One question looms large for Virginia
Again the ACC has an opportunity to end its 59-year CWS championship drought
"OK, I know what you're going to ask, so let's get this out of the way."
Brian O'Connor said it with a tone that was equal parts "oh man, this is funny" and "oh man, here we go again." It was February, and his Virginia Cavaliers were about to start the 2014 college baseball season as the preseason No. 1 team in the nation. They were favored to win the Atlantic Coast Conference, roll into Omaha, Nebraska, and win the national championship.
"Go on, ask me ..."
Having already led UVa to Omaha twice and having spent his childhood attending countless games at Rosenblatt Stadium, heck, even playing there, O'Connor has both witnessed and experienced the pain that leads to what he knows is an inevitable question when it comes to his conference and June baseball. He always knows the question is coming. So does every other coach from his conference.
"Coach, is this the year that an ACC team finally wins the College World Series?"
O'Connor didn't roll his eyes, but no one would've blamed him if he had. Instead, he politely answered the question, just as he would again when the Cavs started postseason play ... and when they faced ACC foe Maryland in the Charlottesville Super Regional ... and when they met with the media on the eve of the College World Series ... and after his team had clinched its first championship series appearance ... and when, well, you get the idea.
"It's an honor to represent the ACC," O'Connor said. "It's a heckuva accomplishment to be the last team standing from our conference. There are no easy weekends on a schedule, I can tell you that. If we can achieve our ultimate goal, winning the College World Series, then a bonus to that is that we can also help our conference achieve that goal, too."
Forgive those who keep bringing it up. O'Connor does. In their defense, the query has earned the repetition because the central fact behind it is worthy of display at Ripley's Believe Or Not. The last ACC team to celebrate a College World Series title was Wake Forest in 1955. 1955!
"It's nice that people remember us each year, but I would guess that today's ACC teams have grown a little tired of hearing about it."
Those are the words of Jack McGinley, hero of that Demon Deacons squad. His performance was the perfect microcosm of Wake's improbable CWS title run, in which he earned a 5-0 win-loss record in the postseason, including three of the team's five Omaha wins, after having posted a pedestrian 3-2 record during the regular season.
"I'm still not sure how it fell together that I got all those starts in all those big games," McGinley said during a conversation a year ago, when North Carolina and NC State were the Omaha teams being peppered with the annual ACC-since-Wake '55 questions.
A retired school administrator living in Fayetteville, North Carolina, McGinley said his phone usually rings each summer with friends calling to say his team was being mentioned on ESPN.
"That's what it takes to win a championship," he said. "Everything just has to work out. It will for another ACC team soon. Then they can stop hearing questions about us."
In the nearly six decades since the Demon Deacons' dogpile, 22 teams from nine conferences (and one independent) have won CWS titles and two of those conferences -- the Southern California Baseball Association and the Southwest Conference -- no longer exist. The ACC might be one of the "Big Five" leagues seeking NCAA autonomy, but the non-BCS unions of the WAC, Big West, West Coast and Missouri Valley all have something the southern superpower does not: A CWS title won since the first term of the Eisenhower administration. Even the Big Ten, which sends teams to Omaha on a Haley's Comet-like schedule, has five CWS championships since '55.
"On paper, it does seem a little out of whack," said Florida State head coach Mike Martin, admitting it might be an understatement. His storied Seminoles program joined the ACC in 1991 and made the CWS title game in '99, losing to then-independent Miami.
"I can tell you this, though, no conference is more committed to baseball," Martin said. "That's pretty evident by the facilities you're seeing being built, the coaches that are coming in, and the number of ACC teams that you see in the tournament and in Omaha year in and year out."
He's right. But all of that merely adds to the mystery. The conference is packed with longtime power programs that took baseball seriously even when most schools did not, from FSU and Miami (who joined in 2004) to Clemson and Georgia Tech. It also has seen a remarkable resurgence among once-dormant teams such as North Carolina, NC State, Maryland and Virginia.
Over the past decade nearly a quarter of the teams that have made the College World Series have come from the ACC. Virginia is the 43rd ACC team to earn a trip to Omaha since 1955 and the 18th since 2006. That year the conference provided four of the eight CWS teams, but still couldn't close the deal. As any UNC fan (not to mention ACC executive) will tell you, the Tar Heels lost to Oregon State that year in heartbreaking fashion. A throwing error led to the go-ahead run in the top of the ninth for OSU, then UNC left two runners stranded in the bottom of the inning and lost 3-2.
ACC teams have managed to keep winning despite bat and pitching and evolutions, tournament changes and conference realignment. But they've been forced to watch schools from Arizona, California, Texas and (gulp) the SEC take the big trophy while they stockpiled "participant" awards.
"Getting there hasn't been the problem for our conference, it's been getting over that last hurdle," said Mike Fox, the UNC head coach who was the second baseman on another heartbroken Heels team, the 1978 squad that blew a lead to eventual national champion Southern Cal in the CWS semifinals. "If you keep getting chances, eventually the numbers will play in your favor."
UNC earned another chance in '07 but again lost to Oregon State. It was one of only four times that an ACC school reached the championship series from 1956 through 2013. Now Virginia becomes the fifth, and the support of their conference mates is behind them, even the one that's headed out the door.
"I'm rooting for them now," admitted John Szefc, head coach of the Maryland team that lost to UVa in the super regional and will play in the Big Ten next season. "I think anyone who knows how hard Brian has worked to get that program turned around is pulling for them. And everyone in the conference should be. Just so they don't have to get the question again."
There would be a tasty symmetry to a Virginia title. Like Wake Forest in '55, the idea of UVa as a national power was laughable just a few years ago. The program was on the verge of being shuttered when O'Connor was hired in 2003. Now they are in their third College World Series. And in their first finals appearance they are facing off with Vanderbilt, which represents the SEC, the neighboring conference that has stolen much of the ACC's would-be baseball thunder over the last two decades.
Then again, all of the above might make it sting even a little more than usual should Virginia not return home victorious.
"Don't get me wrong," Miami coach Jim Morris said. "I wanted to be the team that ended the drought. But whoever does it will be doing all the rest of us a favor."
"Because you won't be asking me this question again."
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