Brian O'Connor's Virginia vision
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- On a brisk, sunny Sunday in May, the Virginia Cavaliers prepared for their second-to-last home game of the season. The Wahoos, ranked seventh nationally, had walloped the Duke Blue Devils, 17-8, the night before and were hoping to sweep the weekend series. On Senior Day, 4,646 fans packed into Davenport Field, cheering on a young team that, despite lacking the superstar talent of recent UVa rosters, had cobbled wins together all season, often in the final outs.
But through the first two innings, the Cavaliers played sluggishly and disorganized. Duke claimed a 2-0 lead. UVa coach Brian O'Connor, now in his 10th season leading the Cavaliers, wasn't pleased.
"There was a lot of yelling, a lot of holding people accountable in our dugout, and it got pretty heated," O'Connor said. "The gist of it was, we weren't doing what we'd said we'd do. After the game, I reminded the team that you all chose to come here because you had high expectations for yourself and this team. You were told by our coaching staff that we'd hold you accountable every day. And it's our responsibility to challenge you when you're not holding up to your end of the bargain."
The reprimand worked. The Cavs went out in the bottom of the second and scored five runs before going on to win 14-6, claiming their fourth ACC series sweep of the season. The next weekend, the Wahoos traveled to Chapel Hill and won two out of three games against UNC, then the top-ranked team in the nation, capturing their first series at Carolina since 2007.
Accountability. Consistency. Expectations of how his players should work on and off the field. These foundations of the program run by O'Connor -- along with assistant coaches Kevin McMullan and Karl Kuhn -- have led to remarkable success over the past 10 years, whether the four-time ACC Coach of the Year is leading a roster of future major leaguers or a squad like this season's, which surprised many by being ranked in the nation's top 10 heading into the postseason.
Because although the faces change, the results remain the same. As the Cavaliers host another NCAA regional this weekend, the talented trio of "Oak, Mac and K" has transformed Virginia baseball into one of the nation's powerhouse programs.
Kyle Werman arrived at the University of Virginia in 2001. A strong academic student and starting second baseman for his high school squad, Werman hoped to walk onto the baseball team and felt that the Cavaliers, under then-head coach Dennis Womack, were a good choice.
At the time, UVa didn't compete with UNC, Clemson and Florida State for recruits; just a few years before, university administrators had considered reducing baseball to a club sport.
"What attracted people to UVa baseball then was that you're playing Division I, ACC baseball at one of the best academic schools in the country," Werman said. "The depth of the program wasn't where it is now."
Nor were the facilities. Although Davenport Field had been dedicated in 2002, the rest of the facilities were subpar: a chain-link fence circling the field's circumference, run-down bleachers and press box, and a less-than-sturdy dugout where players risked rolling an ankle. Still, Womack, who now works in sports administration at UVa, led the 2003 team, which included Werman, to a 29-25 record.
O'Connor arrived that July. In the first months of his tenure, he, McMullan and Kuhn focused more on baseball than on settling in, sharing a suite at an extended stay hotel rather than finding houses. They often worked at the baseball offices until midnight only to return to the field at 6 or 7 a.m.
"When I came here, I felt that the university was fully ready to commit to this being a successful baseball program," O'Connor said. "It wasn't a matter of what had been done in the past, as I knew Coach Womack was a very good coach. It was more my staff and I instituting what we felt that the foundation of the program needed to be.
"From the first day of practice, we told the team that they were going to be held accountable every day by our coaching staff on what being a UVa player is all about. I'm very proud to say that that has not changed in 10 years."
In one of those early practices, O'Connor gave his players instructions to run four 300s -- 300 yards around the turf field adjacent to the baseball diamond -- with 90 seconds of rest between each one. On their first attempt, only four players finished within O'Connor's set time limit. Several players threw up. Afterward, O'Connor told the team that, by the end of the fall, each player would be able to run nine 300s in the same time frame.
Two weeks later, after running every day at 6:30 a.m., the team was hitting the mark -- with only 30 seconds of rest between each one. "We learned that sense of 'you can do a lot more than you think you can,' that mental toughness, and it carried onto the field," Werman said. "We believed we could do things greater than we thought."
They put that belief into action in a mid-March series against Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets were ranked in the nation's top 20, and few people expected the Cavaliers to win a game. Instead, the Wahoos swept the series, claiming the third victory in a top-of-the-10th inning thriller.
"Once we swept [Georgia Tech], it was a complete buy-in to O'Connor and his coaching staff's expectations," Werman said. "Prior to 2004, we thought we were good and hoped to win. In 2004 and beyond, we thought we were good and expected to win."
"They gained our respect and trust right away, especially the way practices were run," said former Cavalier Mark Reynolds, who is now playing in his seventh major league season and was in his last year at UVa in O'Connor's inaugural season. "They named captains and gave the upperclassmen responsibility of running the ship -- and they wanted us to run it the right way."
That April, the Cavaliers were ranked 10th in the nation by the Collegiate Baseball Newspaper, then the highest ranking in the program's history. They finished the season second in the ACC with an 18-6 record and hosted an NCAA regional. Although they were eliminated by Vanderbilt, the Cavaliers had completed one of their best seasons in history and begun the trend of breaking program records almost every season.
"For the first five years that we were here, we were the new kid on the block trying to prove ourselves," O'Connor said. "That's changed a little when you win a couple of ACC championships, but not too much. You still have to go out there and feel like you're having to prove what kind of team you have in that particular year."
Case in point: the 2013 Cavaliers. Despite this being labeled by many as a "rebuilding" year, the Cavs began the season 14-0. In late April, after sweeping FSU, the Wahoos ranked among the nation's top five teams and have held on to that ranking (currently No. 6 in the USA Today coaches' poll).
"We didn't have the experience coming into this year like years past," O'Connor said. "Every team is different -- in 2011, we went into that year with a very experienced team that had had a lot of success. But I've never wavered in believing that this team had that kind of [superstar] talent. They figured it out and matured very quickly. They've felt like they've got to go out and prove something."
Entering this year's ACC tournament, the Cavaliers ranked seventh nationally as they looked to win the conference crown, a championship they've claimed twice since O'Connor arrived. Before his takeover as head coach, the Cavaliers had appeared in the NCAA tournament three times in program history. Since his arrival, they've played in the tourney nine times, including two trips to the College World Series in Omaha.
And as the number of wins under O'Connor (more than 450) has increased, so has the fan base. Thanks to continuous improvements, including the addition of more seats, Davenport Field now holds more than 5,000 fans and often sells out major home games and NCAA regionals (Davenport has hosted six in the past nine seasons).
"The fans were the 10th man on our field," said former UVa pitcher Danny Hultzen, now pitching for Tacoma, the Seattle Mariners' Triple-A club. "I'll never forget the weekend series, especially some of the day games where there'd be 4,000 or 5,000 fans. We'd get a big hit or a big pitch, and the place would erupt. Even before the game, when you're seeing hundreds of people tailgating, making an event out of it, it makes things a lot more special that we have such an impact on the community."
That community support has also helped UVa become a major player in recruiting battles for the nation's best players, even amid ACC heavy-hitter programs such as UNC, Clemson and Florida State. Hultzen grew up in Maryland but was "always drawn" to UVa for the athletics and academics. Once he visited the campus and met O'Connor, Hultzen said, it "felt right -- I knew that's where I wanted to go."
When high school senior Connor Jones -- a Chesapeake, Va., resident, Perfect Game's 26th-ranked player and a potential first-round draft pick -- announced two weeks ago that he intends to honor his verbal commitment to UVa (rather than sign with a pro team and earn a potential seven-figure bonus, which he could still do), he gave credit to pitching coach Kuhn, noting how he hadn't even met O'Connor when he committed to UVa in July 2011. In explaining his decision, Jones talked about Kuhn's passion as a coach and the opportunities he'll have while playing for the Cavaliers, whose 2014 team might be the deepest and strongest UVa has had since O'Connor arrived.
"Brian is an excellent coach who has a great staff," said UNC coach Mike Fox. "I think when the university hired him, it was with expectations of, 'we will be good and we will compete at the highest level and here's a new stadium and your resources to do it.' UVa is a great institution -- it's very similar to UNC in that regard. We go head-to-head a lot and recruit the same type of players and students. I think their program has made ours better -- and I would hope they would say the same about us."
On May 15, former Cavalier David Adams was called up by the New York Yankees, becoming the sixth former UVa player currently playing in the major leagues. During O'Connor's tenure, 48 Wahoos have been drafted by major league organizations.
Perhaps most remarkably, over the past five years, the Cavaliers have won more games than any other Division I baseball program, which supports the argument that labeling any UVa season a "rebuilding year" is a risky endeavor.
Against UNC in their final regular-season game, the Cavaliers held a two-run lead going into the bottom of the ninth inning, but Carolina rallied at home, tying the score at 4-4 with two outs. After a scoreless 10th, Virginia -- echoing what it had done throughout the season -- racked up four runs in the top of the 11th and held on for an 8-7 victory, the Cavs' 45th win, which tied the program record for regular-season victories.
"These come-from-behind victories show how competitive we are and how much we don't give up," said UVa closer Kyle Crockett. "We're not going to go away, which shows a lot about our character and about our team as whole."
As well as about the program O'Connor has built in 10 years at UVa. Who knows what the next 10 might bring?
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