CHARLOTTESVILLE — When the Baseball America and Perfect Game rankings were released last week with Virginia in the No. 1 spot, Cavaliers coach Brian O'Connor wasted no time addressing it with his team.
U.Va. earned No. 1 rankings during the 2010 and '11 seasons, but the Cavaliers never have entered a season recognized as the team to beat until now. U.Va.'s best preseason ranking prior to this year was No. 2 going into the '10 season.
With eight position starters, eight members of the bullpen, left-handed starting pitcher Brandon Waddell (6-3, 3.96 ERA last season) and right-hander Nick Howard (6-4, 3.38 ERA; hit .323 last season) back in the fold, there's reason for optimism.
"I told our team that it's an honor that people would consider us the top team in the country going into the season," said O'Connor, who will open his 11th season as U.Va.'s coach Friday when the Cavaliers play Kentucky in Wilmington, N.C., in a tournament that also includes Virginia Military Institute and UNC Wilmington.
"That happens because you have a successful program and then all of a sudden you have an experienced team. That doesn't mean all of a sudden somebody thinks you should win the national championship. A lot has to happen between now and then."
U.Va. finished 50-12 last season, losing to Mississippi State in two games in an NCAA tournament Super Regional in Charlottesville. U.Va. made the NCAA tournament in each of O'Connor's first 10 seasons in Charlottesville, including College World Series appearances in the '09 and '11 seasons.
Though U.Va.'s roster includes a trio of preseason All-Americans in outfielder/catcher Brandon Downes (.316, 10 home runs, 59 RBI last season), outfielder Derek Fisher (.293, seven home runs and 48 RBI last season) and outfielder/first baseman Mike Papi (.381, seven home runs, 57 RBI last season), there's still plenty for the Cavaliers to get squared away.
U.Va.'s starting pitchers for this weekend's tournament are set, with Waddell throwing Friday, left-hander Nathan Kirby (4-1, 6.06 ERA last season) pitching Saturday against VMI and right-hander Josh Sborz (3-0, 1.98 ERA last season) going Sunday against UNC Wilmington.
"I don't believe how we start the season will be anywhere near where we are in the middle or the end of the year," said O'Connor regarding the starting rotation, which was bolstered last season by the presence of Waddell, Howard and senior Scott Silverstein.
"I think our pitching will only get better as the year goes on because it will become more defined."
O'Connor said freshman Connor Jones, a graduate of Great Bridge High in Chesapeake, senior Artie Lewicki (made just two appearances last season due to arm injury that required surgery) and freshman Jack Roberts (will sit out early in the season with a lat muscle strain) — all right-handers — are vying for the other rotation spots.
Jones said right now he's focusing on some of the big picture concepts U.Va.'s coaches, including pitching coach Karl Kuhn, are teaching.
"Just kind of the mindset and how they want you to think, like, 'If you throw a ball, don't fix the pitch, do what's right,'" said Jones, who was selected last June in the 21st round of the Major League Baseball draft by the San Diego Padres, but likely would've been taken much higher if he didn't announce prior to the draft he planned to attend U.Va.
"Just small things like that, where if you focus on trying to fix something, things kind of unravel. Just focus on what you've been trained and taught to do here."
O'Connor said Howard, who also will play first base, and possibly senior right-hander Whit Mayberry, are in line to replace Poquoson High product Kyle Crockett (4-1, 1.70 ERA, 12 saves last season) — a player O'Connor called "hands down" the best closer he's had at U.Va.
In addition to ironing out the rotation and the back end of the bullpen, U.Va. is figuring out the right combination of players in its middle infield out of a group that includes junior Branden Cogswell (.346 last season), sophomore John La Prise and freshmen Tony Butler and Daniel Pinero.
Trying to live up to lofty expectations is nothing new in Charlottesville, but this season arrives with a new set of parameters. Everybody is looking up at U.Va. for a change.
"The past two years that I've been here it's been totally different," said Fisher, a junior. "We've come into it being a team that kind of has to prove ourselves. We haven't really gotten much love outside (the ACC), which was fine. Quite frankly, I think it was pretty good for us. Now, this year we're kind of expected to do a lot. We can't really think that we're given anything."
Wood can be reached by phone at 757-247-4642Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun