Fans celebrate UVA baseball national championship

An estimated 4,000 fans were filling the John Paul Jones Arena Thursday to fete the UVA baseball team, returning to Charlottesville as conquering heroes, big trophy in hand. Beneath the bleachers, coach Brian O’Connor, pitchers Josh Sborz and Brandon Waddell and third baseman Kenny Towns reflected on what seemed impossible a month ago, and what the radio play-by-play man Channing Poole couldn’t seem to stop saying.

National champions. Has a nice ring to it.

“We’ve got a serious fan following here. It’s something that we’re really, really proud of, and we’ll get a chance to see that when we walk out these doors,” O’Connor told reporters.

The team, to a man, was operating on maybe a couple of hours of sleep, after defeating Vanderbilt in the deciding game of the 2015 College World Series late Wednesday, celebrating into the night, then hopping a plane and then a bus to get back home to Charlottesville from the home away from home for the OmaHoos the past few summers.

“They’re young. Sleep is overrated,” said O’Connor, who didn’t look any worse for the wear himself.

And what a wear, a grind, it was for UVA in 2015. The Cavs were ranked #1 nationally in some of the national polls in the preseason, a fact that O’Connor said he was reminded of when his team headed out to Omaha earlier in the month.

“Actually, going into the season, with what we had coming back on the mound, and the fact that we had our starting catcher back, the fact that we had the left side of our infield returning, we had an All-American in Joe McCarthy, we had a lot of the pieces in the puzzle from last year back,” O’Connor said.

But then “things started happening that were challenging for us,” he said, alluding to the litany of injuries that prevented O’Connor from ever once sending out his projected starting lineup to the field in 2015.

After a 12-0 start, Virginia went through an extended 16-19 stretch that had the ‘Hoos on the verge of being left on the outside looking in as far as an NCAA Tournament bid as concerned.

The nadir was the three-game sweep that Louisville laid on Virginia the weekend of April 4-6, during which the Cardinals outscored the Cavs by a combined score of 23-5.

“That was kind of a reality check,” said senior third baseman Kenny Towns. “We realized, we need to get this thing turned around, we need to start playing good baseball. And I guess everybody took to that and started to realize that there was a bit of a sense of urgency that we needed to play with.”

Brandon Waddell, the winning pitcher in the national championship game, said even at the lowest point, the Cavs “never really changed our own expectations.”

“We knew that the stuff we had in the clubhouse was good enough to go all the way,” said Waddell, a fifth-round 2015 MLB Draft pick. “It wasn’t always pretty. We did face our ups and downs. But I think we always had faith and confidence that if we put it together, we could go all the way.”

The rest is history, well documented at this stage. UVA secured a berth in the ACC Tournament with a sweep of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, then got an at-large bid into the NCAA Tournament after going 1-3 in Durham.

The team that left Charlottesville for the Lake Elsinore Regional on May 27 barely resembles the team that returned Thursday with the national championship trophy occupying its own seat on the plane and the bus ride home. O’Connor and pitching coach Karl Kuhn devised a plan of action to best use the two-man starting rotation of Waddell and Connor Jones and the one-man bullpen of Josh Sborz to win 10 games.

Jones and Waddell started nine of Virginia’s 12 games in the 2015 postseason, and Sborz closed out eight games, earning four wins and three saves in 19 innings without allowing an earned run.

It seemed like every button that O’Connor pushed was the right one, from going to little-used David Rosenberger in defeating Southern Cal for the regional championship to getting a key inning out of Alec Bettinger in the Super Regional, to starting Nathan Kirby and Adam Haseley in key games in Omaha, and going to Waddell in the title game on three days rest.

O’Connor gave insight into the process that was behind the thinking last week after Virginia had won its first two games in the College World Series that illustrated what was going on behind the scenes. O’Connor said he met twice with Kuhn during the Cavs’ mid-week break in the CWS last week to map out their options, “not necessarily to win the Friday game or Saturday game against Florida, but to map it out to put these players in the best position to win the national championship.”

“And it worked as good as we could have drawn it up. But that’s because of what these guys did,” O’Connor said.

Kirby took the L in Friday’s 10-5 loss to Florida, but the two and two-thirds innings on the mound that day helped him get back some of the sharpness lost during his nine weeks off recovering from a lat injury, and made him a late-inning option in the CWS Championship Series.

Haseley, the surprise Game 2 Championship Series starter, gave UVA five scoreless innings before handing the ball to Sborz, who gutted out four scoreless innings in relief to force the deciding Game 3.

Waddell overcame a shaky first inning in Game 3 in which the Commodores scored two runs and left a runner on third to give Virginia seven innings in his first career start on three days rest.

Enter Kirby, who for two innings was the Nathan Kirby of old, striking out five of the eight batters he faced.

When Kirby left what turned out to be his last regular-season start on April 17, not even the most optimistic among the Virginia faithful could have foreseen him being at the bottom of the ultimate dogpile in Omaha, Neb., in June.

It was the ending to a Disney-fied baseball movie script that would never get the green light for its over-the-top cliché cheesiness.

Team goes through long losing streak, turns it around just in time, the star pitcher comes back from injury, gets the last out, the fireworks go off in the background, fade to black.

University of Virginia president Teresa Sullivan’s background is sociology, not literature, so maybe her perspective on these things is more valid, based on science, not art.

“It was wonderful for the team, but it was also wonderful for this university, and also this community as well,” Sullivan said, thanking the baseball team for its accomplishments. “You showed us all what it means to have a lot of heart. And we really appreciate it. We suffered with you through the adversities. Now we want to rejoice with you through the triumph. It’s a really great thing for the University of Virginia.”

Towns gave a glimpse of what the championship meant to the guys in the clubhouse.

“While we were waiting for some people to do some interviews, we were sitting in the locker room, and everyone was passing around the trophy, just having a great time. That would be the moment for me where we really realized, hey, we did it,” Towns said. “You could just tell in there how excited everyone was and how pumped up they were to win that national championship. That was something that was really exciting, just to be together, outside of all the fans.

“It was just us in there, and we were kind of just letting each other know how much we loved each other. It was incredible.”

Waiting outside were those 4,000 fans. It was time to go have some fun.

“This program has grown and grown over the years, and the support that’s been given to these guys that wear our uniform is tremendous,” O’Connor said. “There’s a lot of people in this town that are really, really proud of what these guys did. That good feeling that that brings to people, the end of a year from an athletics standpoint, it just gets people in this community excited, and looking forward to another great athletics year next year.”

For the first time in UVA baseball history, there will be no waiting ‘til next year. The champs are here.

– Column by Chris Graham


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