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Big expectations await Virginia and its 'Step Up to the Plate' guests

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Posted: Saturday, February 1, 2014 12:15 am

Before they went mingling onto the main floor at John Paul Jones Arena, Brian O’Connor, John Farrell and Sean Doolittle paused for a picture inside JPJA’s media room on Friday evening.

One is the coach of the nation’s top-ranked college baseball team, one is the manager of the defending World Series champions and one is a relief pitcher for the two-time defending American League West Division champions.

Think this trio has high expectations heading into this 2014 season?

“I think there’s a lot of similarities,” said O’Connor, Virginia’s coach and host of Friday’s annual Step Up to the Plate fundraiser. 

Farrell, the Boston Red Sox manager, and Doolittle, Oakland Athletics reliever, were the special guests for the event’s 12th edition. A sold-out crowd of over 1,000 attended.

Farrell’s son, Jeremy, was a three-time letterwinner for the Cavaliers from 2006-08. Doolittle was a three-time All-ACC selection for the Cavs from 2005-07.

But their parallels don’t stop with UVa.

Each has a title to defend, connecting the duo well with O’Connor’s bunch, a reigning Regional champ with eight starters returning and a preseason No. 1 ranking.

“We talked about some things they might experience and the success they’ve had to date and how they’re recognized,” said Farrell, who addressed the Virginia players prior to the start of Friday’s festivities. “It’s not to fear it, it’s to embrace it. The perception and opinion of others on the outside are always going to be there. How they take care of their own business and commit to one another and being a team should far outweigh any external expectations that might add pressure to individual guys or them as a team.”

In 2013, his first season in charge of the Red Sox, Farrell took Boston from last place in the AL East to its third World Series title since 2004.

During the same year, O’Connor took UVa, nowhere to be found in many preseason polls, to 50 wins, a Super Regional and a No. 11 final ranking.

When the calendar flipped to 2014, both knew the bar would be raised that much higher.

“When you win the world championship and you win it for the Boston Red Sox, certainly there’s expectations of people to repeat,” O’Connor said. “There’s expectations in that city for them to win it every year. So certainly the Red Sox and John Farrell are going to be dealing with that going into this year and throughout their year.

“It’s very similar to the situation that we’re in. Not that we won a championship last year, but there’s certainly enormous expectations on this team. It’s something you have to welcome and look forward to, continuing to try to work and build your program.”

In 2011, the A’s went 74-88, missing the playoffs for a fifth straight season.

Enter Doolittle in 2012, as a re-made pitcher no less, and Oakland took the AL West for the first of back-to-back campaigns.

He, too, knows about the struggle to match the hype created by past triumph.

“This Virginia team has had a lot of success in recent years,” Doolittle said. “Everybody expects them to be there come Regional, Super Regional and Omaha now. They’ve raised the bar, so to speak.

“Now, with that No. 1 ranking, they’re not going to sneak up on anybody. Everybody’s going to be saving their best for when the No. 1-ranked team comes to town. So they’re going to have to learn to have to play with that target on their backs just like we had to do last year as defending division champions and just like the Red Sox will have to do this year with being World Series champions.

“I’m looking forward to following these guys, and I’m excited for our season to start.”

UVa’s 2014 begins Feb. 14 against Kentucky in Wilmington, N.C. The A’s start things March 31 against Cleveland. The Red Sox go the same day in Baltimore.

Three teams. Three standards to meet.

Friday night, they all got to discuss the challenge.

“That’s why I love having these guys in,” O’Connor said.

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