Story by Chris Graham
It is the best of times for Virginia baseball.
The program is coming off back-to-back NCAA regionals appearances – which had never been accomplished before at the University of Virginia – and it appears certain that coach Brian O’Connor’s crew is headed back to the postseason next month.
The good news for UVa. fans – it’s only going to get better.
“It will be exciting to see how this team does down the stretch run. We’ve got a lot of youth on the field – and they’ve done a tremendous job. I’ll be excited to see how they handle the pressure down the stretch,” O’Connor told the “ACC Nation” radio show last week.
From freshmen David Adams and Jeremy Farrell to sophomores Brandon Guyer and Sean Doolittle leading the offense to Doolittle and classmates Jacob Thompson and Michael Schwimer heading the pitching staff, the youths are taking charge in 2006 – and laying the foundation for a bright future.
The future is now, though, as the young Cavaliers continue on their quest to serve up notice that they’re ready to take their place among the college-baseball elite.
“This is probably our most complete team. We’ve had great pitching and defense here the two-plus years that I’ve been here and some good offensive teams – but this is by far our most productive offensive ballclub. That’s made us a complete team – and up until this point, it probably is our best team,” said O’Connor, whose team was hitting a blistering .328 and scoring eight runs a game in 2006 through the end of last week – up from .290 and six runs a game a year ago.
The pitching, already strong – last year’s staff posted a team earned-run average of 2.74 – is also getting better, lowering the team ERA to a glittering 2.56 through the end of last week.
Senior lefthander Mike Ballard told “ACC Nation” last month that the marked improvement in Virginia baseball that has been seen since O’Connor first stepped foot on Grounds has to do with simple good old-fashioned hard work.
“The amount of work that we put in is just unbelievable. It’s a night-and-day difference from what it was beforehand,” said Ballard, who was recruited by O’Connor’s predecessor, Dennis Womack.
“They get us really prepared – with all the running and conditioning and mental toughness and physical toughness that we work on. That really prepares us for the long, grueling season – and it allows us to go out there and compete at such a high level and come out on top a good amount of times,” Ballard said.
“I feel like a lot of the credit goes to how they push us so hard,” Ballard said.
O’Connor said he takes pride in how he and his players and assistant coaches go about their business every day.
“When I came here, I tried to set the program to a level where there’s a lot of accountability. The players hold each other accountable, the coaches hold the players accountable, and we go about our business in a very, very professional workmanship type of manner,” O’Connor said.
“I think when you go about your business full throttle all the time, when you get in challenging situations on the back half of ballgames, where you’re under the pressure to perform, they’ve been in that situation every day at practice – and they’ve been held accountable to perform at that level. And it’s paid off,” O’Connor said.
“All of these kids who are in our program, a lot like the other ACC programs, they all want to accomplish greatness, and they all want to win a championship and get to Omaha – and I think the way you do that and the way you build a program is through hard work, keeping pressure on the players, but also showing them confidence and that you believe in them. That’s the formula that we’ve used here – and it’s been successful,” O’Connor said.
Another part of the formula that O’Connor laid out when he took the Virginia job has to do with getting UVa. fans on the team’s side. The excitement over the weekend series with top-ranked North Carolina would seem to be an indication that he has been successful there as well.
“I felt when I took the job here that creating a fan base and an excitement around our program was a very critical part of our success in the future,” O’Connor said.
“We’re battling history in this league – there are so many great historical baseball programs in this league. We’re just trying to build on what we’ve done and keep trying to move forward and trying to develop some consistency. I’m really happy where we’re at right now – and if we continue to have success on a consistent basis, who knows what can happen here?” O’Connor said.