By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — He grew up around the diamond, so it’s no surprise baseball became Nate Eikhoff’s sport of choice. When he was young, his mother coached softball at Kell High School in Marietta, Georgia.
When her team practiced, Nate would often be nearby.
“When she was coaching, I was in the press box hanging out, watching the baseball team practice right next to [the softball field],” Eikhoff recalled. “I’ve loved the game ever since I started playing.”
Born in San Diego, California, where his father was stationed in the U.S. Navy, Eikhoff moved with his family to Georgia as an infant. When he was about 8 years old, the family moved to Lexington, South Carolina. Three years later, the Eikhoffs relocated to Prince William County in Virginia, and they’ve lived in Bristow, near Manassas, ever since.
After his sophomore year at Patriot High School, Eikhoff committed to play baseball at UVA. “It was pretty much a no-brainer,” he said. “This was the best offer, baseball and school-wise.”
He started 22 games as a freshman in 2016 and 32 last year. Eikhoff’s third college season begins Friday at a tournament in Orlando, Florida, where 15th-ranked Virginia meets host UCF, which is ranked No. 22, at 6:30 p.m.
The 5-11, 190-pound Eikhoff is expected to start at first base against Central Florida. He split time at first, third and designated hitter in 2017.
“He’ll hit in different spots in the lineup that he has in the past,” said Kevin McMullan, UVA’s associate head coach. “We’ll need production from him.”
Before returning home, the Cavaliers will play twice more in Orlando, taking on Samford at 1 p.m. Saturday and Rice at 10 a.m. Sunday.
“I think it’s going to be a great year,” Eikhoff said. “Some rookies have really established themselves as people that can be in key roles right from the get-go, which has been really impressive.”
Virginia’s home opener is Tuesday afternoon against VMI at Davenport Field, which is in the midst of an $18.76 million renovation.
“It’s awesome,” Eikhoff said of the project. “I remember getting back from the [NCAA] regional [in Fort Worth, Texas] last year, and the ground was torn up already, and they had already started. And then we got back from summer ball, and they were putting the foundation down, and now it feels like it went up just like that.”
The home opener should have “a special atmosphere,” Eikhoff said, “especially for all the guys that are returning.”
For the Wahoos’ newcomers, the setting figures to “really open their eyes to how grateful they should be for this opportunity to be here,” Eikhoff said.
After hitting .278 for the ‘Hoos last season, Eikhoff headed north to the New England Collegiate Baseball League in the summer. He played for the Keene (N.H.) Swamp Bats, as did two of his UVA teammates, pitchers Bobby Nicholson and Riley Wilson.
The experience was fantastic, said Eikhoff. He was named an NECBL All-Star and hit .371 (43 for 116), with 24 RBI, in 28 games.
“I don’t really get caught up in [summer-league] numbers,” McMullan said, Virginia’s associate head coach. “I get caught up in the quality of contact.”
Eikhoff, who bats left-handed, has always acquitted himself well at the plate. “That has been what’s carried me to get here so far,” he said.
McMullan said: “I think he has natural hand-eye coordination. Fundamentally, he understands what [pitchers] are going to do to him. I think he had that from the get-go.”
But McMullan, who’s in his 15th season on head coach Brian O’Connor‘s staff at UVA, said he’s seen a difference in Eikhoff this year.
“He’s made a jump mentally,” McMullan said. “Everybody’s window of maturation is a little different, but he’s much more mature handling himself, which is probably the biggest breakthrough for most players. He’s able to handle a lot more quality information, and that’ll keep him prepared.”
In the field, Eikhoff will likely divide his time between first and third, McMullan said. On defense, Eikhoff acknowledged, “I’ve had to work harder [than as a hitter]. It’s been a learning experience, especially coming here. Where I was when I got here versus where I am now is night and day, I feel like, defensively.
“It’s reps, but it’s also practicing the right way and focusing on the little things, the fundamentals. You have to constantly practice [fielding] with the right fundamentals, because the one rep that you do with bad fundamentals, you have to put in 10 times more so that your muscle doesn’t remember that.”
McMullan said: “I think when he got here, he had all the skills you’d want. He had to improve his fundamentals. I think that’s where his maturation has come in. He’s taking to heart the information we’ve shared with him from Day One.
“He has really matured in the last 10 months. He was always coachable. I just think the light went on. Now it’s fun, and we’re on the same page.”
Eikhoff appeared in 40 games as a freshman, when he hit .284, and 46 last year, when he hit .278. He hopes to be in the lineup every day this season.
“That’s been the goal ever since I got here,” Eikhoff said. “You want to establish yourself as somebody that’s relied upon and be in that lineup every day to help the team win.”
He has no objection to taking swings as a designated hitter, but Eikhoff prefers to play in the field. “It’s better when you’re constantly moving around in the field, versus DH-ing,” he said. “It helps keep your body moving and your body hot throughout the game.”
He’s not the only athlete in his family. His mother, the former Christie Camp, played softball at Georgia Tech before getting into coaching. His father, who attended Georgia State, swam and played golf growing up.
Eikhoff has two siblings. His older brother, Tyler, now a U.S. Marine, was a promising baseball player in high school. Their younger brother, Riley, stars in baseball at Patriot High School.
At UVA, Eikhoff majors in sociology. Might he follow his big brother and their father into the military one day?
“It’s always an option,” Eikhoff said. “I’ve thought about it. It really depends on where I am [with baseball] when I leave here.”
He feels privileged to be part of one of college baseball’s premier programs. Under O’Connor, who’s in his 15th season, the ‘Hoos have made 14 trips to the NCAA tournament, with four appearances at the College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska. Virginia won the NCAA title in 2015 and was runner-up in 2014.
“With the atmosphere, the camaraderie, and the coaching staff, it’s been great,” said Eikhoff, who lives with teammates Chesdin Harrington and Wilson.
In 2016, the Cavaliers’ season ended at the NCAA regional in Charlottesville. In 2017, when they were sent to Fort Worth, again they didn’t advance past the NCAA tournament’s opening weekend.
“It definitely leaves a sick feeling in your stomach when you’re that close to getting [to a super regional] and you come up short,” Eikhoff said. “It really pushes you to take that extra step and do that extra rep and put in that extra effort to get there the next year.”