June 19, 2014
CHARLOTTESVILLE — After Mike Papi’s two-out double lifted the UVa baseball team to a walk-off victory over Mississippi late Sunday night in Omaha, Neb., Tyler Wilson’s phone nearly overloaded with text messages.
A similar scene occurred two nights later after Daniel Pinero ended a 15-inning game with a sacrifice fly that gave Virginia another walk-off victory at TD Ameritrade Park, this one over TCU.
Wilson, a standout pitcher on the first two UVa teams to reach Omaha, did not object.
“It’s great,” Wilson said by phone from Trenton, N.J., where his professional team, the Bowie Baysox, was about to play Wednesday night.
For the third time in six seasons, UVa is where every Division I team wants to be in late June: at the College World Series in Omaha. After beating Ole Miss and TCU, the Wahoos are a win away from the CWS Finals, a best-of-three series that starts Monday night.
“I wish I could be there,” Wilson said, and he’s not alone.
No matter the era in which they played, former Cavaliers around the country are watching, rapt, as head coach Brian O’Connor‘s team pursues an NCAA title. Many of the baseball alumni already stay in regular contact with each other. During the NCAA tournament, though, the pace of communication accelerates.
“With social media now and Facebook and everything, we’re all still close through that,” said Ryan Gilleland, who lettered at Virginia in 1995, ’96, ’97 and ’98 and attends several games at Davenport Field each season. “But there’s definitely more activity on Facebook now.”
The Cavaliers’ postseason run “has been something great to rally around,” Bill Narleski said. “I got a whole email chain with some of my alumni baseball guys. We’ll be on email or texting back and forth all the time.”
Narleski, who lives in Basking Ridge, N.J., is a former team captain who lettered in 1984, ’85, ’86 and ’87, when UVa’s head coach was O’Connor’s predecessor, Dennis Womack.
In 1985, the `Hoos won 38 games and advanced to the NCAA tournament’s Atlantic Regional. In 1996, Virginia captured the ACC title and won 44 games, including three at the NCAA tourney’s South I Regional. But not until O’Connor took over — and the University increased its commitment to baseball — did the program gain national prominence.
In 11 seasons under O’Connor, the Cavaliers are 512-175-2 and have advanced to the NCAA tournament every year. UVa is one of only two teams to have reached an NCAA super regional in five of the past six seasons.
“It’s definitely something all of us alumni players are proud of,” said Gilleland, the head baseball coach at Jefferson Forest High outside Lynchburg.
“It’s truly been unbelievable, when you look at the transformation of [Davenport Field], and obviously the level of talent as well, and then being competitive year in and year out on a national level.”
Former UVa pitcher Shooter Starr marvels at the program’s accomplishments, too.
“Nothing makes me more proud than to see what these guys are doing on the field,” Starr said, “but also every time these guys are interviewed, the quality of kids is remarkable, and it makes me very proud to have touched the program in some way or form, and I know I’m not alone in that. And I know I’m not alone in the fact that we are thrilled to see what Brian and the team are doing.”
For his first three years at UVa, Starr played for Womack. Starr’s senior season, 2004, was O’Connor’s first at Virginia. Also new to the program that year were associate head coach Kevin McMullan and pitching coach Karl Kuhn, both of whom are still on O’Connor’s staff.
The Cavaliers’ success under O’Connor “does not surprise me one bit,” Starr said. “I remember our first meeting with Oak, and he and I talked about it last week, the day before they flew out to Omaha.”
Virginia announced O’Connor’s hiring in July 2003. Not long after, Starr recalled, O’Connor met with the players who were in town.
“He called a kind of impromptu meeting in the locker room, and the message was, `We’re not going to take a backseat to anybody,’ ” Starr said. “You wanted to run through a wall immediately.”
Practices that fall were challenging, “but we learned what it took to come together,” Starr said. “Those were critical turning points. And frankly, Dennis put the program in a fantastic place to take it to this level, so hats off to him, and I’m not surprised that we are where we are right now, to the point that we as fans and they as coaches and they as players, every entity is disappointed if we don’t make it this far, and that’s a great problem to have.”
Starr, who now lives in the D.C. area, worked for the Virginia Athletics Foundation after graduating from the University, and he devoted much of his time to the baseball program.
“One of the great experiences that I had at VAF was connecting with players from so many other generations,” Starr said. “And so I’ve got emails and text messages over and over and over again [from alumni] that played in the `70s and `80s and `90s, and what this team has done and what the program has done has brought every one of these different generations together, and it’s really, really pretty cool to see.
“People are now more engaged in getting back to Step Up to the Plate, people are more engaged in getting down to games during the season, people are following them on GameTracker all year long, so when you get to the NCAA tournament, that’s not the first time they’ve seen John La Prise or Nate Irving. They’ve been following them all year.”
The baseball alumni, Narleski said, are “very excited about what has been built there, and I think we’ve all played a part. We’ve all donated time, all donated money, and just want to see the program continue to succeed like this.
“It’s great to talk about it, and the fact that everybody knows about [UVa] in college baseball is great, too. They say, `Virginia’s got a great program.’ You didn’t have that in the `70s, `80s, `90s.”
Narleski graduated from UVa nearly two decades before O’Connor arrived. Even so, Narleski said, the staff has always made him feel part of the program.
“Any time I reach out, trying to make a connection, they’re quick with a note back, thanking you for support, and any time I’m down [in Charlottesville], we connect there,” Narleski said. “They’ve always been great. It’s good to see them, and I think the alumni feel like what [the coaching staff has] done in kind of putting us on the map is tremendous. I’m very proud. Everybody’s proud.”
That includes the players who in 2009 helped Virginia advance to the College World Series for the first time, a group that included Wilson, Danny Hultzen, John Hicks, Steven Proscia, Phil Gosselin, Keith Werman, Dan Grovatt, Jarrett Parker and Tyler Cannon, now a student assistant coach on O’Connor’s staff.
That was Wilson’s senior season. To follow the CWS as a fan, he said, isn’t easy.
“It’s much more stressful to watch than it is to play in it,” Wilson said. “You just want so badly for the guys on the team you know and the coaches you played for, to succeed. There are so many emotions running through you.”
Wilson is part of a text group that includes about a dozen former players, and their phones are rarely silent when the Cavaliers are on TV, as they will be Friday against Ole Miss at 8 p.m. Eastern. ESPN will carry the game.
“I think that just re-emphasizes the passion guys have for that team,” Williams said. “I think it’s rare so many guys want to come together and cheer for a team they’re no longer a part of. Everybody’s still fully engaged. It’s Wahoo Nation.”