Nathan Kirby looked back at the runner on second base, stepped toward home and delivered the 1-2 pitch. The left-hander tossed a breaking ball over the middle of the plate for strike three. Virginia won the game, the series and the 2015 national championship.
“I feel like I’m in a dream,” Kirby told reporters after the game.
It’s been five years since Kirby and the Wahoos took down Vanderbilt in the 2015 College World Series championship series. Five years since Brian O’Connor’s team won the first national title in program history.
While it might’ve felt like a dream, reminders of the team’s success are scattered throughout the program’s facility.
From framed Daily Progress articles to a national champions sign in right field, it’s impossible to forget what Virginia achieved in 2015. The Cavaliers rallied back from a slow start to the season. They used a late-season push to qualify for the ACC Tournament and eventually the NCAA Tournament.
Despite a lack of outside expectations, the Cavaliers won the national championships.
“Injuries plagued the regular season, but talent — and heart — eventually prevailed when it mattered most,” former Daily Progress sportswriter Andrew Ramspacher wrote in 2015.
According to O’Connor, the lack of expectations and outside pressure benefited the 2015 squad. With experts expecting Virginia to bow out of the tournament early, the battle-tested Cavaliers rallied together to play some of their best baseball of the season in the most important moments.
Virginia didn’t have quite the roster on paper as a team like Vanderbilt, which featured future MLB stars like starting pitcher Walker Buehler, but the Cavaliers played well as a group. UVa played freely.
“When it got to be championship time, when it got into the NCAA Tournament and that entire run for four weeks, they were a fun group,” O’Connor said. “Maybe it’s because they knew how challenging and difficult the year was and how many obstacles we overcame and they were like, ‘Hey, let’s go out and enjoy this and enjoy the moment. Let’s see what happens.’”
Five years after the accomplishment, O’Connor remembers his team’s perseverance and fun-loving attitude more than anything else. The Cavaliers won critical games on their journey to program history, and they did it while enjoying the process.
In previous seasons, O’Connor’s team made the trek to Omaha but came up short. Virginia’s head coach recently watched the team’s 2011 loss to South Carolina that ended the team’s tournament run.
“We were the No. 1 overall national seed in the entire tournament in 2011,” O’Connor said. “When that’s the case, there’s a lot of pressure. There is. Our basketball program knows what that’s like.”
The Cavaliers feel short amid heightened pressure in 2011. In 2015, O’Connor’s club overcame injuries and losses to scrap its way into the ACC Tournament and the NCAA Tournament. Pressure associated with expectations didn’t exist the same way it did in 2011, and the Cavaliers used the lack of outside influence to make a run to Omaha and eventually to the best-of-3 title series.
“When you are loose like that, it’s a dangerous team,” O’Connor said. “I’ll remember that about that team. You know, because of what they overcame — and nobody felt like they had any shot at winning it — it became a real strength of that team, and it made it a lot of fun.”
The 2015 championship didn’t drastically alter Virginia’s program, at least internally. O’Connor still uses the same guiding principles and ideas to lead his team.
He wants players to have a great experience at UVa, both in the classroom and on the diamond. O’Connor hopes part of that experience includes a trip to Omaha.
The Cavaliers made the College World Series in 2009, 2011, 2014 and 2015. Every player to spend four years within the program starting in 2006 made at least one trip to Omaha. That streak broke with freshmen who started their careers in the spring of 2016.
UVa hasn’t been back to Omaha since winning the championship in 2015. COVID-19 ended a promising 2020 campaign, but the Cavaliers should enter the 2021 season as one of the few early-season favorites to make a run to Omaha.
The lost season wasn’t all negative, though.
The added free time gave O’Connor a chance to watch the 2015 championship-clinching win “more times in the last three months than ever before.”
Five years later, the college baseball world looks different. With increased talent returning due to eligibility relief and a shortened MLB Draft, the 2021 college baseball season could be one of the best in recent memory.
The goal for 2021 is the same as it’s been since 2015: get back to Omaha.
“It motivates us every day in recruiting and player development, everything,” O’Connor said. “These kids come here because they want to have an opportunity to play in Omaha and a chance to win a championship. Hopefully we’ll put ourselves in a position in the near future to have that opportunity again.”