Feb. 4, 2011

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Virginia reloading, not rebuilding

By Allen Kha



CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. – Riding momentum from a magical run to Omaha two years ago, the Virginia baseball program catapulted to new heights last season. The program set records on all fronts, translating unprecedented preseason expectations into a program-record 51 wins, its first No. 1 ranking (for 12 straight weeks in the Baseball America poll), a program-first home Super Regional and a school-record nine players selected in the Major League Baseball Draft.


Equally important, the program grew tremendous rapport among the Charlottesville community to the extent that the Cavaliers’ stadium expanded from 3,600 to 4,825 last year to accommodate the excess demand for tickets. Virginia has racked up six 40-win seasons in coach Brian O’Connor’s seven seasons (the Cavaliers won 39 games in 2008) but only recently has seen the fan base grow.


“We certainly rode the momentum from our Omaha run with our fan base, and it’s wonderful to see the community respond they way they did last season,” O’Connor (pictured about) said. “I’m tremendously grateful that our administration has given us the support to expand our facilities and grow our stadium, and our job now is to be good enough to keep and grow our current level of fan support.”


O’Connor hopes his team can achieve another 40-win season and postseason appearance despite losing many of his key players from last season to the draft – including last season’s entire starting outfield of center fielder Jarrett Parker (Giants, second round), left fielder/second baseman Phil Gosselin (Braves, fifth round), and right fielder Dan Grovatt (Pirates, 11th round).


The Cavaliers, however, have two experienced pitchers – All-American junior Danny Hultzen and senior Tyler Wilson (right), who elected to return to school after being drafted in the 35th round – leading a particularly strong pitching staff.


“The key for us as a program is to recruit players that not only understand the game, but are athletes,” O’Connor said. “Versatility is a great attribute to possess, and we have many players who are versatile and can move around. That only helps us when we develop as a team and figure out our roles.


“I know we may not have a player like [St. John’s sophomore All-American outfielder] Jeremy Baltz, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have hitters who are feared. Anyway, if you think about it, [Boston Red Sox outfielder] Ryan Kalish could have been our masher. It’s a matter of circumstance, and our recruiting philosophy. We have some great baseball players on our team.”


The Virginia coach is confident that his team possesses a deep-enough lineup to quell any potential concerns about the lack of an “impact, power” bat. Virginia batted an ACC-leading .331 last season and scored 525 runs (the pitching staff conceded a .238 average and 276 runs, an average of 4.2 runs a game). In addition, eight of ten players who had more than 100 at-bats last season – five of whom return this season – batted over .300, a testament to the Cavaliers’ depth.


Both Wilson and O’Connor noted that players like sophomore utility players Stephen Bruno, Reed Gragnani and Chris Taylor are players to watch and successfully will step into the shoes of Parker, Gosselin, Grovatt and former senior shortstop Tyler Cannon.


“Even though we lost an amazing group of guys, we’re going to be fine as a team,” Wilson said. “We have young players who can step up and deliver, and we have great players like Keith Werman [junior second baseman and .423-hitter] who can make plays for us.”


When asked about returning for his senior season, Wilson said: “Certainly achieving the dream of becoming a professional baseball player and being able to go into the pros with my teammates and some of my best friends was something hard to pass up. But our program here at Virginia offers just as much, and I have the opportunity to finish my degree. I’m ready to erase last season and start this season.”


As the Cavaliers gear up for the 2011 season, they surely cannot forget the tremendously unfitting end to last year’s magical season – an 11-0 loss against Oklahoma in Game 3 of the Charlottesville Super Regional.


During the bottom of the ninth in that game, Jarrett Parker received a standing ovation from the remaining fans as he took his final at-bat as a Cavalier. Perhaps a metaphor for this season, Virginia is determined to become a program that never rebuilds, both as a team and in the community, but reloads.


(O'Connor photo by Jimmy Jones, Wilson photo courtesy of UVa Media Relations Office)