John LaPrise refers to the class above his on the Virginia baseball team as “a bunch of freak athletes.”
From All-American Mike Papi to the sweet swing of Derek Fisher to the five-tool abilities of Brandon Downes, the Cavalier juniors are loaded with near-future MLB Draft picks.
They’re just missing one item from their college résumé — a trip to the College World Series.
The journey to Omaha can’t be a solo ride, so cue LaPrise and company for assistance.
UVa has significant sophomores as well. They used the summer to improve.
“Everybody’s going to contribute now,” LaPrise said.
LaPrise hit .407 for the Madison (Wis.) Mallards to win the Northwoods League batting title. Joe McCarthy, another Mallard and the reigning ACC Freshman of the Year, hit .303 in the regular season and then batted .524 in the playoffs, capturing MVP honors in the championship series. Nathan Kirby, pitching for the Keene Swamp Bats in the New England Collegiate Baseball League, went 3-0 with a 1.67 ERA in 43 innings during the regular season and then fired 2 1/3 innings of scoreless relief in the deciding game of the league’s championship series, earning the win.
And those were just the second-year headliners.
David Rosenberger, throwing in the NECBL, went 2-1 with a 2.63 ERA. Cameron Tekker, tossing in the same league, picked up four saves. Robbie Coman, catching in the Northwoods League, batted .319.
(Sophomore Brandon Waddell, who went 6-3 with a 3.96 ERA as the Friday starter in the spring, didn’t pitch this summer.)
“I was happy to see those players go out there and have success because this game is about having self-confidence,” said UVa coach Brian O’Connor, “and when you go out and have success on the field, you return to your school with a lot of self-confidence that you feel like you can go out and really help this team win.”
LaPrise, a second baseman, went on his tear with McCarthy watching closely and Papi, playing for Northwoods League rival Lakeshore, getting an occasional peek.
“We probably played against him six or seven times,” Papi said. “LaPrise was phenomenal. I don’t know what happened to him, but everything he hit found a hole. I don’t know what he ate or what he did, but I want to know what he did.”
By mid-season, LaPrise was sizzling at the plate with a .437 average, meaning the quest for .400 was on.
Although the Exton, Pa., native said he rarely concentrated on its significance.
“I mean it was cool, but I wasn’t too worried about it,” LaPrise said. “We were in the championship race and we had such a great team. I was just having fun and we were winning a lot. I really didn’t think about it too much.”
Thanks in no part to the effort of his teammates, however.
“Don’t let him lie to you,” McCarthy said. “We reminded him every day what he was doing. He would never bring it up. I don’t think he really liked talking about it, but we made sure he heard about it all the time.”
But LaPrise was never jinxed.
His final average was 40 points higher than the nearest competitor for the league batting title.
“Doing well is one thing,” McCarthy said, “but when you hit .400, everyone looks at each other and you’re like, ‘Is he really hitting .400?’ And then you watch him play and it’s just like, ‘Oh, OK, just another day for John.’”
But will it transfer into a full college season?
LaPrise played behind All-ACC second baseman Reed Gragnani in 2013, appearing in just 19 games and getting seven starts. He had six hits in 35 at-bats.
With Gragnani departed, a major opportunity has opened starting this fall.
“The focus is whatever I can do to help the team win,” LaPrise said. “Practice is so competitive; you don’t even have time to think about that stuff. But you just got to compete every day and whatever helps the team win, that’s your main focus.”
Kirby has the same mindset.
The 2012 Virginia high school player of the year had a rocky 2013 for the Wahoos. Kirby, throwing mostly from the bullpen for the first time in his life, went 4-1 with a 6.06 ERA.
The summer allowed for the proper tinkering to the fire-baller’s game.
“I feel more confident in the aspect that I feel like I can throw all my pitches again,” Kirby said. “After you have a couple bad outings in the spring, you just start thinking. You move more to just two pitches and forget the other two. I found confidence back in my curve ball and change-up back in Keene.
“I found out that the change-up’s going to be the biggest pitch for me if I can stick with it and grind it out.”
With the exception of the championship game, Kirby was a starter in New England, the natural spot he thrives in.
UVa’s spring weekend rotation is far from set, meaning the 6-foot-2, 185-pound left-hander will have his chance to crack it.
“As a starter, you go out there and you’re not as worried about one run,” Kirby said. “But when you come in relief and you give up one run, it’s like, ‘That’s my one job — not to give up that one run.’ It was kind of a good mental break [to start in the summer], but at the same time, it was good relieving because you never know ... I’m going to fill the role that the team’s going to need me to fill and whether that’s a starter or a reliever, I need to be ready to do whatever they want me to.
“Honestly, I’m up for whatever they tell me to do.”
These sophomores just want to win.
Kirby, LaPrise and McCarthy all took part in championship dog-piles on the mound this summer.
They’ll be OK with doing a few more this spring.
“Once you get a little taste of it, you want more,” LaPrise said.
Virginia will host High Point at 11 a.m., Saturday, to kick off its fall exhibition season.