Feb. 14, 2013
CHARLOTTESVILLE -- Nine seasons, nine trips to the NCAA tournament. No wonder optimism pervades the University of Virginia baseball program on the eve of Brian O'Connor's 10th season as head coach.
O'Connor's record at UVa is 411-149-2, and there's every reason to believe the 2013 season will bring more success. It begins this weekend in Greenville, N.C., where 25th-ranked Virginia faces East Carolina in a three-game series: Friday at 3 p.m., Saturday at 2 p.m., and Sunday at 1 p.m.
The Pirates' home is 5,000-seat Clark-LeClair Stadium, whose atmosphere is similar to that at Davenport Field, O'Connor said Tuesday. "They've got a lot of fan following, so it should be a great weekend. I'm looking forward to the challenge that we have in front of us this weekend, and starting to see how our guys handle that."
From a team that finished 39-19-1, O'Connor lost pitchers Branden Kline, Shane Halley and Justin Thompson, third baseman Stephen Bruno, shortstop Chris Taylor and second baseman Keith Werman, among others. Moreover, two of the Wahoos' returning pitchers, Artie Lewicki and Whit Mayberry, are recovering from Tommy John surgery and aren't available.
Still, such players as Branden Cogswell, Kyle Crockett, Brandon Downes, Derek Fisher, Reed Gragnani, Colin Harrington, Nick Howard, Nate Irving, Jared King, Mike Papi, Scott Silverstein and Kenny Towns are back from 2012, and a heralded recruiting class joined the program last summer.
Crockett, Virginia's most experienced pitcher, could eventually be a weekend starter, but that won't be his role initially.
"I thought it was important early on in the season to put him in the bullpen," O'Connor said, "to see how some of these young pitchers develop, and after they develop we may make some moves. But the opening weekend you're going to play a great opponent, a top-40 opponent. If you have a chance to win the game, you want [a veteran] guy on the mound at the end of the game."
O'Connor will give Brandon Waddell the ball first Friday. So much for easing into the college game. Waddell, a 6-2 left-hander from Houston, will be the first freshman to start a season-opener for UVa since Dave Sammons in 1986.
"He's going to be fine," said Irving, a sophomore who'll start at catcher in the opener. "He's going to be absolutely fine. I was texting with him [Monday] night as we were going over some film of ECU. He's got a great mindset on the mound. He's going to attack the hitters, and I think he's more than prepared for it."
Irving described Waddell as "a bulldog." O'Connor raved about Waddell's poise.
"He's very competitive. He's very prepared," O'Connor said. "Takes his business very, very seriously. He's been more consistent than anybody that we've had since we've started in the fall. He's earned this right, and I think that he's going to do some great pitching in his career here, and I'm excited that he's going to get us off to a good start."
Silverstein, one of two fifth-year seniors on the team, along with King, will start Saturday. The 6-6, 250-pound left-hander is a graduate of St. John's College High School in D.C., as is 6-3, 215-pound right-hander Nick Howard, a sophomore who'll start the series finale Sunday afternoon.
Howard hit .346 last season, and he's too talented to keep out of the daily lineup. He'll start at third base Friday and Saturday. His responsibilities may evolve as the season progresses.
"I felt it was important that we find the right role for him on the mound," O'Connor said, "so this is the way we'll start it the first weekend, and we'll just kind of see how it develops as we move along. Obviously, that can be a pretty challenging thing for Nick, but he's a big, strong kid, and I think he's up for the challenge."
Will the Cavaliers' weekend starters change over the course of the season? That's a distinct possibility. O'Connor called his early-season strategy "a calculated experiment."
"We like to believe that we have a pretty good idea of what guys are capable of doing," O'Connor said, "but the reality is practice is practice, and once you cross those white lines, and wins and losses matter, things change. There's a lot of other pitchers that we really, really like. We're going right now with what we think gives us the best chance to win, and certainly this can change as we move forward."
The pitching staff's talent is undeniable. "It's just inexperienced," O'Connor said. "It takes a while to figure out how all the pieces to the puzzle fit together, and that's kind of what we're dealing with."
Waddell isn't the only freshman expected to pitch against ECU. O'Connor said Josh Sborz and Cameron Tekker will come "out of our bullpen this weekend when it really matters, when we have a chance to win the game."
Sborz is a 6-3, 225-pound right-hander from McLean High School in Northern Virginia. Tekker, a 6-3, 185-pound right-hander, is from Waxhaw, N.C.
"They're both very, very talented," O'Connor said. "They've been doing very well in the preseason, and I think both of those guys are going to make serious impacts right away."
The roster includes five other freshman pitchers: left-handers Kevin Doherty, Nathan Kirby and David Rosenberger and right-handers Tyler Carrico and Trey Oest. Kirby and Carrico were teammates at James River High School in the Richmond area.
"They look great," Irving said of the freshman pitchers. "I've been really impressed with them. Everybody's been really impressed with how quickly they've come along. They seem to be mature beyond their years. There wasn't that kind of period where they seemed flustered. It was a lot quicker this year. Maybe that's a tribute to how the coaches and how the veterans how dealt with it, but that's also a tribute to them as well."
When Irving surveys the field in the bottom of the first inning Friday, he's likely to see Howard at third, Cogswell at shortstop, Gragnani at second base, King at first, Fisher in left field, Downes in center, and Harrington or Joe McCarthy in right.
Howard, Cogswell, Fisher and Downes are sophomores. Harrington is a redshirt junior, and Gragnani and King are seniors. McCarthy is a freshman who has impressed since enrolling at UVa last summer. The same is true for Robbie Coman, who will spell Irving behind the plate.
Others whom O'Connor expects to play significant roles this season include sophomores Papi and Towns. Papi started 28 games in an injury-marred freshman season and hit .283 with 17 RBI. Towns hit .311 in his 25 appearances last season.
"Mike Papi's done a nice job," O'Connor said. "He unfortunately had some back issues in the back half of the year last year, [but] he went away and had a nice summer, and he's been really, really good."
Papi can be used in the outfield, at first base or at designated hitter. Towns, who'll start at third when Howard pitches Sunday, is also an option at first base and designated hitter.
"I think Kenny Towns is really the sleeper in this thing," O'Connor said.
ECU is coming off a 36-24-1 season that included a trip to the NCAA tournament. The Pirates are in their eighth season under head coach Billy Godwin, who has guided them to the NCAAs five times.
"They'll be tough," O'Connor said. "They've got a veteran team back. They're really good on the mound. They got some guys that have some really good experience. They got some infielders that have been playing there for quite some time. They're a top-40 program year in and year out."
O'Connor is confident his veterans will be unfazed by the atmosphere in Greenville. He's eager to see how his freshmen handle it.
"They've been in these comfortable confines here now for six months, where if somebody came out to a practice or a scrimmage, they were cheering for them," O'Connor said at Davenport Field. "That's not going to be the case this weekend."
HOME SWEET HOME: The `Hoos went 25-8 at Davenport last year. Their 2013 home opener is Tuesday (3 p.m.) against William and Mary.
The first weekend series at Davenport is Feb. 22-24, against Toledo. For ticket information, call (800) 542-8821 or visit www.VirginiaSports.com/tickets.
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A 1985 graduate of UVA, White worked at the Richmond Times-Dispatch until July 2009. He was honored six times as the state's Sportswriter of the Year.
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