Sitting in his office overlooking Davenport Field last June, Brian O’Connor was having a bittersweet moment. The stadium was empty, the season was over.
In a time to reflect, we’ve learned over the past decade that O’Connor has a tough time accepting anything less than a trip to Omaha. His Virginia baseball team had just finished a ninth consecutive trip to the NCAA Tournament, losing a home regional.
After beating Army, the Cavaliers dropped a 6-5 decision to Appalachian State, then were ousted 5-4 by Oklahoma. O’Connor believed his team should have at least made it one step closer.
Still, he managed to look ahead to this season and that twinkle returned to his eyes as he pondered the possibilities. He and his staff had landed a big-time recruiting class, one that has proven to be as good as advertised.
Now, on the cusp of another postseason, O’Connor is hoping for a strong finish. The Cavaliers (39-8) host Duke in the final regular season home series this weekend (Friday 6 p.m., Saturday 4 p.m., Sunday 1 p.m.), then host VCU next Tuesday before closing things out at No. 1 or 2 North Carolina, depending on which poll you care to trust.
Oh, and here’s something notable. The guy who coached Appy State to that win over Virginia in the NCAAs here last June, Chris Pollard, is Duke’s new coach.
“Coming off last year, I was excited about this team because I knew that we were going to lack experience but I felt like we had talent and I was excited to see how they handled that,” O’Connor said during a break in the weather on Wednesday. “Certainly, they’ve handled it like professionals, like winners should. Right from the get-go and through the season, they’ve continued to be very consistent and I don’t see any reason we can’t continue to do that.”
Consistency is the hallmark of O’Connor’s program and he admits with so many new pitchers, a near completely new infield caused him some restless nights, wondering what might happen if all the newcomers couldn’t collectively get it done.
His fears were put to rest quickly. The new infield has shown the consistency the coach hoped for. The freshmen hurlers have lived up to expectations, perhaps surpassed them. Once ACC play began, Mike Papi emerged as a major contributor, giving the team a huge boost.
Kyle Crockett established himself as one of the most dominant closers in the country and Austin Young has been impressive as a set-up guy. Whit Mayberry, once a question mark, bounced back from Tommy John surgery and has pitched 31 innings this season.
“Right down the list, things have worked out for us,” O’Connor smiled. “Now it comes down to playing well at the end and getting what we deserve in the NCAA Tournament.”
Projections have the Cavaliers as one of the top eight national seeds, as high as No. 4 in one forecast. With six ACC teams (UNC, UVa, N.C. State, Florida State, Clemson, Virginia Tech) considered in the 64-team field and two others (Miami, Georgia Tech) on the bubble, that’s a pretty strong statement for the Wahoos.
While those projections are in the back of O’Connor’s mind as well as his staff and team, he won’t mention it. He doesn’t have to.
“It’s human nature to think about what if we finish strong, where could we be,” the UVa skipper said. “The players read the internet and see that if Virginia finishes strong that we could be a top eight seed.
“I don’t talk about it because this game is too much pressure to play anyways, and you can’t play for those reasons,” O’Connor said.
However, he and his coaching staff have been around long enough to know what it takes and are working hard to give the Cavaliers every chance to fulfill those goals.
“Where we are right now, we have done everything we could right up until the exam break,” O’Connor said. “Could we have won the Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech series and helped our cause? Sure. But there are other games we’ve won that we could have lost.”
The Cavaliers also boast two big-time sweeps of N.C. State and Florida State.
A lot of baseball fans outside of Charlottesville, outside the ACC, didn’t expect Virginia to be this good. They don’t know O’Connor & Co.
Of all the 10 teams he’s fielded at UVa, this is probably different than all the rest for a variety of reasons.
For such a young team, this squad perhaps by osmosis, has learned from some former Cavalier teams to never give up.
“I’ve been really impressed with the competitiveness, the fight in this team,” O’Connor said. “So many games we’ve come from behind and given ourselves a chance to win. Having a young team can lend itself to that. A lot of them don’t know any better than to just go out and compete.”
It is also a team that while it has had consistent and good pitching, it has overwhelmed opponents from the mound. O’Connor’s mind flashes back to 2011 when he boasted Danny Hultzen, Will Roberts and Tyler Wilson.
“Hultzen and Roberts both had an ERA under 2.00 and they threw over 100 innings,” the coach said. “Wilson was phenomenal. We haven’t had that kind of consistency but when we haven’t gotten a consistent start, the bullpen has picked it up and we’ve figured out offensively how to win.”
Now, here comes Duke, hoping to play spoiler, to knock the Cavaliers down a peg or two, and make a statement for its own program. All the Wahoos need to remember is how bitter that loss was to Appy State last year and realize the Duke threat is real.
O’Connor believes this team has everything it takes to compete for the ACC championship in Durham at month’s end, to win a regional championship, and beyond.
Last year’s ending haunted him for weeks. There’s no room for ghosts this time around.