(Charlottesville) Daily Progress file

Virginia’s Zack Gelof (18) gets a base hit during a game last season.

The Virginia baseball team started its official practices Friday, which marked the three-week point until the start of the 2020 season.

After two disappointing seasons by program standards, the Cavaliers want to return to the NCAA Tournament in 2020.

“Is it talked about a whole lot?” Chesdin Harrington said of the tournament drought. “Not really, but it’s something that’s on everybody’s mind. I can assure you that.”

After a documentary made about the team’s 2015 national championship run premiered last weekend, the coaches and players have their eyes set on more than just an NCAA Tournament berth, however.

The ultimate goal for the Cavaliers, and every NCAA baseball team, is making it to Omaha and winning the whole thing.

“I will tell you that when you watch that movie as a coach in the program, you get fired up about working to have that opportunity again,” Virginia head coach Brian O’Connor said.

In three weeks, the Cavaliers embark on their journey to become of one the best teams in college baseball.

Finishing games

To become one of the best teams in the nation, the Cavaliers need to finish out games and weekend series. Last season, Virginia had three instances in ACC play when it won the first game of a series only to drop the next two games.

“Last year we started so many going 1-0 on the weekend, and then we’d lost the last two,” sophomore Nic Kent said. “If we just switched a couple of those last games to win a couple more series, then we’re on to the tournament.”

Virginia wasn’t all that far off in 2019, finishing 32-24 overall and 14-16 in ACC action. If the Cavaliers finished off the three ACC series that they led 1-0 and lost 2-1, they would’ve went 35-21 overall and 17-13 in the ACC.

Unfortunately for the Cavaliers, they didn’t do enough down the stretch to earn a spot in the NCAA Tournament.

“It was tough,” sophomore Zack Gelof said. “Looking back, I think we didn’t deserve it based on where we were at, but I think we’re going to get what we deserve this year.”

Finishing off winnable games is a goal for the team this year. Virginia doesn’t want to extend its streak of missing the NCAA Tournament to a third consecutive season.

“That’s a feeling I do not want to feel again,” Gelof said. “I don’t think we will feel that again. I mean, it’s tough because only one team in the end wins, but it’s possible that we could be that team, so we just gotta work hard every day.”

Find pitching consistency

New pitching coach Drew Dickinson takes over a talented staff that includes pitchers such as Harrington, Griff McGarry, Kyle Whitten and Andrew Abbott. There’s talent there, but there’s also need for major improvement on the mound.

Last season, those players went through some struggles as the team ERA finished at 4.68, and the Wahoos finished the season with only about a dozen quality starts.

“I hope it’s a lot better, and it means more wins,” O’Connor said of the pitching staff. “We knew going into last year’s season that it was the most inexperienced pitching staff we’d ever had, and that’s not an area that you really want to be inexperienced in.”

With more experience returning, the Cavaliers hope to find more success. Dickinson’s integration into the team plays a role in how quickly the staff’s experience can translate into successful pitching and victories.

According to Harrington, Dickinson works well with the players and brings a laid-back demeanor to the team.

“Definitely someone we admire,” Harrington said. “I think guys have taken to him really well and want to play for the guy.”

Starting battles

Virginia enters 2020 with championship aspirations. O’Connor knows what it takes to make it to Omaha, and the Cavaliers like their roster. There’s still room for improvement, of course, and the next three weeks will feature intense competition for starting spots.

“We have to figure some things out, too,” O’Connor said. “I’m standing in front of you right now, and I couldn’t tell you who are starting shortstop is right now.”

O’Connor says he expects the team to be great at the shortstop position, but the coaches want multiple players competing for different roles in the next three weeks. There’s an element of preparation in the next few weeks, but there’s also a desire to improve as a team and determine which players give the Cavaliers a best chance of reaching their goals.

The next three weeks won’t be easy for the players as they fight for playing time, but they’re all excited for the opportunity to take the field in Florida against Oklahoma in less than a month.

“Everyone’s counting down the days,” Gelof said. “We’re really excited to get after it down in Pensacola three weeks from now.”

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