NCAA baseball tournament: Virginia heads into its 10th straight NCAA tournament as a national seed

Virginia pitcher Scott Silverstein leaned back in the home dugout at Davenport Field on Thursday, flashing a smirk as he recounted the “five-run home run” swings that undermined sophomore Nick Howard and his classmates in the postseason last year.

A redshirt senior and one of the few grizzled veterans on this year’s team, Silverstein still remembers driving Howard to school each morning from their homes in the Olney area when they played together in 2008 at St. John’s High in Washington.

These days, though, Howard is part of a talented group of underclassmen who have become the driving force behind Virginia’s transformation from preseason afterthought to one of eight national seeds in the 2013 NCAA baseball tournament.

“Honestly,” Silverstein said, with Howard seated next to him, “they had to be this good for us to get to this point. They’ve lived up to expectations and even exceeded them.”

The top-seeded Cavaliers will face No. 4 seed Army in Charlottesville on Friday, the first day of an NCAA double-elimination regional that also includes No. 2 seed UNC Wilmington and No. 3 seed Elon. It’s part of a jam-packed weekend of college baseball in Virginia as Virginia Tech will host the school’s first-ever NCAA tournament regional in Blacksburg, starting with a game Friday against No. 4 seed Connecticut.

But it’s the Cavaliers who spent more than two months this season ranked among the top 10 teams in the country, a distinction most didn’t expect when Virginia began the year out of the top 25 in all but one national poll. The Cavaliers are one of eight schools to make 10 straight NCAA tournament appearances, and the recipe for success this time around has been to rely on youth.

“It wasn’t unexpected in our clubhouse, but I guess the media didn’t really know much of who our guys were,” Howard said.

Five of Virginia’s top six hitters in 2013 have been in the program less than two years, and at least eight likely will start Friday — including six sophomores and freshman pitcher Brandon Waddell — when the Cavaliers begin NCAA tournament play against the Black Knights for a second year in a row.

In 2012, Virginia beat Army, 9-1, but had little luck the rest of the weekend as a regional host, losing its next two games to end the season. During those two defeats, the Cavaliers’ collection of then-freshmen went a combined 4 for 33 (.121) at the plate.

“We kind of took the magnitude of the game and got a little over-emotional with it,” sophomore catcher Nate Irving said Thursday. “It’s really great having last year under our belts.”

By any measure, Virginia’s core of underclassmen grew from that experience and none hit worse than.279 this season, despite increased roles within the program.

Sophomore left fielder Mike Papi, who led the country in on-base percentage (.536) and led the ACC in batting average (.400), and Howard, an infielder-pitcher, earned first team all-ACC honors. Sophomore shortstop Branden Cogswell, who may not play this weekend because of a broken finger, and outfielder Joe McCarthy, the ACC freshman of the year, were named second team all-conference.

The only thing left to see is whether the regular season improvements will carry over as Virginia pursues its third trip to the College World Series in five years.

“You don’t all of a sudden make the NCAA tournament and then start making Omaha, because everybody has earned the right to be playing this time of year,” Coach Brian O’Connor said this week. “I just think the more you play in the NCAA tournament, the more your players get accustomed to playing at the end of the year, playing when there’s a lot of pressure.”

Mark Giannotto covers high school sports for The Washington Post.
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