How do you welcome 14 true freshmen, including your opening day starter, to college baseball?
If you’re Virginia, you put them in one of the sport’s toughest environments and watch them scratch and claw to survive the weekend.
At 3 p.m., Friday, No. 25 UVa will begin its quest for a 10th consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance when it opens its season at East Carolina. The venue will be Clark-LeClair Stadium, where the Pirates won 23 of 30 games in 2012 in front of close to 3,000 fans a contest.
Temperatures could drop into the 20s during this three-game series, but don’t expect ECU fans to be sitting on their hands for warmth.
“Their environment is very similar to ours,” said Cavalier coach Brian O’Connor. “They get a lot of fan following, so it should be a great weekend. I’m looking forward to the challenge that we have in front of us this weekend and kind of see how our guys handle that.”
Especially the green ones.
Left-hander Brandon Waddell is the first rookie to start a UVa season-opener on the mound since Dave Sammons in 1986. He’ll be surrounded by a lineup that’s not exactly full of veterans, either.
Five sophomores (catcher Nate Irving, shortstop Branden Cogswell, third baseman Nick Howard, left fielder Derek Fisher and center fielder Brandon Downes) make up the field and another, Kenny Towns, is a possibility to be the designated hitter. Freshman Joe McCarthy could also see time at DH and sophomore Mike Papi could get action in right field before the weekend is over.
Valuable experience is destined to be gained.
“I think it’s good,” O’Connor said. “They’ve been in these comfortable confines here now for six months, where if someone came out to a practice or a scrimmage, they were cheering for them. That’s not going to be the case this weekend. I think it’ll be good, but I think they’re prepared and ready for it.”
While a bulk of the preseason hype has surrounded UVa’s experimental pitching situation (fifth-year senior lefty Scott Silverstein will go Saturday, right-handed Howard will get the nod Sunday), holes also had to be filled elsewhere.
The 2012 Wahoos were backed by a lethal second base-shortstop-third base combination of Keith Werman (second-team All-Atlantic Coast Conference selection), Chris Taylor (led team in runs scored; fifth round pick of the Seattle Mariners) and Stephen Bruno (led team in batting; seventh round pick of the Chicago Cubs).
The 2013 reinforcements are senior Reed Gragnani, Cogswell and Howard.
Those three have a combined 110 career starts, but only four at their current positions.
“They’ve all done great,” said fifth-year senior first baseman Jared King. “For guys who never really got that many starts under their belt last year, they’ve really just stepped right in and we haven’t really missed a beat.
“That speaks a lot to how they handled their business last year — just watching the game and just figuring out how our veteran guys are doing things. They’ve done a great job.”
East Carolina, 12-time NCAA Regional participants since 1999, was picked to finish third in Conference USA by the league’s coaches.
Friday, the Pirates will trot sophomore Jeff Hoffman (3-2, 3.67 ERA last season) to the mound followed by junior Ryan Williams on Saturday and senior Andy Smithmyer (5-2, 1.92 ERA) on Sunday. Five starters are back from last year’s 36-24-1 team, including All-C-USA shortstop Jack Reinheimer.
“They’re a great team,” Irving said. “They’re a fundamentally sound team. They got some really good talent. They got some great players, some great arms, some good hitters. We’re just going to have to go out and play our game and play without fear and trust the process.
“And if we do that, the results will take care of themselves.”