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Season of high expectations begins for No. 1 Virginia baseball team

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Posted: Friday, February 14, 2014 12:15 am

Brian O’Connor walked out of a meeting room door to a scene he usually welcomes in June.

But this was Feb. 10, two days from a snowstorm blitzing its way through Charlottesville.

“Well, I guess it took the President being here for you all to show up,” O’Connor said with a half-grin, alluding to Barack Obama’s Monday visit to Monticello with French President Francois Hollande.

O’Connor quickly stepped to a podium that gave a view of Davenport Field’s Hall of Fame room, an area, on this day, dedicated to more than a dozen media members wanting to chat with the best college baseball team in the country.

“OK,” O’Connor said, “we have just set a new record. This is the largest crowd ever for a preseason [media day].”

O’Connor’s 11th season as Virginia’s coach begins at 1:30 p.m., today, when his No. 1-ranked Cavaliers take on Kentucky in Wilmington, N.C., as part of the Hugh Bros. Challenge.

The attention the Wahoos received Monday will finally be translated to the diamond.

“The past two years that I’ve been here, it was completely different,” said junior left fielder Derek Fisher. “We’ve come into it being a team that has to kind of prove ourselves. We really didn’t get much love outside, which was fine and, quite frankly, I think it was pretty good for us.

“Now this year going into it, we’re kind of expected to do a lot.”

Virginia media day 2013 was a tad more tame. O’Connor didn’t have a podium. He stood with a few reporters along Davenport’s first-base line as his Wahoos were preparing for a less-publicized trip to East Carolina.

UVa was in the top 25 of a single preseason poll, meaning a 10th straight trip to an NCAA Regional was expected. But beyond that? It would have raised some eyebrows.

So the Cavaliers went to ECU’s 3,000-seat Clark–LeClair Stadium with a freshman Friday starter and a lineup loaded in youth.

They came out of it with a 2-0 record, springboarding a 14-0 start and 50-12 season that ended in a Super Regional.

Now, eight starters are back plus that Friday arm of Brandon Waddell’s.

Suddenly, the spotlight shines brighter on Opening Weekend 2014.

“We kind of had a chip on our shoulder last year,” said junior infielder Branden Cogswell. “So this year, the roles are kind of reversed. It’s still all about going out there, though, and taking care of business and doing what you’re asked to do. ... We haven’t proven anything. We’re a new team and this is our one shot together as a team to show everybody what we can do.”

Cogswell, joined by Fisher, Mike Papi, Brandon Downes and Nick Howard, is one of five UVa preseason All-Americans.

Today, they’ll get challenged by Kentucky left-hander A.J. Reed, a preseason All-American for his utility work. On the mound, the junior is 7-11 with a 3.44 ERA in his career. At the plate, he’s a .290 batter with 17 home runs and 95 RBI.

The Wildcats, 2012 NCAA Regional participants, finished 30-25 last season.

“It’s going to be a great team that we face,” said Fisher who played with Reed over the summer in the Cape Cod League. “Obviously, they’re from the SEC and we’re all excited.”

Saturday, sophomore left-hander Nathan Kirby, making his first career weekend start, will throw against VMI. The Cavaliers had to hold off the feisty Keydets, 8-6, last season in Charlottesville.

Sunday, it’s sophomore righty Josh Sborz’s turn against UNC Wilmington, intruders of Davenport’s Regional a year ago.

For O’Connor, it’ll be the appropriate test for his much-talked-about squad.

The coach created this opportunity for that sole purpose.

“This tournament down in Wilmington was not even on the schedule as of nine moths ago,” O’Connor said. “We were scheduled to play a certain team at home in a three-game series this weekend. Quite frankly, after our season last year, I made a change. I called the head coach at Wilmington and said, ‘Can you change your tournament format to fit us in?’

“I felt this ballclub, as a veteran team, we needed to be challenged.”

 

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