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Inside Virginia baseball: Evan Duhon’s five years as a student manager

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Evan Duhon has served as a student manager for the Virginia baseball program for the past five years.

Virginia baseball coach Brian O’Connor asked Evan Duhon 30 minutes before the team bus left for Louisville if Duhon could join the team to fill in for a sick manager. The freshman manager excitedly said yes, grabbing clothes from his locker and preparing for the 2016 road trip.

Duhon, who the team nicknamed Rusty, was tasked with working team video in the press box.

“The press box in Louisville has the most voluptuous spread of snacks,” Duhon, now a fifth-year manager, recalled. “They have the best spread of snacks. They’ve got all this candy, all the chips. They had pizza there. They had soft drinks, unlimited.”

He reacted like any college freshman would when seeing a spread of free food and drinks.

“I went nuts,” Duhon said.

O’Connor and company decided to play a prank on the new manager. When the team returned to Charlottesville, a few of the assistants and video personnel drafted up a fake bill from Louisville, asking to be reimbursed for Duhon’s eating frenzy.

“It [said] that I had eaten like 18 boxes of M&Ms, and the bill was for like $210,” Duhon said.

The coaches told Duhon that O’Connor was fuming about the bill, wondering why his freshman manager ate so much of Louisville’s food. They warned the first-year manager to avoid O’Connor for a day or so before discussing the problem with the head coach.

Visiting Louisville represented Duhon’s first road trip with the team. He was in just his first season with the Cavaliers. While the program was fresh off a national title and O’Connor was among the most prominent names in college baseball, Duhon was just a freshman manager learning the ropes.

“I didn’t have my feet underneath me, so I mean, you can imagine, I’m pretty concerned about this,” Duhon said.

He made up his mind he would tell O’Connor after their next game. When UVa lost, Duhon stayed away and waited for a better moment.

The next day, during practice, O’Connor called Duhon over to discuss the bill.

“I’m like, ‘Oh, coach, I don’t know, man,’” Duhon said. “‘I’m so sorry. However you want me to pay, if it’s check or cash, I’ll handle it tomorrow.’”

O’Connor asked Duhon if he noticed the date on the bill. Duhon hadn’t.

“Yeah, it was April 1,” O’Connor told Duhon. “Happy April Fool’s Day.”

Becoming a manager

When Duhon went through his list of potential colleges to attend, he cared about two things: academics and baseball.

“I would tour a college and email the head coach,” Duhon said. “I would say like, ‘I’m a prospective student. I’d love to be a student manager.’ If the coach didn’t email me back, I pretty much crossed that college off my list.”

Fortunately for Duhon, he received some replies, including one from O’Connor. The two met and discussed being a manager. Duhon wanted to know the program better, and O’Connor wanted to talk with the prospective manager.

Ultimately, Duhon found himself committed to the blend of academics and baseball that Virginia offered.

UVa gave Duhon a trial period of a couple weeks to determine if he was a good fit with the program on move-in weekend. It’s a big time commitment, and both sides wanted to give it a shot before jumping all the way in.

The match stuck.

A long career

Duhon made an impact over his five years with the Virginia program. The manager, who graduated in 2019 before pursuing a master’s degree this year, worked tirelessly to become someone the coaches and players trusted.

He served in an interesting position as a bridge between coaches and players. He’s a college student with similar interests and experiences as the players, but he worked closely with the coaches and ultimately was trying to absorb as much knowledge as possible to one day become a coach.

Bridging that divide is something Duhon took pride in during his time with the team. He liked being someone both players and coaches could turn to and trust when they needed to talk.

“It’s hard to find a young man with his level of commitment, trustworthiness and just the ability to be one of the guys,” former UVa baseball pitching coach and current Radford head coach Karl Kuhn said. “He’s always on the line. Is he with the coaching staff or with the players? As a coach you always worry about that, but you never worried about that with Rusty.”

Kuhn trusted Duhon and knew the manager could be counted on throughout his tenure.

“He was always a confidant,” Kuhn said. “He always had the program’s best interest at heart.”

Despite taking the head coaching job at Radford, Kuhn worked with Duhon from 2016-19. He saw the manager on a frequent basis and saw him grow up in the program.

He went from a wide-eyed manager worried about his food bill from Louisville to an experienced manager with an understanding of practice, preparation and game days at the collegiate level.

“He’s a wonderful young man,” Kuhn said. “A kid when we got him and he turned into a wonderful young man.”

Unfortunately for Duhon, his final season with the UVa baseball program came to an end abruptly.

The Cavaliers’ season ended before it really started, as they played just three ACC games before COVID-19 caused the end of spring sports.

Usually, players and managers have time to brace for the end of the season. Postseason games often come with the title of “elimination game.” Instead, Virginia’s season ended with a win 4-3 win over UMass Lowell in front of hundreds of kids on Field Trip Day.

Nobody on the team expected the end of the season, which made the ending all the more painful to digest.

After the news came out about the season, the NCAA ultimately awarded eligibility relief to spring sports athletes. Of course, that doesn’t apply to student managers like Duhon. His career was over.

“It was really tough to process that just like that, in a blink of an eye, it was all over,” Duhon said.

Next steps

While the ending lacked a smooth transition, Duhon spent four full seasons and part of a fifth with the program. He leaves UVa with a wealth of knowledge about how to lead a top-tier Division I baseball program.

“I feel like I’m close with all those guys now,” Duhon said of the staff. “I would do anything for those guys, and I definitely feel comfortable now after spending five years with those guys.”

Duhon expects to stick at the collegiate level following his graduation, as he likes that players are often still learning life lessons. The results matter, but many of the players won’t play professionally and the use the lessons learned on the diamond to guide them through the rest of their lives.

It’s uncertain what job Duhon will take in college baseball — he’s currently monitoring openings and staying on top of the situation — but COVID-19 has altered the collegiate sports landscape. When will sports return? Will some teams at the lower levels of collegiate baseball fold due to the financial implications of shutting down schools and athletics?

Monitoring the situation is a challenge, but Duhon is up for it. He’s ready for whatever is next.

Given Duhon’s success and impact at UVa, those within the program feel the team that lands him next will be glad it did.

“He’s a great kid, and he’s as much a part of Virginia baseball in the last five or six years as we are,” Kuhn said.

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