College : : Story
Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Virginia sets the bar even higher

Kendall Rogers        

ALSO SEE: Rogers' Eight for Omaha in 2015

Virginia head coach Brian O'Connor won't soon get over his team losing the CWS Finals to Vanderbilt, but once he does, whenever that time may be, he'll look back on this year's Cavaliers club with a lot of smiles in tow.

Yes, the Cavaliers reached the College World Series two previous times before this year's trip to college baseball's hallowed ground. But while those teams were loaded with talent as well, no teams before this one raised the program's bar quite like this season.

"Proud. I'm very proud of them. There are disappointments, and I think a man is measured on how they handle it at times when there is disappointment in their life," O'Connor said. "I know these young men, and what they're made of. They need to move forward from all of this and be proud of the program they play for."

This Virginia team was an absolute treat to cover throughout the season. So often we rank teams No. 1 in the preseason, only to see those teams either A) completely flounder throughout the season, or B) simply just fail to meet full expectations. The Cavaliers don't fall under either of those categories. Virginia began the season as the nation's top-ranked team, and spent much of the spring in that spot.

The Cavaliers changed and showed versatility throughout the spring. For instance, sophomore lefthanded pitcher Brandon Waddell served as the Friday starter in 2013. But after the rise of fellow sophomore lefty Nathan Kirby during the fall and going into the spring, the Cavaliers decided to move him back in the rotation, and move Kirby to the front.

Kirby had a tumultuous freshman campaign at times, but flourished as the staff ace in 2014, tallying a 2.06 ERA in 113 1/3 innings, and earning Perfect Game First Team All-American honors. Kirby, who has big-time stuff and evolved into a very likely high first-round pick in the 2015 Major League Baseball draft, isn't the only one to step up this year. Nick Howard, who served as a true two-way player and starting pitcher in 2013, evolved into one of the most feared relievers in college baseball as a junior this season. The first-round pick to the Cincinnati Reds earned PG Second Team All-American honors and his fastball/slider combination was devastating throughout the spring. There's also Josh Sborz, who despite his erratic nature at times this season, pitched brilliantly when it mattered most in 2014. Lastly, there was veteran power arm Artie Lewicki. Lewicki has battled through multiple injuries throughout his career, but wasn't going to be denied in his final season, tallying a 1.31 ERA in 16 appearances/9 starts, and in 68 2/3 innings of work.

The beauty of this pitching staff, and a chief reason why the Cavaliers will be one of the national title contenders again in 2015, most of the pitching staff is back next year.

Sure, the Cavaliers will lose Howard and Lewicki, but Kirby-Waddell-Sborz are back, power-armed freshman Connor Jones returns, and the Cavaliers welcome the nation's No. 13 recruiting class, which includes a vast majority of players who were drafted this summer, but will choose to attend college instead, namely talented righthanded pitcher Derek Casey, among others.

Moving forward, the Cavaliers also will have a good nucleus from an offensive standpoint, but definitely will have some premium bats to replace. For instance, Derek Fisher, Mike Papi, Branden Cogswell and Brandon Downes will be tough replace, with Downes a very athletic outfielder who blossomed in Omaha.

As for the good news, third baseman Kenny Towns will be back for another season, while John La Prise, who played third at times as well this past season, also is back for his junior season. Moving around the diamond, shortstop Daniel Pinero is back, and the catcher combination of Robbie Coman and Nate Irving will return, with Matt Thaiss likely getting heavier into the mix as a sophomore. Then, in the outfield, the Cavaliers are likely to get a strong campaign from Joe McCarthy, who batted .301 with 16 doubles, two triples, six homers and 49 RBIs this past season.

"We have another opportunity to have hopefully another result next year that ends with going to Omaha," Pinero said. "I mean, next year's a new thing, but we're going to be doing the same thing in the fall and spring, and hopefully the end result will change."

There's a decent chance Pinero's dream comes true next year. The Cavaliers have enough back to win the program's national title, and it doesn't look like assistant coaches Kevin McMullan or Karl Kuhn are heavily in the mix for any head coach vacancies. McMullan was said to be in the mix at East Carolina, but the Pirates ultimately decided on Ole Miss assistant coach Cliff Godwin.

In the end, this year's Virginia team began the season with lofty expectations, and had no difficulty dealing with them, falling just short of a national title, but doing it as valiantly as one team could.

With the bar in this program once again raised, the Cavaliers move full steam ahead, with certainly more motivation than ever.

For O'Connor and his staff, there's lots to be proud about.

Color me surprised if the Cavaliers don't find their way to a national title in the near future.

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