This weekend will be about many things for the Virginia baseball team: earning the program’s second College World Series berth in three years, validating its status as the NCAA tournament’s top overall seed and perpetuating the mantra that has carried the Cavaliers through yet another season of high expectations.
All of those goals hinge on preventing a reoccurrence of last season’s final, haunting scene — players from some faraway place celebrating on Virginia’s home field after upsetting Virginia one step shy of college baseball’s grandest stage.
Virginia (52-9) hosts California Irvine (42-16) in a best-of-three super regional series that begins Saturday. The winner moves on to the College World Series, the eight-team culmination of the NCAA tournament held annually in Omaha.
“The only thing that I would say is that there was so much hype,” Virginia Coach Brian O’Connor said of his 2010 squad. “It was just kind of, you know, maybe assumed by everybody that we’re just supposed to win and go to Omaha again. And I guess as a group we learned that you just can’t take things for granted.”
The Cavaliers have qualified for the NCAA tournament each season since O’Connor took over the program in 2004; Virginia is one of 13 teams in the nation that have reached the past eight NCAA tournaments.
But of those 13 teams, Virginia is one of four that has not appeared in more than one CWS during that span. (Oral Roberts, Southern Mississippi and Texas Christian are the others.)
“We’re not like one of these programs in the storied history of college baseball that has been to Omaha 10 times,” O’Connor said. “We’re still trying to prove that we can build a tradition here. You do that by going out and earning it on weekends like this weekend.”
Virginia advanced to its first CWS in program history in 2009 as an underdog that had to travel to its super regional site. Last season — armed with nearly the entire roster that had advanced to Omaha the year before — the Cavaliers hosted a super regional against Oklahoma.
After winning the first game, Virginia dropped the final two, with elimination coming in an 11-0 loss. Afterward, the Sooners formed a dog pile on Davenport Field, and the image of Oklahoma’s on-field celebration lingered.
“We knew we didn’t play good baseball and we didn’t deserve to get” to Omaha, sophomore shortstop Chris Taylor said. “But at the same time, it was a heartbreak to see that. We had the confidence that we were going to get there. It just hurt to have it happen like that.”
Virginia’s players said they used that loss — and that post-loss image — as a motivating tool during offseason workouts, as well as during the regular season grind. Against Oklahoma they had — even if just temporarily — let up on the precision and fundamentals that had carried them to the doorstep of the CWS. They vowed not to make the same mistake again.
And so, junior third baseman Steven Proscia said, every day this season the Cavaliers have broken their team huddle by shouting one phrase: Bring it.
Falling in the super regional round last season “was really devastating,” senior utility player Kenny Swab said. “It was kind of shocking. But we kind of moved on. I don’t want to say moved on completely and forgotten completely about it. But we definitely remember what that left-out feeling was, and we don’t want that feeling again.”
If they do, it won’t be because of insufficient talent. On Saturday, the Cavaliers will send junior left-hander Danny Hultzen — the No. 2 overall pick by the Seattle Mariners in the 2011 MLB draft — to the mound. He’s one of eight draft picks — second in program history only to the nine Virginia had last year — the Cavaliers will have at their disposal this weekend.
But as Virginia learned last season — when the Cavaliers hadn’t dropped consecutive games all season prior to the series against Oklahoma — superior talent doesn’t always win out.
Virginia was swept in its regular season-ending series against North Carolina in May, and O’Connor believes that might have been for the best. He said it refocused the team at a crucial juncture in the season. The Cavaliers proceeded to claim the ACC tournament title, defeating the Tar Heels in the process.
“It continued to reinforce to them that for a majority of the season people across the country thought your team was the best team in college baseball,” O’Connor said, “and we’re never going to be judged by what happens on one weekend.”
While that might be true in regards to the regular season, the same sentiment doesn’t necessarily apply to the postseason. Not for the squad favored to win the CWS, at least.
Since the NCAA tournament field was expanded in 1999, only once has the overall No. 1 seed won the national title (Miami in 1999), and six of the past seven national champions were not among the tournament’s top eight seeds.
“At some point, somebody needs to break that streak,” O’Connor said. “I’m not saying it’s going to be us. We’ll see. But at some point it’s got to swing back the other way.”