By Jeff White (

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — In the NCAA baseball tournament, a regional is sometimes a sprint. Other times it’s a marathon. The winner of a four-team, double-elimination regional can play as few as three games or as many as five.

Given that, the less stress put on a team’s pitching staff early in a regional, the better. And so the Virginia Cavaliers had reason to be pleased after the opening day of the NCAA regional at Disharoon Park.

Top-seeded UVA defeated fourth-seeded Penn 4-2 on Friday to advance to a much-anticipated showdown with second-seeded Mississippi State. The Cavaliers (42-15) will meet the Bulldogs (39-21) in the winners’ bracket at 6 p.m. Mississippi defeated third-seeded St. John’s 5-2 in 10 innings Friday night.

Against Ivy League champion Penn (24-24), Virginia used only two pitchers. Joe Savino, a graduate transfer from Elon, struck out eight batters in his 5.2 innings, both season highs, and junior Chase Hungate needed only 33 pitches to record the final 10 outs in front of an appreciative crowd of 5,802 on a picturesque late-spring afternoon.

“It’s always in the back of your head when you’re thinking of managing a game: Take care of what’s in front of you,” Virginia head coach Brian O’Connor said. “It takes what it takes, and we would have used whoever we needed to use to win today’s ball game, but you’re also [thinking] in the back of your mind that you’re in [the regional] to win it, and part of that is winning the first game, but it’s also knowing what you have in front of you as well.”


Savino, a 6-foot-4, 220-pound right-hander, was slowed by an elbow injury early in the season and didn’t make his debut as a Wahoo until April 2. His workload has steadily increased since then, and he allowed only three hits Friday.

“You gotta give him credit,” Penn head coach John Yurkow said. “He pitched today like a grad transfer. A lot of poise. He threw a ton of strikes and he really took advantage locating his fastball away early, and we just didn’t make enough adjustments.”

This marks the second straight year the Cavaliers’ pitching staff has included a graduate transfer from Elon. Last season it was Brian Edgington, who shined in the NCAA tournament and suggested to Savino, a good friend, that he seriously consider UVA. Savino couldn’t be happier with his decision.

“I can’t stop smiling,” Savino said. “This place is amazing. The crowd, the atmosphere, everything about it is amazing.”

Joe Savino

Savino hadn’t pitched in an NCAA tournament game before Friday. Hungate has more experience on this stage. As a freshman at VCU in 2022, he pitched against Georgia and North Carolina in the NCAA regional in Chapel Hill, N.C., and he threw a scoreless inning of relief for UVA last year in its regional win over Army at Disharoon Park.

Hungate is a 6-foot-1 right-hander, and his sidearm delivery kept the Quakers off balance Friday. He fanned three, walked none and allowed only one hit.

“Chase Hungate was outstanding,” O’Connor said. “Chase has done the job for this team all year long when we’ve been winning and it was time to go to him, and he was fantastic. Just pounded the strike zone and did what he does and executed.”

Savino and Hungate combined to hold Penn third baseman Wyatt Henseler, the Ivy League player of the year, hitless in four at-bats. Henseler, a senior, came in hitting .372 with 22 home runs.

“I just thought these guys did a great job of executing against him,” O’Connor said of Savino and Hungate, who joined their head coach at the postgame press conference. “It certainly had lot to do with us winning the ball game. He’s a very, very talented player, and it wouldn’t surprise me if he’s going to play this game for a long time.”

The Hoos have many such talents in their lineup, and they entered the regional averaging 9.7 runs and 12.3 hits per game. Against Penn starter Cole Zaffiro, who’ll play for Wake Forest next season, and Eli Trop, Virginia totaled only six hits, but one of them was sophomore Henry Godbout’s three-run home run in the second inning.

The Quakers cut the Cavaliers’ lead to 3-2 in the fourth, and it was still a one-run game after six innings. In the bottom of the seventh, though, junior Ethan Anderson’s 20th double of the season scored Griff O’Ferrall, and Hungate did the rest.

As a baseball player, especially as a pitcher, it’s kind of what you live for and play the game for,” Hungate said of closing out the victory. “So it’s the best feeling that you can have.”

The Cavaliers left 10 on base and were 2-for-13 with runners in scoring position.

“Certainly, there were a number of offensive opportunities that we didn’t capitalize on,” O’Connor said. “We’re not perfect, and that’s a credit to Penn. They ran a couple of pretty good arms out there that executed above our hands with the fastball and did a terrific job.”

Strong pitching and exceptional defense, including two gems by center-fielder Bobby Whalen, saved the Hoos on an afternoon when their offense was uncharacteristically quiet.

O’Connor said he was “proud of how our guys hung in there and didn’t get frustrated when we weren’t as opportunistic as maybe we have been all year. But I’ve learned over the years that when it gets to be postseason baseball in the NCAA tournament, you can throw out the window whatever you’ve done all year. It’s a new time of the year. It just means a little bit extra.”

Chase Hungate

In their regular-season finale, the Hoos rallied to defeat Virginia Tech 10-9 in 13 innings, but many of their victories have been one-sided. The regional opener reminded O’Connor and his associate head coach, Kevin McMullan, that NCAA tournament games are often tighter.

“Coach Mac and I said to each other after the game, ‘Boy, it’s been a while since we’ve had a game like today,’ and that’s what you love,” O’Connor said. “That’s why these guys do it at this level: tight ball game, great crowd, great opponent, what’s at stake … Sure, would you like to be up eight runs? Yeah, you would. But when you’re in a tight ball game, it gives them an opportunity to bring something special out of them: to make that great play, like Whalen makes, to make pitches like Chase Hungate does, because when it’s a one- or two-run game, the margin for error is very small.”

Injuries have ravaged Virginia’s pitching staff this season, but other teams are dealing with similar issues, O’Connor noted. “And it’s a matter of putting guys in the right places at certain times of the year. We have confidence in all of them, and they’re not perfect. They’re not going to do the job every time, but what’s important is that we are here, we won 42 games, we are here in this moment. We’re hosting, we’re a No. 1 seed, and figured out throughout the year what gives us the best chance to win every day.

“You don’t like that you don’t have everybody at your disposal. But I have loved the challenge of trying to figure it out, and that that’s our job.”

Penn and St. John’s (37-17-1) will meet in an elimination game at noon Saturday. In the winners’ bracket, sophomore left-hander Evan Blanco (7-3, 3.50 ERA) will start for UVA against Mississippi State in what promises to be an electric atmosphere.

This is the 11th time Virginia has hosted an NCAA regional in O’Connor’s 21 seasons as head coach—no tournament was held in 2020, due to the COVID-19 pandemic—and a festive crowd turned out to cheer on the home team Friday afternoon.

“That was best crowd that I’ve ever seen in the stadium for a first game of a regional,” O’Connor said. “We’ve had some pretty good ones, but that by far is the most and we need our fans for the rest of this thing. “

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