May 26, 2014
By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Not only has Brian O’Connor never had a losing record in 11 seasons as UVa’s head baseball coach, he’s had only one team that finished fewer than 20 games above .500, and he’s never had a team that fell short of the NCAA tournament.
Given that remarkable run, days such as Monday — when Virginia was named the No. 3 national seed in the NCAA tourney — do not always elicit the response they once did.
“I think sometimes people associated with our program can take that for granted,” O’Connor said Monday afternoon at Davenport Field, a few minutes after the 64-team NCAA field was announced.
Along with South Carolina, UVa is one of only two schools to be selected to host an NCAA regional in each of the past five seasons. This will mark the eighth time the Wahoos have hosted an NCAA regional under O’Connor.
“We take tremendous pride in what we’ve accomplished,” All-ACC closer Nick Howard said Monday. “I think sometimes we take it for granted that we’re a host and a national seed, but I think that’s a great accomplishment in itself.”
The Cavaliers, who are seeking their third trip to the College World Series, received a national seed for the fourth time in five seasons. (Virginia was seeded No. 5 in 2010, No. 1 in ’11, and No. 6 last year).
“I think that we have something really special in college baseball going here,” said O’Connor, whose record at UVa is 505-174-2.
“We’ve tried every year just to be the model of consistency and give our team a chance to play at this time of the year and advance on. That’s all that we can do. And then we come out and we either do it or not. It’s worked, and I’m as proud of that as anything, the consistency that this program has lined up with year in and year out.”
The `Hoos learned Sunday night that they would host one of the 16 regionals on the tournament’s opening weekend. They learned Monday afternoon that, as expected, they had also been awarded one of the eight national seeds.
That assures the Cavaliers of hosting a best-of-three NCAA super regional should they win the double-elimination Charlottesville regional, which starts Friday at Davenport Field.
At 2 p.m., Virginia, the regional’s No. 1 seed, meets No. 4 seed Bucknell (30-19-1). At 7 p.m., No. 2 seed Arkansas (38-23) takes on No. 3 seed Liberty (41-16).
Friday’s losers will play an elimination game at 2 p.m. Saturday, and the winners will meet at 8 o’clock that night.
Of the other three teams at the regional, UVa has faced only one this season. Virginia defeated Liberty 8-2 at Davenport Field on May 7. The Flames piled up a program-record 23 Big South wins en route to the conference’s regular-season title.
“I was a little surprised that they were a 3 [seed], quite frankly,” O’Connor said, “because I think a lot of people across the country thought their rÃ©sumÃ© throughout the year deserved to be a 2. That makes it a tough regional when somebody like that, who’s played so well all year long, is a 3.”
In 2013, the Cavaliers went 3-0 in the Charlottesville regional, beating Army once and Elon twice, before losing to Misssissippi State in a super regional at Davenport Field.
Most of the key players from that UVa team are still in the lineup, among them sophomore Joe McCarthy and juniors Howard, Mike Papi, Derek Fisher, Brandon Downes, Branden Cogswell, Nate Irving and Kenny Towns.
“To get that close to our goal of Omaha and to fall short, I think it’s definitely great motivation for this team,” Howard said Monday. “A lot of the guys experienced that last year, and I think we’re definitely using that to motivate us to get through that and break down that door.”
Virginia, one of seven ACC teams in the NCAA field, won its first 11 series this weekend. The 12th series fell on the final weekend of the regular season, and Wake Forest took two of three games from UVa in Winston-Salem.
The ACC tournament followed in another North Carolina city, and the `Hoos went 1-2 in Greensboro, losing to Maryland and Florida State and beating North Carolina.
Virginia’s bullpen struggled in Greensboro, and pitching coach Karl Kuhn reminded his charges Monday, in no uncertain terms, that they cannot afford a repeat this weekend. O’Connor said he remains confident in his relievers.
“We’ve got guys out of our bullpen that have done the job all year long,” he said. “Certainly there will be some things that are adjusted. I don’t know what those are yet, but we’re in the position that we’re in right there, hosting an NCAA regional, and a lot of it’s due to what those guys have done on the mound.”
O’Connor said it’s “important for our players and coaches to really not over-analyze what has transpired the last couple weeks, because we’ve got a great ball club and a ball club that people that make decisions across the country think has the ability to advance on and compete for a national championship. What we have to do as coaches and players is just put the last weekend behind us. We’ve got a great ball club. We’ve done a good job of handling that adversity all year, and we have the talent to do it. We’ve just got to go out and relax and play.”
Howard said: “This is definitely one of the most exciting times. The regular season, our body of work, it all leads us up to this point.”
How the `Hoos fare in the NCAA tournament, O’Connor acknowledged, will determine to a large degree how their season is remembered. Such is the case with elite programs, whose regular-season feats, fairly or not, can be forgotten.
“I think that’s unfortunate, but that’s the reality of college athletics at this level, and college baseball,” O’Connor said. “We understand what’s at stake every year that it comes this time of year, and it’s a matter of us just going out and playing good baseball for one weekend, and it starts Friday afternoon against Bucknell, and then we advance on from there.”