Balancing act: O’Connor wants ‘Hoos to enjoy Omaha, but the goal is to win

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Photo courtesy UVA Athletics.

Virginia competed in four College World Series in a seven-year span between 2009 and 2015. Six years might not seem that long, but it’s forever for the kids getting their first taste of Omaha this year.

“Yeah, it means a lot for me. Just growing up watching the past years, the Super Regionals and going to Omaha, watching those games, I always wanted to do it as part of the team. And now that we’ve done it, we’re going Omaha, definitely really special,” said shortstop Nic Kent, who as a Charlottesville native went to high school in the shadow, almost literally, of Davenport Field, which is across the street from St. Anne’s-Belfield, his prep alma mater.

Centerfielder Chris Newell hails from Newtown Square, Pa., but he might as well be from Central Virginia.

Newell committed to UVA as a high school freshman in 2016, in the wake of the Cavaliers’ 2015 national title run.

“Obviously, that played a huge part and getting me here, because I still remember sitting in my living room, watching them play in Omaha, and then going to win Omaha next year,” Newell said. “It’s something that always had stayed in the back of my head. It’s always been a dream of mine to put this uniform one and try and do the same thing that that 2015 team did, and bring home a national championship.”

The current crop of Cavaliers hadn’t even been to an NCAA Tournament before this season – Virginia last competed in an NCAA Regional in 2017, getting shut out of bids in 2018 and 2019, and of course, 2020, that season cut short by COVID.

For coach Brian O’Connor, this week is a balancing act – between enjoying the experience of going to Omaha for the College World Series, and doing the work necessary to compete for a national championship.

“I want them to enjoy this,” O’Connor said. “I’ve been talking to the team for a couple of weeks now that, you know, the experiences that they get to do in the NCAA Regional, Super Regional, and now Omaha, is earned, their earned experiences, and I want them to enjoy it with a smile on their face. And, you know, you just don’t have these opportunities very often as a player, and I want them to experience it all and enjoy it.”

That said, O’Connor has been stressing that “the goal is not accomplished.”

“You know, everybody talks about getting to Omaha, and every college baseball program, that’s a focus and goal on every team. But our focus is to get to Omaha to win,” O’Connor said. “Distractions can happen. I choose to think of them as good distractions. You know, you’re in Omaha, the city loves you, the city wraps its arms around you.

“We’re going to get the kids out, and they’re going to experience everything that the College World Series has to offer. But there will be certainly focused work every day, whether it be on the field or video work in preparation for the next day, whatever it might be,” O’Connor said.

The message seems to be getting through to his players.

“One thing Coach Oak said that I thought was really good advice, just to just be where you’re at,” Kent said. “There’s going to be so many different events for us to go to, I think there’s really cool zoo there. Just be where you’re at. When you’re at the baseball field, work on being prepared. And you know, don’t get distracted with all the little kids asking for autographs and all that stuff. But just be where you’re at, trying to get better when you’re at the field, and then have fun when you’re away from it.”

“I think probably the biggest thing is just to take it day by day,” Newell said. “You know, not trying to make too much out of it right away. But, I mean, I’m kind of at a loss of words at this point, from where we started this year, to getting to where we are, you know, this group of guys is a really tough group of guys. And we’re really hungry, and we like to fight. So, I think we’re going to have a great time.”

Don’t overlook that part of the Virginia Baseball 2021 story. This team started the season ranked as high as #5 nationally, with the expectation that it would end its season in Omaha, but after losing a Friday night game in Atlanta to Georgia Tech on April 1, the ‘Hoos stood at 11-14 overall, 4-12 in the ACC, not even a lock to make the 12-team ACC Tournament, much less the NCAA Tournament.

“I think, definitely, the past two years, there has been a lot of pressure, and then this year after our slow start, it was definitely like, you know, when is this going to happen?” Kent said. “But this team, and just the resilience of it, and everybody, nobody ever stopped working. And you know, a lot of people doubted us after the first half of the season, but we still knew that we could do it. And I think just the hard work that we put on every day has allowed us to get here.”

“We pretty much had to win, win out, basically, and if we didn’t, then we had to sweep somebody, which we did,” Newell said. “But I mean, we kind of all had that feeling it within ourselves that we could do it, and I feel like we never lost that, which I think is honestly really special with this group. You know, we all believe in each other, even from where we were at in April, beginning of April, you know, we kind of just put the blinders on and left everything in the past and just took it day by day and game by game. And here we are now. So, I feel like that says a lot about this group.”

Story by Chris Graham

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