(Note: This article is
part of a series, by Jeff Dahn, that highlights specific collegiate baseball
programs going into the 2011 season. To
view the articles on other schools in this series please click here.)
University of Virginia head baseball coach Brian O’Connor is a native of Council Bluffs, Iowa, a western Iowa burg that lies just across the Missouri River from Omaha, Neb.
O’Connor played college baseball at Creighton University, which is located in Omaha. That’s the same Omaha, of course, that has hosted the College World Series for the past 61 years and will open a new state-of-the-art stadium just for that event in 2011.
So it is certainly accurate to say O’Connor has lived in a college baseball environment his entire life, and has spent a lot of time in Omaha. He was a pitcher for the Creighton team that advanced to the 1991 CWS, and has returned to Omaha twice as coach.
O’Connor got to experience that “Omaha homecoming” most recently in 2009, when he took the Virginia Cavaliers to the CWS for the first time in the program’s history.
“For us to make our trip to Omaha in 2009 was special for us just because, No. 1, I wanted our players to have that experience,” O’Connor said. “We talk about it all the time, that if you play college baseball, that’s everybody’s goal. But it’s not a reality for a lot of schools that play.”
And personally, O’Connor never tires of going home.
“I grew up there, my family is from there, and it’s special for me to be able to go back and take a team to Omaha,” he said. “I’ve had some pretty unique experiences that not a lot of people have had and I still know a lot of people back from that area.”
O’Connor arrived at UVa’s Charlottesville campus in time for fall practice in 2003 and for the ’04 regular season after nine years as an assistant coach to Paul Mainieri at Notre Dame. Mainieri has since moved on to LSU and O’Connor has spent the last seven years building Virginia into a national power that rivals that of Mainieri’s at LSU.
He used his time at Notre Dame wisely.
“I was very, very fortunate to have the opportunity to learn from Paul and learn everything I did from him,” he said. “It had a lot to do with the philosophies I now have as a coach, and how to run a successful college baseball program.”
O’Connor didn’t waste any time getting started at UVa. The 2004 Cavs finished 44-15 overall and 18-6 in the ACC, the most conference wins ever by a Cavalier team at the time. Virginia also hosted an NCAA Regional that season for the first time in school history.
Six more NCAA Regional appearances followed and Virginia made its first appearance at the CWS back in that magical 2009 season. O’Connor has led the Cavs to six straight 40-win seasons, and last year’s 51-14 team that had its season end at a Super Regional was the first in school history to win 50 games.
The 2010 team became the first in the program’s history to achieve a No. 1 national ranking and it also won the regular-season ACC Coastal Division championship.
“It’s come a long ways,” O’Connor said of the program’s progression under his direction. “We’ve been fortunate every year for the last seven years to be in the NCAA tournament, which is something that I’m very proud of. The consistency of our program that we’ve had every year for seven years has kind of been the backbone of our success.”
The Cavaliers fan-base has increased dramatically since O’Connor arrived in Charlottesville. The Cavs drew an average of 3,148 fans to 5,000-seat Davenport Field at UVa Stadium in 2010, or almost 126,000 over the length of their home schedule. Season tickets for the 2011 season went on sale in early November, and all of the reserved seats went quickly.
“Where it’s really improved is from our fan-base and the people in this community that are aware of our program and supporting our program,” O’Connor said. “We’ve been fortunate to win every year, and the expectations have been there every year since we (began winning).”
Competing in the Atlantic Coast Conference against the likes of national powers Clemson, Florida State, Georgia Tech, Miami, Virginia Tech and several others means winning is anything but automatic. Eight of the 12 ACC schools advanced to the NCAA tournament in 2010 and Clemson and Florida State moved on to Omaha.
“It’s really simple, that if you play good baseball, you’re going to have a chance to win in this league,” O’Connor said. “If you don’t execute and you don’t throw strikes and handle the baseball, you lose. You don’t get away with anything in this league.”
The University of Virginia is widely recognized as providing students with one of the top educations in the country, so the academic reputation of the school is something potential baseball recruits can immediately latch on to. A degree from UVa can carry a graduate a long way.
“Every player that plays here aspires to play professional baseball, but the reality is it doesn’t work out for all of them,” O’Connor said. “This place has a degree that is going to carry on with them for the rest of their lives.”
Educational opportunities, facilities and overall campus appeal are important tools in the recruitment game, but that game has changed. O’Connor – like the nation’s other top coaches – is relying on national tournaments and showcases like those provided by Perfect Game USA to uncover the top talent.
“Players are making decisions earlier than they ever have before, so that requires us as college coaches to have a network out there to try to indentify who the better players are earlier in the process,” he said. “You can’t do it on your own and you need to find … people you can trust to help identify players you need to be seeing.”
O’Connor went into the 2010 fall session without six players who were taken in the first 12 rounds of the 2010 MLB First-Year Player Draft. In all, 36 players of O’Connor’s players at Virginia have been drafted, and former Cavaliers Ryan Zimmerman (Nationals), Mark Reynolds (Diamondbacks) and Joe Koshansky (Rockies) are currently playing in the Major Leagues.
The 2010 draftees included outfielder Jarrett Parker (2ndround, San Francisco Giants), second baseman Phil Gosselin (5thround, Atlanta Braves), outfielder Dan Grovatt (11th round, Pittsburgh Pirates) and third baseman Tyler Cannon (12th round, Cleveland Indians).
The Cavs also lost a couple of pitchers to the Draft: right-handed starter and nine-game winner Robert Morey and right-handed closer Kevin Arico, who was 1-1 with a 2.88 ERA and recorded a best-in-the-nation 18 saves last season.
Morey was taken in the fifth-round of the 2010 MLB June Amateur Draft by the Marlins and Arico was selected in the 10th-round by the Reds. Both players signed professional contracts last June.
All of those drafted players participated in Perfect Game events while still in high school.
But the 2011 cupboard is far from bare. Five position players who played in at least 50 of the Cavaliers’ 65 games in 2010 return, including infielder Keith Werman who led the Cavs in hitting last spring at .414 with 63 hits in 152 at-bats.
Also back is senior outfielder John Barr (.373), senior utility Kenny Swab (.328, 4 HRs), junior infielder Steven Proscia (.314, 52 runs, 10 HRs, 65 RBIs) and junior utility John Hicks (.307, 59 runs, 8 HRs, 48 RBIs).
The Cavaliers will return most of their pitching from 2010, including left-handed junior Danny Hultzen, who was 11-1 with a 2.78 ERA and earned Atlantic Coast Conference Pitcher of the Year honors. Hultzen was named the ACC Freshman of the Year in 2009, a first for a Virginia player.
Right-handed senior Coody Winlarski is also back after going 5-0 with 4.68 ERA in 14 starts (17 appearances). Sophomore right-hander Branden Kline (5-1, 3.62 ERA) should step in as the third weekend starter.
Virginia has boasted one of the nation’s top pitching staffs in terms of team ERA during O’Connor’s seven-year tenure, and it looks to be in good shape again this year.
In all, it looks like the 2011 Cavaliers are well-suited to continue the march down O’Connor’s winning path. Another Omaha homecoming might not be out of the question.
“I think any coach always feels like you could be doing more, you could do better,” O’Connor said. “That’s part of what’s made our program good is we haven’t been satisfied with what we’ve accomplished and we’re always working to try to improve and get better.”
What follows is a list of players on Virginia’s 2011 roster who participated in Perfect Games event at some point in their careers. Click on the player’s name to view his complete PG profile:
Rob Amaro– PG National Showcase/PG Aflac/PG WWBA
Ryan Ashooh – PG WWBA
John Barr– PG WWBA
Stephen Bruno – PG WWBA
David Coleman – PG WWBA
Kyle Crockett – PG WWBA
Reed Gragnani – PG National Showcase/PG WWBA
Shane Halley – PG WWBA
John Hicks – PG WWBA
Danny Hultzen – PG WWBA
Corey Hunt– PG WWBA
Derek Justice – PG WWBA
Branden Kline – PG WWBA
Ryan Levine – PG National Showcase/PG WWBA
Artie Lewicki – PG WWBA/PG BCS
Whit Mayberry – PG WWBA
Chad O’Connor – PG WWBA
Mark Podlas – PG National Showcase/PG WWBA
Steven Proscia – PG WWBA
Will Roberts – PG WWBA
Mitchell Shifflett – PG National Showcase/PG WWBA
Scott Silverstein – Aflac AA Classic/PG National Showcase/PG WWBA
Tyler Skulina – PG National Showcase/PG WWBA
Aaron Stull – PG WWBA
Chris Taylor – PG WWBA
Justin Thompson – PG WWBA
Keith Werman– PG WWBA
Tyler Wilson – PG National Showcase/PG WWBA
Cody Winiarski – PG WWBA
Austin Young – PG WWBA
If there is a college program that you want PG to do a
story on, please feel free to let us know. Email Jeff Dahn at firstname.lastname@example.org.