By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — The Ernie Clement Fan Club includes the thousands of supporters who follow University of Virginia baseball from the chill of February through the heat of June. It also has members whose connection to the Cavaliers isn’t as readily apparent.
Take soccer legend Abby Wambach, the all-time leading scorer for the United States national women’s team. From her Twitter account (@AbbyWambach), she tweeted this out to her more than 600,000 Twitter followers last June 15 after Virginia’s 1-0 win over Florida at the College World Series in Omaha, Neb.:
Even though you beat my gators â€ª@Ernieclem i wanted to send a congrats!! â€ª@shuffman14 went to UVA so i guess I’ll cheer for you 😉 â€ª#cwsfinals
A former Florida star, Wambach is from Rochester, N.Y., as is Clement, and her spouse is former UVA soccer star Sarah Huffman. There are other ties.
Wambach’s parents “are best friends with my grandparents,” Clement said Thursday at Davenport Field. “They both live down in Florida, and they always go out to dinner and stuff, and Abby and I have exchanged messages on Twitter. She’s the best.”
Clement, a graduate of Brighton High in Rochester, was not a heralded recruit when he entered UVA in the summer of 2014. In high school, he’d distinguished himself as much in hockey as in baseball. But he quickly won over the Cavaliers’ coaching staff, and then Clement rewarded their faith in him last season, starting 61 of the 62 games in which he played: 22 in center field and 39 at second base.
His statistics belied his value on a team that won the first NCAA title in program history. Clement batted a modest .245, with 22 RBI, but he had the go-ahead hit in three of the Wahoos’ 10 wins in the NCAA tournament. He batted .292 in Omaha and was named to the All-CWS team.
“He was very, very clutch for us down the stretch run,” UVA head coach Brian O’Connor recalled Thursday, “so that shows me the type of person he is and the type of player he is, with his ability to perform at the most important time.”
In Game 2 of the CWS Finals, Clement went 3 for 4 and drove in what proved to be the game-winning run. His most memorable postseason at-bat, though, came at Davenport Field in the second game of Virginia’s NCAA super regional with Maryland.
In the bottom of the ninth inning, before a sellout crowd of 5,001, Clement, UVA’s No. 9 hitter, came to the plate with the bases loaded and none out. The `Hoos, who had rallied to win the opening game of the best-of-three series, trailed 4-3, but not for long.
Clement smacked a breaking ball down the left-field line, scoring Thomas Woodruff and Joe McCarthy and sending the `Hoos to the College World Series for the second straight year and fourth time in seven seasons.
“This is the greatest feeling ever,” Clement said afterward.
His second NCAA tournament begins Friday, when top-seeded Virginia (37-20) meets No. 4 seed William & Mary (29-29) at 11 a.m. in the first game of the four-team regional at Davenport Field. No. 2 seed Bryant (47-10) and third-seeded East Carolina (34-21-1) are scheduled to play at 4 p.m. (The start of each game was pushed up two hours because of the weather forecast.)
Junior right-hander Alec Bettinger (2-5, 5.69 ERA) will start for the Cavaliers. The Tribe will go with junior right-hander Daniel Powers (8-5, 3.96), who made the All-Colonial Athletic Association third team.
“Alec’s pitched in a lot of big games for us in his career,” O’Connor said. “We have the utmost confidence in him. I think he’s the guy to get us off to a good start.”
The 6-0, 165-pound Clement will bat leadoff against W&M and play second base, his primary position this season. He’s thriving in both roles.
Clement, who moves to center when classmate Adam Haseley pitches, leads the ACC in hits (86) and is third in runs (59). He’s had at least one hit in 50 games and, with a .348 batting average, trails only junior catcher Matt Thaiss among Virginia players with more than 19 at-bats.
“Ernie Clement has made a huge jump forward from last season, one of the most meaningful for us in our program,” O’Connor said.
Clement credits his increased production to experience. “Just getting the reps and taking every day in practice as a game and just improving,” he said, “doing everything I can to help the team.”
From his strong play in the 2015 postseason, Clement gained considerable confidence “and carried it into this season,” O’Connor said.
“He has been as consistent for us as you could be … He’s very athletic. He’s versatile. He can play anywhere on the field, and it wouldn’t surprise me if at some point in his career here he plays shortstop, because he’s that athletic and that good of a player, and certainly he’s a key for us that makes us go.”
Junior Daniel Pinero, a three-year starter at shortstop for the Cavaliers, is likely to turn pro after this season.
“Danny’s a great role model,” Clement said. “He works very hard, and I’d be very honored to take his spot. But wherever they put me, I’ll be happy to contribute and try to help the team.”
Of that group, Clement, Haseley and Smith were regulars last year too and played integral roles in Virginia’s run to the NCAA title. This spring, UVA looks to them for leadership as well as production.
“They’re certainly very, very talented,” O’Connor said. “They’re great kids. They’re competitors. They are most certainly veterans.”
Because of that, Clement feels better prepared for what awaits him in the NCAA tournament than in 2015, when Virginia was seeded No. 3 in the regional in Lake Elsinore, Calif.
“Last year I really didn’t know what to expect,” Clement said. “This year we’re a 1 seed, so we’ve got to go out there and play our game and get the job done. But I think there’s a little less pressure, because last year I didn’t really know what the whole playoff atmosphere was like. This year should be good.”
Last year’s tournament, of course, was spectacular for the `Hoos, whose performance in Omaha prompted this tweet from Wambach on June 25:
Shout out to â€ª@Ernieclem and your team on winning a national championship!!! Congrats!! â€ª#UVAfanbymarriage