Coach Brian O’Connor leads Virginia baseball into NCAA regionals

Virginia baseball Coach Brian O’Connor noticed the numbered stickers on the helmet boxes right away. He figured they must have been left by VCU two weeks earlier, when the Cavaliers hosted their final home game of the regular season.

O’Connor had no reason to be on this side of Davenport Field before this week. Yet with Virginia set to host an NCAA regional for the eighth time since 2004, he knew the double-elimination format eventually would force the Cavaliers to play a game as the visiting team.

So Tuesday’s practice was conducted from the opposite point of view. The pitchers warmed up on the visitors’ bullpen mound. The batters walked to the plate after climbing the steps of the visitors’ dugout. Before he could start hitting fungoes, though, O’Connor had to pick away at those stickers.

On this field, every little detail counts.

“I’ve got a serious sense of ownership,” he said. “We’ve been here together at this thing 11 years, so we have a tremendous amount of pride, whether it be taking these stickers off the helmet boxes that shouldn’t be here or the way that we play the game. When you feel you have a part in building something, you want to see it through.”

Virginia (44-13) will begin its quest to reach the College World Series for the third time since 2009 on Friday afternoon with a game against Bucknell (30-19-1). The Cavaliers are one of the NCAA tournament’s eight national seeds for the fourth time in five seasons, a feat only Florida and Florida State also have accomplished during that time, and they have qualified for the postseason in every year under O’Connor.

Behind this burgeoning juggernaut is O’Connor’s scrupulous approach. Pitching, defense and fundamentals are preached daily, a caveat that has worked well within the spacious confines of Davenport Field. Sustained success and accountability have become hallmarks. Entire practices are often spent on situations like moving a runner from second to third with one out or hitting the cutoff man with just the right throw.

“Rather than rolling out here and hitting some balls, it’s always teaching,” said O’Connor, who won ACC coach of the year honors for the fifth time this season.

“And we better be on time,” closer Nick Howard added.

But Virginia’s record home crowds and its No. 1 preseason ranking this year can obscure just how far this program has come.

Before O’Connor arrived in Charlottesville in 2004 as a 32-year-old first-time head coach, Virginia administrators considered dropping the baseball team to club status. The program had been to the NCAA tournament just three times in 115 years, never advancing past the regional round.

Instead, Virginia opted to invest more money and opened Davenport Field in 2002. O’Connor’s achievements have led to the school expanding the stadium’s seating capacity twice because of ticket demand — the team’s average home attendance of 3,604 this season broke its mark set in 2011.

Not surprisingly, Athletic Director Craig Littlepage often says he hired O’Connor because of the detailed plan he laid out during the interview process.

“This is kind of the brainchild of our three coaches. Everything from the players you have on this team to the style of baseball we play, it’s a winning formula,” catcher Nate Irving said. Associate head coach Kevin McMullen and pitching coach Karl Kuhn have been with O’Connor since he came to Virginia.

The manner in which the Cavaliers reached this year’s NCAA tournament has O’Connor’s fingerprints all over it.

Though the team has remained in the top five of the national rankings all season, it had a small margin for error. Twenty-one of its 57 games have been decided by one run or in extra innings, but Virginia did not lose back-to-back contests until last week’s ACC tournament.

A lineup that ranked second in the country in runs a year ago and could have at least six juniors selected in next week’s Major League Baseball draft hasn’t produced as expected. But the Cavaliers have compensated with a pitching staff that led the ACC in ERA (2.36) and with the nation’s third-best fielding percentage.

Those two statistics are particularly satisfying for O’Connor after pitching and defense cost the Cavaliers against Mississippi State in the super regionals a year ago. They may have to go through two Southeastern Conference teams this year — Arkansas is the No. 2 seed in this weekend’s regional, and South Carolina could come to Charlottesville for next week’s super regionals if Virginia advances.

“We’ve been a little tougher on them, challenged them more, to keep them on the task at hand,” O’Connor said of this year’s team. “When you have high expectations, you have two choices: You can either be loose and laid back or put the foot down on the accelerator, and that’s the option we’ve chosen.”

With that, O’Connor scraped the last sticker away, grabbed a bat and began to critique an infielder about the proper foot positioning on a throw to home plate. To reach the College World Series again, every little detail will count.

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