kyle Crockett as Virginia’s closer this season. UVa’s starters this weekend will be sophomores: Brandon Waddell on Friday, Nathan Kirby on Saturday and Josh Sborz on Sunday.
O’Connor expects the rotation to evolve throughout the season. Pitching coach Karl Kuhn’s other options include seniors Whit Mayberry, Artie Lewicki and Austin Young, sophomore David Rosenberger and Cameron Tekker, and freshman Jack Roberts and Connor Jones.
“I don’t believe how we start the season will be anywhere near where we are in the middle or the end of the year,” O’Connor said. “Last year we started with the three starters of Waddell, [Scott] Silverstein and Howard, and it stayed that way all the way through. I don’t anticipate that being the case this year, and I think that’s good. I think they’re all going to challenge each other to bring the best out.
“Once we are able to get more narrowed and we’ve got a good sample size to decide how consistent these guys are going to be, then I think that strengthens us, because then it can put guys in more defined roles in our bullpen. I think our pitching will only get better as the year goes on, because it will get more defined.”
Jones, a 6-3, 200-pound right-hander from Great Bridge High in Chesapeake, is the most heralded member of the first-year class. O’Connor also expects freshmen Matt Thaiss (catcher/DH), Daniel Pinero (infield) and Tony Butler (infield) to contribute this season.
O’Connor isn’t the only UVa coach with a top-ranked team this spring. Brian Boland, one of O’Connor’s neighbors, guided the Cavaliers to the NCAA men’s tennis title in 2013, and they remain atop the ITA rankings.
In Seattle last February, Virginia won the ITA National Team Indoor title for the fifth time in six years. This year’s tournament is in Houston, and UVa meets ACC newcomer Notre Dame in the first round Friday.
Having ended years of frustration with their first NCAA championship, the `Hoos are eager to win another, Boland said. UVa has the talent to do so, with a lineup that includes seniors Alex Domijan and Justin Shane, junior Mitchell Frank, sophomores Mac Styslinger and Ryan Shane, and freshmen Thai-Son Kwiatkowski, Jordan Daigle and Luca Corinteli.
“The guys, I think, are hungry as ever,” Boland said. “I know the coaching staff is working harder and thinking more outside the box than ever. We really want to continue to bring this program to another level, and we feel like the next decade should be better than the last.”
It won’t be easy, Boland knows.
“Teams want to beat us,” he said. “We’re the hunted. I think that’s a great place to be in, but you have to be ready, and you better respect the kind of commitment that others are going to make to try to beat you and knock you off the top of the mountain.”
The UVa women’s tennis team climbed to No. 10 in the latest ITA rankings. The Cavaliers were No. 14 heading into last week’s ITA National Team Indoors at the Boar’s Head Sports Club.
Virginia, which opened the tournament with a 4-2 loss to top-seeded Florida, bounced back to defeat Texas A&M 4-0 and Alabama 4-1.
“Very, very important,” UVa coach Mark Guilbeau called the victories. “It gives the team some momentum. I think the most important thing may have been Friday night [versus Florida], playing at that level against one of the best teams in the country. We know we’re right there.”
This was the fourth straight year Virginia has hosted the ITA National Women’s Team Indoors. In 2013, the `Hoos lost all three of their matches at the tourney.
“It maybe hurt us more than we let on,” Guilbeau said Wednesday, though Virginia ended up advancing to the NCAA tournament’s round of 16.
Next up for his team is a rematch with Alabama, Saturday in Tuscaloosa. That’s also the day UVa will play its home opener in women’s lacrosse. Virginia is scheduled to meet Loyola (Md.) at 1 p.m., probably at the University Hall Turf Field due to the snow.
This will be the opener for the Greyhounds, who are ranked No. 9 in the latest IWLCA coaches poll. The No. 6 Cavaliers (0-1) are coming off a 13-12 loss to fourth-ranked Northwestern in Kennesaw, Ga.
The Wildcats, who have captured seven of the past nine NCAA titles, scored the game-winner with 16.7 seconds Sunday.
“It was definitely hard to come in and play as hard as we did and come up short,” UVa coach Julie Myers said Wednesday. “I think that effort against any other team in the country probably would have been enough.”
The `Hoos weren’t interested in a “moral victory,” Myers said. Still, she noted, they’re keeping the loss in perspective.
“I think we have a lot to look forward to and a lot to work with,” she said. “We talked to the team, and we said we’re a Final Four team if we keep coming together and keep working hard. But we need to make sure we’re working super-hard to be able to back it up.”
UVa picked up 26 groundballs in the opener, to 16 for Northwestern, and outshot the Wildcats 36-23.
“I loved that we really created opportunities,” Myers said. “Our hearts were in it. We just needed one more save or one more goal.”
In men’s lacrosse, the seventh-ranked Cavaliers (2-0) meet Drexel at 1 p.m. Saturday in Philadelphia. Virginia’s leading scorer is sophomore attackman James Pannell, the reigning ACC offensive player of the week.
Pannell has totaled eight goals and two assists, helping UVa defeat Loyola and Richmond.
In softball, UVa (1-4) was scheduled to play four games this weekend in Greensboro, N.C., but the tournament was cancelled Friday because of bad weather.
Virginia also will compete in men’s golf, rowing, and outdoor track and field this spring. Those teams’ seasons start March 10, March 15 and March 22, respectively.