One of the challenges that follows a banner year is matching that success the next season.
By any measure, last year was a banner season for UVA’s baseball team. The Cavaliers’ 49-15-1 record was the best in school history, and the trip to Omaha for the College World Series was the program’s first. Along the way, the players set 11 team records and led the ACC in batting, ERA and stolen bases.
Now coach Brian O’Connor, who received two National Coach of the Year awards, faces heightened expectations. Baseball America magazine ranked the Cavaliers No. 2 in its preseason predictions; that’s the highest ranking in the program’s history.
Fortunately, 23 of last year’s 29 letter winners are back in uniform for Virginia, and the windup has begun for another run at the College World Series.
O’Connor took some time during the preseason to answer questions about last year’s highlights and this season’s outlook.
How, if at all, did last year change the trajectory of the program?
Last year, obviously, was an unbelievable year in the history of our program. The sad thing about it is that in a lot of people’s eyes, you have to get to Omaha to validate your program. I don’t like that, but the nature of it is that we did get to Omaha and it did change the perception of our program. But we haven’t changed. The program hasn’t changed what our day-to-day expectations of the players are or how we’re going to run the program or how we’re going to recruit. It just happens to be that in one year we put it all together at the most important time of year.
What has the junior class meant to this program?
It’s really a special group. If you think about the impact this group has made on the pitching mound and from an offensive standpoint, it’s pretty substantial. It’s been a group that really made an impact right away as freshmen—all those outfielders started and played every game as freshmen. The pitchers didn’t really contribute a whole lot their freshman year but really developed their sophomore year. They’re a very unselfish group, very team-oriented, and they have a chance to leave their legacy forever in this program. But the same could be said for our second-year group.
How critical have assistant coaches Kevin McMullan and Karl Kuhn been to Virginia baseball’s success?
These two guys have been with me for seven years; they’ve been as loyal as the day is long. Consistency in the coaching staff has a lot to do with the success of a program, and when you’re changing assistant coaches all the time it’s tough to get continuity, development and recruiting.
How did Danny Hultzen, ACC freshman of the year and Virginia’s Friday night starter, pull off what he did last year?
He’s special, talent-wise, but also he’s got an incredible makeup—poise, he’s got everything that you look for. To do what he did—start on Friday night as a freshman in the best baseball conference in the country and have a ton of success on the mound, but then every other game play first base and hit in an important spot in our order—is just really, really rare.
Facility upgrades are in the works. What do they look like and how do they help?
This project is addressing two areas. One is to help enhance our opportunities to host NCAA regionals and super-regionals. We were lacking some amenities in our facility that the NCAA likes to see—a visitors’ locker room, an umpires’ locker room—basically amenities behind the first-base dugout that are staples in the new facilities that have been built the last five years. Secondly, a major part of it is our player development. In the past we had indoor cages, but they were not heated; now the three cages underneath our stadium are completed and heated. We’ll have a new training room, a 2,500-square-foot weight room, a team meeting room, a video and film room, and a hall-of-fame room.