NCAA tournament seed reflects Virginia baseball's winning culture

U.Va. coach Brian O'Connor is leading the Cavaliers into their fourth straight regional host role

May 25, 2013; Durham, NC, USA; Virginia Cavaliers coach Brian O'Connor watches their game against the Florida State Seminoles during the ACC baseball tournament at Durham Bulls Athletic Park. Virginia won 7-4 in 12 innings. Mandatory Credit: Liz Condo-USA TODAY Sports (Liz Condo-USA TODAY Sports / USA TODAY Sports / May 25, 2013)

Roster overhaul notwithstanding, Brian O'Connor didn't buy the Virginia-is-rebuilding chatter. Not after nine consecutive NCAA tournament bids. Not after College World Series appearances in 2009 and '11. Not after another stout recruiting class.

So while college baseball's punditry didn't project the Cavaliers as top-10 material, their coach did. More important, his players did.

Such is the culture O'Connor has created in a decade leading Virginia's once-moribund program. Such are the expectations that flow from coaches to veterans to rookies to prospects.

The result: The Cavaliers (47-10) are the NCAA tournament's sixth overall seed and host a regional this weekend that also includes Army, UNC Wilmington and Elon.

"Outside of that locker room, the expectations were not as high, and nobody really believed in us," first baseman Jared King said after Monday's bracket was unveiled. "But everybody in there knew what kind of club we had and what we could accomplish. I think that makes this even sweeter."

The tempered preseason buzz — Baseball America didn't have Virginia among its top 25 — was not unreasonable.

Four Cavaliers, led by ace Branden Kline, were selected in the Major League draft, while returning pitchers Whit Mayberry and Artie Lewicki were recovering from arm surgery. Virginia was breaking in a new third baseman, shortstop, second baseman and closer, plus inexperienced starting pitchers.

But returnees such as Reed Gragnani, Branden Cogswell and Kyle Crockett thrived in expanded roles, especially the latter as closer. Moreover, outfielder Joe McCarthy and starting pitcher Brandon Waddell became indispensable as rookies — McCarthy earned ACC freshman of the year honors.

Second baseman Gragnani, outfielder Mike Papi, utility man Nick Howard and Crockett made first-team All-ACC, Cogswell and McCarthy second team. O'Connor was voted the league's coach of the year for the fourth time.

"My goal always here is consistency," O'Connor said Tuesday, "to get into this NCAA tournament every year, because I think when you do, the players understand, OK, this is what the expectation is. They start to learn and understand what it takes to win at this time of year.

"All these sophomores we have in our lineup, they were all in our lineup last year as freshmen, and hosting a regional. And even though it really didn't go very well for us last year and we went 1-2 … that experience that they went through last year will make them that much better this year."

Those sophomores include outfielder Brandon Downes, catcher Nate Irving and designated hitter Derek Fisher. And yes, last season marked the first time in four years Virginia had failed to reach at least a Super Regional.

Worse yet, the back-to-back NCAA losses to Appalachian State and Oklahoma were at home.

"People assume you're just supposed to win," O'Connor said of hosting, "and it's not that easy."

Virginia faces similar expectations this weekend. While Army (Patriot League) and Elon (Southern) are conference champions, and Wilmington is making its sixth NCAA appearance in 11 seasons, the Cavaliers and their 10 straight postseason bids are clearly the class of the quartet.

"Certainly it has a huge impact on recruiting," O'Connor said of his 10-for-10 streak. "If you go into somebody's home or have somebody here for a visit and tell them you've played in the NCAA tournament 10 years in a row. There's not many programs in the country that can say they've done that."

Seven others can stake that claim, including three of Virginia's ACC rivals, Florida State, Miami and North Carolina. Cal State Fullerton, Rice, South Carolina and Arkansas complete the group.

Among those eight, Carolina, FSU and Fullerton also are national seeds and will enjoy home-field advantage throughout in their quest to make the College World Series in Omaha, Neb.

"A lot of programs talk about it," O'Connor said of the CWS. "They say, 'Oh, that's our goal.' OK. That's a lot to talk about unless you're putting yourself in the NCAA tournament on a fairly consistent basis. You don't all of a sudden make the NCAA tournament and then start making Omaha. …

"I just think the more you play in the NCAA tournament, the more your players get accustomed to playing at the end of the year, playing when there's a lot of pressure."

David Teel can be reached at 757-247-4636 or by email at dteel@dailypress.com. For more from Teel, read his blog at dailypress.com/ teeltime and follow him at twitter.com/DavidTeelatDP

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