June 1, 2017

By Jeff White (jwhite@virginia.edu)

FORT WORTH, Texas — The freshmen on the University of Virginia baseball team were finishing high school at this time last year, so this is all new to them. But they’re not the only Cavaliers who have never played in an NCAA tournament.

Among the UVA players who will make their debuts on this stage Friday at TCU’s Lupton Stadium are junior pitcher Derek Casey, junior catcher Caleb Knight and sophomore outfielder Jake McCarthy.

Casey suffered a season-ending elbow injury in April 2015 and missed all of last season, too, while recovering. Knight played for Connors State, a junior college in Oklahoma, in 2016. McCarthy, as a UVA freshman, tore ligaments in his right big toe in February 2016 and missed the rest of the season.

In the first game of this double-elimination NCAA regional, No. 2 seed Virginia (42-14) meets third-seeded Dallas Baptist University (40-19) on Friday at 4 p.m. Eastern. ESPNU will televise the first-ever meeting between UVA and DBU in this sport.

Top-seeded TCU (42-16) and fourth-seeded Central Connecticut State (36-20) will follow at 9 p.m. Eastern.

Casey, a 6-1, 195-pound right-hander, will start the opener for Virginia, which is in the NCAA tourney for the 14th consecutive season. When he signed with UVA as a senior at Hanover High School, Casey never expected he’d have to wait this long to pitch in the NCAA tournament, “but I got hurt and that’s just how it goes,” he said Thursday. “I didn’t really dwell on it for too long. I had to move on from it.”

While he was sidelined, Casey noted, he watched Nathan Kirby, Josh Sborz, Connor Jones, Brandon Waddell, a bunch of great pitchers … I think I have learned a lot from them. Although I haven’t been able to participate, I’m trying to take those lessons I’ve learned and put them in this year.”

In 2014, McCarthy accompanied his parents to Omaha, Nebraska, to cheer on his brother, Joe, in the College World Series. Joe was a sophomore outfielder for the Wahoos that season, and a year later, back in Omaha, he helped them capture the program’s first NCAA title.

“For anyone who plays this sport,” Jake McCarthy said Thursday, “this is the part of the year that you really look forward to. Obviously we’re competitive all year round, but this is where things really get fun. Not being able to play [in the NCAA tourney last year], I think I’m a little more excited than I would be initially. I’m looking forward to the opportunity.”

Knight is from Checotah, Oklahoma, about 235 miles northeast of Fort Worth, and he’ll have a large cheering section at Lupton Stadium this weekend.

“There should be a lot of family, friends and old coaches coming down, so I’m very excited about it,” Knight said Thursday.

After hitting .404, with 12 home runs, for Connors State in 2016, Knight transferred to UVA last summer. He was well aware of the Cavaliers’ postseason success under Brian O’Connor, who has guided them to the NCAA tournament in each of his 14 years as head coach.

“The tradition of this program is a big part of why I came here,” Knight said. “That’s what you live for: to come and play postseason baseball.”

Growing up in Checotah, a town of about 3,300 residents, Knight religiously followed the NCAA tournament.

“Every year I look forward to this, and after my high school season was over, I always looked forward to watching the college playoffs,” he said. “It’s been a dream of mine, and it’s awesome to finally be here and get to live it a little bit.”

Knight is hitting .337, with four homers and 20 RBI. McCarthy’s batting average is .339, and he has five homers and 35 RBI. He leads the team with 27 stolen bases and has been thrown out only twice.

McCarthy has become more dangerous at the plate as the season has progressed. After his first 25 games, he was hitting .291. Since then, he’s batted .380. In the past eight games, batting second in the Cavaliers’ lineup, McCarthy has hit .444, with two triples and three home runs.

“I just think the more experience I get, the more comfortable I’ll be,” McCarthy said. “I think I’ve been a little more aggressive this back half of the season, but nothing’s really changed in my approach. I think it’s just a combination of being around long enough and gaining some experience and then learning about myself as a player. This is the first time I’ve ever played 50 games. There’s a lot to learn, and I’ll continue to learn as [the season] goes on.”

Casey is 4-2 this with season, with a 3.78 earned-run average. O’Connor and pitching coach Karl Kuhn did not move Casey into UVA’s weekend rotation until early April, for a simple reason.

“He lacked experience, quite frankly,” O’Connor said. “He just hadn’t been out there throwing many innings in our uniform.”

From the start of the season, though, “I envisioned at some point him getting to the situation that he’s in now,” O’Connor said.

“I think once we made the move to him going on the weekend, he had a lot of confidence and was ready to do that. I’m just proud of the development he’s had through this year. He’s very poised out there, if you watch him pitch, and he just goes out there and executes and gives his team a chance to win.”

In his most recent start, against Duke in the ACC tournament, Casey went 5.1 innings, giving up two earned runs, walking two and striking out four.

“He pitched a fantastic ball game, I thought, last week,” O’Connor said, “so I’m looking forward to seeing him going out there and competing [against DBU]. I know his teammates are as well. We feel like he’s the right guy to get us off to a good start in this tournament.”

Casey faces a formidable challenge Friday. Dallas Baptist, which won the Missouri Valley Conference tournament last week, has six players hitting .320 or better and has totaled 84 home runs this season.

The Patriots are in the NCAA tournament for the fourth straight year and sixth time in seven seasons. This is the fourth consecutive season DBU has won at least 40 games.

“Certainly we’re very, very aware of the success Dallas Baptist has had in their program,” O’Connor said. “They’ve got an outstanding coach, very, very good players, impressive offensive numbers. Certainly we’re going to have to play well and execute tomorrow to have a chance to win the ball game. Our guys are looking forward to having that opportunity in front of them.”

Virginia’s veterans — a group that includes graduate student Robbie Coman, senior Alec Bettinger and juniors Adam Haseley, Pavin Smith and Ernie Clement — have extensive experience in the NCAA tournament.

Haseley’s advice for his less-seasoned teammates?

“I’d say the little things are definitely important,” Haseley said. “It’s essential to take each game one at a time. The worst thing you can do is look ahead and not take certain games seriously. Just the little things, each game and each pitch. It can change the whole game.”

The Cavaliers expect to be playing this time of year. The coaching staff reminds the players that “the work’s been done, the foundation’s been laid, and through the work that they’ve done and what they’ve accomplished to this point, now they get to enjoy what the opportunity is in front of them,” O’Connor said.

“We don’t make too big a thing of it. I don’t feel like these guys will feel pressure tomorrow. I don’t think they [have felt] pressure at NCAA tournament time for a number of years.”

Under O’Connor, the Cavaliers have made four appearances in the College World Series, twice reaching the best-of-three championship series. In two other seasons, the `Hoos advanced to NCAA super regionals before being ousted from the tournament.

Over the years, O’Connor said, he and his staff have learned valuable lessons about managing UVA’s players in the postseason.

“I think that’s been the biggest thing,” O’Connor said, “[to] look at it as this is a joyous opportunity to go out and compete and not feel under pressure.”

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