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A perfect mix: Virginia's seven juniors form core of nation's No. 1 team

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Posted: Thursday, February 13, 2014 12:15 am

Comedy Central’s “Tosh.0” provided the background noise as the seven gathered around a sofa inside a Virginia clubhouse that, as one of them describes, is constantly filled with “a certain humor I’ve never been a part of.”

Derek Fisher was the first to sit, sliding down to the leather piece of furniture’s edge, laying out his veiny right forearm in plain sight for the still camera.

Yes, Fisher jokingly did wrist rolling exercises before this January photo shoot.

“Yeah, he’s pretty proud of his body,” said Brandon Downes, who plopped next to Fisher with the television’s remote control cleverly hiding in his uniform.  

Nate Irving, voted the most talkative of the bunch, was quietly the last to be seated.

The remaining four stood, filling space behind the sofa, towering over their slouched teammates. The generously listed 6-foot Kenny Towns was in that group, ironic because he had just survived a few short jokes outside the batting cages.

To Towns’ left was Branden Cogswell, an infielder who was about to feel the room’s collective eyes roll when he goes into detail about his celebrity lookalike, Ryan Reynolds.

Mike Papi, fighting off a smile, and Nick Howard, one leg propped up like the 17th century Welsh privateer of the Caribbean, completed the scene.

For some 25 minutes, the core of the best baseball team in the nation posed as flashes tried to capture the moment.

Tried.

Staying still for close to a half-hour is a long time for a crew that’s been on the move since they arrived in Charlottesville three years ago. Going from contributors on an NCAA Tournament team to the key ingredients for a squad two wins short of the College World Series to being one of the main reasons behind a preseason No. 1 ranking hasn’t been a marathon.

“When people say that time flies when you’re in college,” Papi said, “it really does.”

So excuse them for growing a tad impatient.

“Come on, Andy,” Howard said to Andy Fledderjohann, UVa’s media contact for baseball.

“What?,” Fledderjohann responded. “This could get you more Twitter followers.”

And, boom, back they went to their places, challenging each other to up their social media numbers.

“1,000 followers is the benchmark,” Howard said. “You’ve made it once you get 1,000.”

To know Virginia’s star-studded junior class is to understand a few of their favorite hobbies.

“They love to be around each other,” said their coach, Brian O’Connor, “they love to have fun and they love to compete.”

Establishing roots

It was a summer Sunday in 2011 and Kevin McMullan was on the phone inside his upstairs Davenport Field office when the ping of aluminum bats alerted him to peer down at the diamond.

The architect of Virginia’s most recent recruiting class caught himself admiring his work.

“Wow,” McMullan said out loud as he pointed to different players, “that guy’s better than I thought he was. He’s got a little bit more power. The ball’s getting off his bat. This looks pretty easy.”

It was a batting practice display authored by Derek Fisher, Mike Papi, Brandon Downes, Nick Howard and Kenny Towns, five members to a crew of seven crucial for the near-future of a program fresh off its second College World Series appearance in three years.

Sure, lofty expectations for the Cavaliers were to return the next spring, but names such as Danny Hultzen, David Coleman, John Hicks, John Barr, Kenny Swab and Steven Proscia weren’t.

UVa was forced into the reloading process.

“A huge part of recruiting is knowing what you’re going to have to replace,” O’Connor said. “You’re looking at your lineup and you’re seeing that you’re going to have to replace six guys in it. So we knew we were going to have to get impact position players that we felt could come in and contribute right away.”

Fisher, a left-handed batting outfielder with Big League pop, was considered the No. 1 high school prospect in Pennsylvania. Papi, with a similar skill set, was No. 3.

Downes, blessed with the arm to catch or play center field, was a home run shy of setting a New Jersey prep record as a junior. Howard, a two-way performer at St. John’s College High, was the best Maryland had to offer. Towns, a Burke native and corner infielder, was the 2011 Virginia State Player of the Year.

McMullan, UVa’s associate head coach and recruiting coordinator, had traveled the Mid-Atlantic to bring them all to Charlottesville.

And here they were, backing their reputations before his eyes not long after they had arrived on Grounds for classes.

“Coach Mac was just walking around when we were taking BP,” Howard said. “Any chance to get out there, we wanted to be there. We had never played on the field before, so we’re always trying to get that extra rep.”

Those competitive juices flowed into fall when the summer bunch was joined by a pair of New Yorkers. There was Branden Cogswell, an instinctive middle infielder with a high school All-American honor on his résumé, and Nate Irving, a beyond-his-years catcher who hit over .500 as a senior.

“Everyone was extremely talented,” Papi said. “I feel like we put a lot of pressure on the veteran players to hold their own spots because we came in with so much talent, added a lot of depth to the team.”

On the field, the seven succeeded in a variety of ways as rookies.

In a 39-win season that ended in an NCAA Regional, Fisher was a Louisville Slugger Freshman All-American.

Irving, who made 49 starts, became the first primary starting freshman catcher in the O’Connor era.

Papi, a .283 hitter, started 28 of the first 35 games before a back injury ended his year.

Howard made 19 mound appearances (2.81 ERA) and had 52 at-bats (.346 average).

Downes became a mainstay in center field, starting the final 20 games, batting .321.

Cogswell started 27 times, filling three different roles — second base, shortstop and designated hitter.

Towns, with a .294 average, earned nine starts as the DH.

Off the field, the group was establishing a rare kind of chemistry.

“It’s kind of hard not to form bonds with these guys,” Irving said.

Becoming family 

As Fisher puts it, Virginia’s juniors “know more about each other than our parents might know about us.”

Nowadays, the seven are spread about three apartments. One houses Fisher, Howard and Towns. Another is home to Downes, Cogswell, Papi and relief pitcher Brett Lisle. Irving lives with starting pitcher Brandon Waddell, backup catcher Robbie Coman and director of video operations Tyler Slate.

But the interaction remains the same as their freshman year, when each bunked in the same residence hall, Old Dorms on McCormick Road.

“We’re with each other every single day,” Fisher said.

And with that, valuable knowledge is gained.

Papi was a first-team All-American in 2013, but he apparently will try to repeat the feat in 2014 with the assistance of an improved wardrobe.

“He’d just wear sweatshirts and sweatpants,” Downes said. “We’d do that too, but now he’s got really nice clothes. He got new shoes, like Sperrys and stuff. He looks like a new person.”

Fisher is Baseball America’s 10th-best college prospect for June’s MLB Draft, but he might hope scouts don’t stumble upon dirty laundry that includes a past battle with Justin Bieber hair.

“That came off soon,” Howard said. “We were giving him so much crap.”

Downes’ speed allows him to adequately cover the gaps in the outfield, but his pace in front of the mirror leaves room for improvement.

“It takes him like an hour to get ready every morning because he’s got to put gel in his hair,” Papi said.

Towns was one of eight sluggers to participate in last season’s College Home Run Derby, but he was perhaps the only one to have a guitar-playing background that stretches from strumming John Mayer to jamming Jimi Hendrix.

“Kenny is a musical master,” Cogswell said.

Howard is able to pitch and hit with equal brilliance because he conserves his energy like none other.

“He’s just like a bear,” Downes said. “Sometimes when we have the weekends off, he just sleeps. That’s all he does — sleeps.”

Irving hasn’t shown much fatigue despite catching 90 percent of Virginia’s games the past two seasons because he swears by an, umm, interesting diet.

“He eats hummus all the time, and he always drinks coconut water,” Downes said. “He eats the most interesting/gross food I’ve ever seen. He probably eats grass.”

Cogswell might pride himself on his alleged likeness to Ryan Reynolds as much he does his 2013 All-ACC nod.

“For Halloween,” Downes said, “he just wore the Green Lantern T-shirt. No mask.”

This open tossing of tales to a reporter welcomes an audience into the lives of this seven-person family.

“We bust on each other all the time, and it’s all out of good spirit,” Cogswell said. “As much as one would think we don’t get along, we’re brothers and we love each other. We support everybody because we know what everybody’s capable of and we want everybody out there playing their best.”

Why?

There’s still unfinished business to take care of.

Competing for the ultimate prize

Going on its third year, the Virginia Recruiting Class of 2011 Olympics is constantly adding events.

There’s cards, football, cornhole, video games, contests to determine who has the best abs.

Contests to determine who has the best abs?

“After we get done lifting, we’ll take off our shirts and we’ll go in front of the mirror in the bathroom,” Downes said. “Fisher thinks he always wins.”

Hey, anything to keep the competition heated, right Coach?

“Yeah,” O’Connor said with a grin, “they do a few different things.”

But all have meaningful intentions. There’s always a winner and a loser.

Entering Friday’s season opener against Kentucky in Wilmington, N.C., O’Connor is quick to point out, for all their accolades, UVa’s juniors have had their fingerprints on just a single title during their tenure, last season’s Regional championship over Elon.

“We haven’t won an ACC championship since they’ve been here,” O’Connor said, “or won a Super Regional championship.”

The 50-win Cavaliers missed a trip to the College World Series in 2013 when a hot-hitting Mississippi State team rolled through Charlottesville and took both games of an intense Super Regional.

Fisher grounded out to Bulldog third baseman Alex Detz to end things, prompting the to-be-returning ‘Hoos to hit the fast-forward button.

“Obviously, everyone was so upset,” said Towns, “but we were like, ‘All right, this isn’t going to happen again.’”

Fisher is joined by Papi (39), Howard (43), Cogswell (47) and Downes (53) on Baseball America’s College Top 100 for the Draft.

In other words, 2014 will be the seven juniors’ final opportunity to celebrate on an Omaha, Neb., mound together, becoming the first ACC team to do so since Wake Forest in 1955.

For a group fueled by competition and each other’s unique company, nothing would be more satisfying.

“Even after college baseball ends and I graduate, I’m still going to stay in touch with them because they’re my best friends now,” Downes said. “To win a national championship, that’s something we can always have.

“I couldn’t even tell you what we would do if we won. It would be incredible.”

Branden Cogswell

Height: 6-2

Weight: 180

Hometown: Ballston Lake, N.Y.

Position: SS/2B

Career Numbers: .316 batting average, 37 RBI, .448 on-base percentage, 14 steals

Accolades: 2013 All-ACC second-team honoree ... No. 47 on Baseball America’s list of top 100 MLB Draft-eligible players for 2014 ... Perfect Game second-team preseason All-American

Brandon Downes

Height: 6-3

Weight: 200

Hometown: South Plainfield, N.J.

Position: CF

Career Numbers: .318 batting average, 11 home runs, 81 RBI, nine triples, .535 slugging percentage

Accolades: Led ACC in triples in 2013 with seven ... Led team in home runs with 10 ... Perfect Game second-team preseason All-American ... No. 53 on Baseball America’s list of top 100 MLB Draft-eligible players for 2014 ... 43rd round selection of Boston Red Sox in 2011

Derek Fisher

Height: 6-3

Weight: 210

Hometown: Rexmont, Pa.

Position: LF

Career Numbers: .290 batting average, 14 home runs, 98 RBI, 11 triples, .495 slugging percentage

Accolades: Tied for second-most home runs on team in 2013 with seven ... 2012 Louisville Slugger Freshman All-American honoree ... Tied UVa record for triples in a season with eight as a freshman ... Perfect Game and Baseball America preseason first-team All-American ... No. 10 on Baseball America’s list of top 100 MLB Draft-eligible players for 2014 ... Sixth round selection of Texas Rangers in 2011

Nick Howard

Height: 6-4

Weight: 215

Hometown: Olney, Md.

Position: IF/RHP

Career Numbers: .328 batting average, three home runs, 44 RBI, .440 slugging percentage; 9-4, 3.15 ERA, 89 K’s, 27 BB, 103 IP, .256 BAA

Accolades: 2013 All-ACC first-team honoree (utility) ... Named to watch list for John Olerud Two-Way Player of the Year Award ... Perfect Game preseason first-team All-American ... No. 43 on Baseball America’s list of top 100 MLB Draft-eligible players for 2014

Nate Irving

Height: 6-0

Weight: 230

Hometown: Yonkers, N.Y.

Position: Catcher

Career Numbers: .282 batting average, 68 RBI, 27 sacrifice bunts, .994 fielding percentage

Accolades: 2013 NCAA Charlottesville Regional All-Tournament team member ... Has started 105 of a possible 121 games behind the plate in career ... Earned invitation to try out for 2013 USA Baseball Collegiate National Team ... Johnny Bench Award watch list ... Was fourth in ACC with 12 sacrifice bunts in 2013

Mike Papi

Height: 6-3

Weight: 210

Hometown: Tunkhannock, Pa.

Position: OF/1B

Career Numbers: .344 batting average, eight home runs, 74 RBI, .532 slugging percentage, .474 on-base percentage

Accolades: 2013 Baseball America first-team All-American ... 2013 All-ACC first-team honoree ... Twice named ACC Player of the Week ... 2013 ACC batting champ (.381 average) ... Second-highest on-base percentage (.517) in the nation in 2013 ... NCBWA preseason first-team All-American ...  No. 39 on Baseball America’s list of top 100 MLB Draft-eligible players for 2014 ... 30th round selection of Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in 2011

Kenny Towns

Height: 6-0

Weight: 185

Hometown: Burke, Va.

Position: 1B/3B

Career Numbers: .291 batting average, seven home runs, 56 RBI, .489 slugging percentage

Accolades: 2013 College Home Run Derby participant ... Tied for second-most home runs on team in 2013 with seven ... Hit two grand slams against East Carolina in 2013 opener ... Ended season on 11-game hit streak

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