By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — During his May 12 postgame press conference, UVa baseball coach Brian O’Connor sat at the front of Davenport Field’s Hall of Fame Room and looked ahead to 2016.
“It was just good to see everybody chip in and win your final home game, for our fans,” O’Connor told a handful of reporters after Virginia edged Richmond 8-6. “We won’t be playing back here till next year, so it’s good to win that game.”
It turns out, of course, that O’Connor was mistaken. That doesn’t bother him in the slightest. He’s thrilled, as are Virginia fans, that his team will play at least two more games at home this season.
The best-of-three NCAA super regional between UVa (37-22) and Maryland (42-22) begins Friday at 4 p.m. at Davenport Field.
ESPNU will televise the opener, as well as Game 2, which will start Saturday at 3 p.m. If a third game is necessary, it will start Sunday at 3 p.m. and be shown on ESPNU or ESPN2.
This marks the second straight year these former ACC rivals will meet in the NCAA tournament’s round of 16. In 2014, the Wahoos clobbered the Terrapins 11-2 at Davenport Field in the third and final game of their super regional. That sent the `Hoos to the College World Series in Omaha, Neb., where they lost to Vanderbilt in the championship series.
Like Maryland, UVa began this NCAA tourney as a No. 3 seed in a four-team regional in California.
In Lake Elsinore, where the host was top-seeded UC Santa Barbara, the `Hoos went 3-0. Virginia knocked off fourth-seeded San Diego once and second-seeded Southern California twice to advance to a super regional for the sixth time in seven years.
UCLA, the tournament’s No. 1 overall seed, hosted the Los Angeles regional. Maryland went 3-1 in L.A., beating Mississippi once and UCLA twice, the final victory coming late Monday night.
“They’re a very talented team,” Virginia junior Joe McCarthy said of the Terps, first-year members of the Big Ten.
“I haven’t really had a chance to sit down and look at them as a whole. I did catch that last game against UCLA where they clinched. They’re a good team. They have some good returning players from last year, some good new talent on the team. We’re going to have to be at our best to beat `em this weekend.”
Had the Bruins won Monday night, UVa would have remained in California for a super regional in Los Angeles. Instead, the Cavaliers flew home Tuesday on an NCAA-arranged charter they shared, to limit expenses, with the Terps. And now they’re preparing to host a super regional at a stadium where they’ve played only 21 games this season.
Because of inclement weather and field conditions, 13 games scheduled for Davenport Field during the regular season were canceled, postponed or moved to other sites.
“You start on this journey in the NCAA tournament, and certainly you don’t know how many twists and things it’s going to take, but we’re really excited to be back here in Charlottesville,” said O’Connor, who has guided Virginia to the College World Series three times, in 2009, ’11 and ’14.
“What’s great about this tournament is you play well, some things happen [with teams] you’re matched up with, and all of the sudden you’re getting a chance to come back for a super regional and play here again at Davenport Field.”
When he addressed media members May 12 after his team’s final regular-season game, O’Connor knew there was a chance, however slim, that Virginia could play at home on the NCAA tournament’s second weekend. Back then, though, the `Hoos were not assured a spot in the ACC tournament, let alone the NCAAs. And so O’Connor didn’t believe it would have been appropriate to mention the possibility of hosting a super regional.
“So many things needed to happen,” he said Wednesday.
The Cavaliers took care of their end. First, they closed the regular season with a three-game sweep of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. The `Hoos stumbled in the ACC tourney, losing three straight after winning a play-in game, but still received an invitation to the NCAA tournament for the 12th consecutive season.
Even then, however, UVa was a long shot to host a super regional.
“Not that we couldn’t go win a regional, because certainly we’ve showed we’re capable of doing that,” O’Connor said, but “the fact [was] that so many things have to fall in place in order for that to happen.
“I mean, the No. 1 overall national seed in the entire tournament had to get beat by a 3-seed at home for us to be able to do this.”
O’Connor smiled. “I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe somebody’s looking out for us.”
In Lake Elsinore, starting pitchers Connor Jones and Brandon Waddell dazzled on Friday and Saturday, respectively, with closer Josh Sborz finishing each game. In Game 3, against USC, Virginia fell behind 9-5 but, thanks in no small part to the pitching of reliever David Rosenberger, rallied for a 14-10 victory in 11 innings.
O’Connor has had more talented teams in his 12 seasons at Virginia, but this one stands out in other ways.
“These guys have really found a way to come together and play for each other,” O’Connor said. “It’s been a really fun group to coach, because it’s been a very, very loose group. I’ve learned as a coach a lot from them, because they really haven’t panicked. We went into the NCAA tournament, and we were not supposed to win this last weekend, and we are not supposed to be where we’re at right now, according to the people that select the tournament.”
A team with nothing to lose, O’Connor said, is especially dangerous. A team that’s expected to advance to Omaha, as UVa was in 2014, must contend with considerable pressure.
“Last year we were one of the top teams in the country all year,” O’Connor recalled. “We host a regional. We’re one of the national seeds. We host a super regional. We are supposed to advance. We are supposed to compete for the national championship. So [these are] two very, very different teams in terms of what they’ve experienced.”
McCarthy said the Cavaliers never doubted they could win in Lake Elsinore.
“So going out there we were excited just to have a chance to be able to play,” he said. “We really got after it, and fortunately the chips just happened to fall into place, and now we’re back here hosting a super regional.”
Mechanical problems with their charter plane delayed the Cavaliers’ departure from Los Angeles on Tuesday, and then they had to bus back to Charlottesville from Dulles airport in Northern Virginia. It was around 5 a.m. Wednesday when the team disembarked at Davenport Field.
O’Connor acknowledged that sharing a plane with the Terps was less than ideal for his team.
The two coaching staffs are close, and there was no tension on the plane. Still, O’Connor said, “just the fact that here you’re going to be competing against each other in two days, and you’re on the same flight, was a little bit different.”
It proved to be “a challenging day,” O’Connor said. “But the players will deal with that, and we’ll move forward.”
That’s how the Cavaliers have handled adversity all year, from the injuries to McCarthy, John La Prise, Nathan Kirby, Robbie Coman, Derek Casey and Jack Gerstenmaier, among others, to a brutal winter that wreaked havoc on the team’s early-season schedule.
“Certainly there were challenges throughout the season,” O’Connor said. “It’s because we’ve experienced so much success in this program, year after year, and the expectations are so high. You love that, but it certainly presents its challenges for the players to manage that and manage their emotions and try to manage getting through a season and giving ourselves the opportunity [to advance in the postseason].
“So certainly there were very, very trying times for our coaches, for our players, but it just shows what they’re made of, and it shows what a young college athlete that’s 18 to 22 can do if they just hang in there and they stay together, and this group has certainly done that.”
STATUS UNCERTAIN: Kirby, an All-ACC pitcher, has not pitched since April 17, when he strained his left latissimus dorsi muscle. The junior left-hander had a throwing session Tuesday at USC before Virginia head home, and “he looked good,” O’Connor said Wednesday.
Whether Kirby will be available this weekend will be up to UVa’s medical staff, O’Connor said, and “in no way right now has any kind of decision been made on it.”
Kirby is 5-2 this season with a 2.28 earned-run average.