The Virginia baseball team met with the media Tuesday in preparation for its trip to the NCAA College World Series this weekend in Omaha, Neb. The Cavaliers are scheduled to battle LSU at 7 p.m eastern time Saturday.
Coach Brian O’Connor
“Well I have to tell you, since we won the game in Oxford on Sunday, for me it has been a whirlwind couple of days. First I want to say how happy and proud I am for our players. A lot will be made of how I am from Omaha, playing in the College World Series at Creighton and going there with Notre Dame, but it is really important to me that everybody understands that it is about our players, the young men that wear our uniform. This is their opportunity to go to Omaha. I think about players like Andrew Carraway and Robert Poutier this is their last chance to go to Omaha. The other players will have opportunities in future years. I am ecstatic for our team. Winning the Super Regional in Oxford was a huge step for our program in taking Virginia to the College World Series for the first time in history.
"It is going to be an unbelievable experience for our players. They have no idea what they are in for. I am having a team meeting this afternoon at four o’clock where I am giving them a very detailed itinerary of all the requirements while we are in Omaha up until the first game, just to try to prepare them because it will be something that they have never experienced before. I know it is an experience they are looking forward to.
"I would also like to say I took this job six years ago. [Athletics Director Craig] Littlepage took a chance on a very young assistant coach that had no head coaching experience and because he believed in the plan that I shared with him about what can be accomplished in this baseball program at Virginia. Some people might say, Coach, is this the reward for all of the hard work?’ The reward has been throughout these first six years. You are not just rewarded for taking a team to Omaha. I am just as proud of the five previous teams that we have had here as this team. It just so happens that this club had the right chemistry, the right make-up, the right talent. The ball bounced our way a little bit and all of the sudden, we are going to catch a flight tomorrow to Omaha. It has been a long time coming. It didn’t happen fast enough for me. Quite frankly, I thought we could be having this press conference by year three or four. My expectations were pretty high for what could be accomplished here. I knew when I came here six years ago that this institution had the ingredients to have a baseball program that could go to Omaha, just because of the academics, the great baseball in the ACC, the great baseball in the state and high school baseball. I felt like we had all the ingredients and for me, at the time when I was 32 year old and took this job, I really believed that this day would come. I am very proud of that."
On the demands of Omaha:
“Number one, the community of Omaha is so passionate about this World Series. It has been there for fifty years and they just wrap their arms around this thing. There are people in Omaha who take work off for a week and a half just so they can go to every game and enjoy this experience. They will be touched by everybody. We will go to dinner at a restaurant and people will stand up and applaud. They will be signing autographs all the time. People will be meeting us at the airport. That is something in baseball you don’t experience. You probably experience it in basketball and football, but in our sport, you don’t until you get to Omaha. When we pull up to the stadium on Friday for practice, there will be people outside and they will applaud our team as we get off the bus. They will have a great crowd for practice on Friday. Friday will be a blur for them. We will take a team photo in front of Rosenblatt at 11am, do interviews for 45 minutes with ESPN, practice at noon on the field for an hour. We have an hour-long autograph session after that. They are pulled in every different direction. We have a dinner at Rosenblatt on Friday night, there are opening night ceremonies. You get back to the hotel at 11pm. It’s a blur for them.
"I feel so fortunate that we are playing the six o’clock game on Saturday and we weren’t chosen to play the one o’clock game because it is just such a quick turn around. It will give them a chance on Saturday to get their feet underneath them and prepare for that ballgame. It is just the total experience. Playing in that stadium, the fans are unbelievable. The reason they are unbelievable is that they cheer for great plays, great performances. There’s not a hometown team. They just cheer for great baseball. There are people who have had seats in that stadium for 50 years, that have kept tickets in their family and people who have kept scorebooks for 30, 40 years at every World Series game. It’s a wonderful event and it’s something that these players will always cherish.”
On the “Road to Omaha” statue:
“[The statue] has been up since 1999. My father owns a company in Omaha called J.F. Bloom and Company and they manufacture marble, granite, and things like that. The NCAA wanted to build a sculpture in front of Rosenblatt Stadium for the World Series. There was a sculptor that was contracted to do it. He works with my father and contacted father about getting baseball celebration photos to make the faces in the sculpture. As the story goes, one of the faces in the sculpture was made off of me, a celebration photo of my face playing in college.”
On proving something to the NCAA:
“I have never felt [like we needed to prove something to the NCAA]. A lot has been made of the decision of the NCAA to send us to Irvine, the number one team in the country. From the moment it was announced, I talked to our team and our team took the stance that it was a wonderful opportunity that we had in front of us. Sometimes teams make big mistakes around tournament time, dwelling on a negative of where you are sent or what your seed is. You can’t do anything about it and I am so happy for this team and so proud of them. They handled it the right way, the way you would want them to handle it. I think us being sent to Irvine had a lot to do with us going to Omaha right now. We won the ACC Championship, we got sent to Irvine, we were going to be matched up with Strasburg, the greatest pitcher of all time in college baseball. It presented unbelievable challenge, and because they stepped up and beat Strasburg and beat the number one team in the country in their own ballpark twice, it gave us an unbelievable amount of confidence.
"I had a really good feeling after we beat Irvine the first time to go 2-0 in the regional that this could be the team. Not only did they roll through the ACC tournament, they beat Strasburg and they beat Irvine, I had a pretty good feeling that if the ball bounced our way a little bit, this could be the club that could do it. It was never, Hey, we want to prove something to the NCAA.’ The game of baseball is too hard to play. If you are trying to think about any outside forces like that, it is too much to take on. I am just so happy for our team because handled it the right way.”
On the mentality of the ball club:
“I can assure you that this team is not satisfied with just going to Omaha. Our goal, without question, is to win a national championship. Now that starts Saturday against LSU at six o’clock. You have to win a regional now, and then another super regional. We are halfway home in this deal with the NCAA [tournament]. We have a game on Saturday night against a great ball club at 6pm and we have to take care of that one in front of us. I can assure you that this team isn’t satisfied with just going to Omaha.”
On relationship with LSU coach Paul Mainieri:
“It is probably going to be the most emotional moment that I am going to have to go through as a player or a coach without question. This guy, Paul Mainieri, means everything to me. Just like I said [Craig] Littlepage took a chance on a 32 year old that had never been a head coach, Paul Mainieri took a chance on a 23 year old to be his top assistant at the University of Notre Dame. I am forever grateful for that. When you work side by side with somebody for nine years in the same office, you are trying to build a baseball program like we did at Notre Dame, and your families live four blocks away from each other... Coach Mainieri and his wife helped bring up our kids. He was so important to me at that time and still is. There’s a lot of emotion. We talk all the time. Without question, he is my mentor in this game. The reason that is, is this - did I learn a lot about a manager style as a coach? No question from an inside the game standpoint. What I am grateful for learning from him is that no one does it classier than this guy. I think he is the best in college baseball. One hundred percent class and honesty, he does it the right way, proving at LSU that you can do it the right way and still have a top-notch baseball program and have a chance to win a national championship. What I learned from him is how to deal with players the right way how to treat them like men, how to handle them, how to develop them. I was fortunate for nine years to witness it and work alongside with him. Is it going to be emotional? No question. The guy is my best friend. We talked yesterday and I told him, Paul, I couldn’t sleep last night.’ I got two hours of sleep Sunday night and I told him why. That is because I could not stop thinking about on Saturday that they do the lineups for the first game of the College World Series like the All-Star lineups and everybody lines up on the baseline. I will be the last one introduced for our program, and they will introduce LSU and Coach Mainieri will be the last one introduced for their program, and those two managers will shake hands at home plate. I can’t imagine the emotion I am going to have. Here is the man that has meant everything to me in my coaching career that I am shaking hands with him, or it might be hugging him, at home plate on the biggest stage of your coaching career. Once that’s over, we have agreed that we will have a steak dinner at some point in Omaha before we play. We will shake hands before the game and we will try not to look at each other during the game. Then after the game, we will shake hands again and be on our way.”
On reaching the College World Series for the first time and facing veteran teams:
“We aren’t too worried about that. [For] all the other teams, it has been different players coming through the program. We aren’t too worried about whether it’s our first or someone else’s thirtieth. Hopefully, it’s not a big deal to us. Its obviously one of the best stages in America. Hopefully we take it one step at a time, not worry about it, and just play our game.”
On different things encountered on the road:
At the Oxford regional there were about 10,000 people and they were wanting the other team to win pretty bad, but that was probably the only difference we have seen."
On Coach O’Connor’s ties to Omaha:
“Coach O’Connor has been there, so he knows what going on. He is our coach and he guides us there. He knows what’s going on, he knows everything we need to do. I really think that does help us.”
On awe going into the College World Series:
“We have played a lot of the top teams in the country already. We have faced supposedly the greatest college pitcher ever and we faced guys like Alex White who are awesome as well. That’s what we need to realize. We need to realize that we have been there and we have faced the best teams in the nation. We can handle anything."
On playing on the road:
Definitely [playing on the road has made us closer], and it’s made us stronger as well. We have been heckled for nine innings of every team that we’ve played, so I really think that it has brought us together and made us a strong team. We can step up at any time, any moment. Wherever.”
On being the team nobody wants to play:
“I would imagine that any team would not be looking forward to face our pitching and not looking forward tot pitch against us. It fires us up and we are definitely excited to see that.”
On the youth of the team:
“We have been hearing that all year, and we are [a young team], but it doesn’t matter to us. Whether we are first years, second years, third years -- we are all ready to compete with whoever steps on the field against us.”
On battle-tested mentality:
“We have experienced a little more. We have been through some of the struggles that every team has. We have faced some of the best pitchers, faced some of the best teams. I think [it has given us] experience and confidence."
On developing personal offense:
“I have to give it to my coaches; they have helped me a lot. Our hitting coach, Coach McMullan has really developed me and helped me mentally as a player. Also, [in] the off-season, my strength coach and nutritionist helped me a lot to gain the weight and eat the right things that I needed to grow as a player."
On preseason anticipation:
“I think since the first day we have all stepped on campus, we all thought we could do this [and by] the end of the fall, it really came into the picture that we could do this. We have always known we could.”
On getting over the “regional hump”:
“I think the main reason is that we have really come together. A lot of teams might not really mesh that well. We really mesh. We all come together; we all get a long. It’s the "it" factor that some teams have and I really think we have it.”
On anticipation for heading out to Omaha:
“It is awesome. It is a really great feeling. We are all really excited. This is the first time that a Virginia team has been to Omaha. We kind of have that in the back of our minds, but still go out there and play baseball. We are all really excited; it is going to be a great opportunity and a lot of fun.”
On having a stand-out first year:
“It has been great. It hasn’t really sunken in yet that this is only our first year here. It could never get better than this. It’s weird to think about, but we are savoring what we have done and trying to keep it going in Omaha."
On the impact of having Franco Valdes behind the plate:
“Franco has been incredible. He and Tyler Cannon are the only juniors in our starting line up, so he has the experience. With a young guy like me who hasn’t really been exposed to some of the things that have happened, like 10,000 fans at Ole Miss, he will come out there and calm me down. He will just say things that will make you relax out there. That kind of support is incredible."
On being a 10th-round draft pick and turning it down to come to Virginia:
“College was really important to me. Getting my education was one of the big factors in me deciding to come here. Also, the experience of going to college you grow up, you get your education, and on the baseball side of it, you get the experience of playing in front of 10,000 people, playing against guys who aren’t high school hitters. I just thought that whole experience of college was really important before I could go on to thinking about professional baseball. [Money] didn’t play a factor.”
On being the team nobody wants to play:
“We are a young team and all season we have been counted out. We weren’t picked to finish very high in the ACC and we won the conference. We have confidence in each other and if I were another team I wouldn’t want to play us.”
On getting over the “regional hump”:
“We have a very talented group of young players right now. I think the coaching staff since September has really emphasized staying together as a team. I think that really showed in the Super Regional. A lot of guys stepped up in big situations on the mound and in big situations in the field making plays. I think that’s why we are here now. We have had pretty much everyone on the team step up in some way to contribute.”
On facing environment of the College World Series:
"We have had arguably one of the toughest roads to Omaha and we are going. It has definitely prepared us for what is to come in Omaha. It will be a lot of fun to compete out there."
"I know they are a very good team, one of the best eight in the nation out there right now, obviously. It is going to be a lot of fun to go play 27 outs against them."
On the reality of going to the College World Series:
“On the plane Dan Grovatt was sitting near me and he kept repeating, We’re going to Omaha! We’re going to Omaha!’ It is something you talk about. We get here in August and we get these shirts that say Omaha’ on them and we go through this ridiculous conditioning program. That’s always the goal. We are actually going there and it is an amazing thing.”
On the role as "dad" of the group:
“I would have to say Robert Poutier is the dad of the group. This is his fifth year here and he played with [Ryan] Zimmerman. He has been around. He always has that calm demeanor. He’s the kind of guy who can always keep you level. Being able to be one of the older guys on a team that is talked about as being a young team has meant a lot to me this year, being able to step in and lead when there are opportunities to do so.”
On coach’s connection to Omaha:
“It gives us a little more confidence, if there is any more to be gained. We all know that he has been there as a player and he has been there as an assistant coach. It means a lot that we can help get him there as a head coach. Knowing that he has that experience, [he can talk to us about] how much we are in for and about how we don’t even know what it is going to be like out there. The fact that he knows and he is the guy who really leads us [lets us] know that we can trust him along the way.”
On the importance of pitching in this stage of the season:
“Its huge. In Irvine, we were playing against the best pitcher in college baseball, which people keep talking about. Then we had to play twice against the team that was number one in the nation. In order to win games like that, you have to have good starts. Robert Morey went out there, and didn’t get the credit he deserved. All ESPN talked about was Strasburg, even when he loses the game. Morey was able to go out there and beat a guy like Steven Strasburg. Not only did he start us off in that game, but started us off in that series. The momentum continued with Danny Hultzen, who had a great start and I was able to continue that with UC Irvine also. The start is so important because if you can jump on a team early with a two or three run lead, you can do so many more things. You can keep them from playing small ball, or bunting guys over. Your only goal at that point is to maintain and extend that lead. Pitching is what allows you to start that process."
On catching Danny Hultzen:
“His arm angle is a great arm angle for guys. He has great velocity on his fastball, he has great command of his change up and slider. For being so young and being a three-pitch guy with great command of all three pitches... he even throws a curveball every once in a while that he has good command of... so being so young and having great command of four pitches is something you don’t see very often.”
On the decrease in batting average and heavy reliance on pitching in the post season:
“We have faced a lot better pitching in the post-season than we did in the regular season, so that’s probably why we are down to .282 or whatever the numbers are. We have total confidence in our pitching staff. I trust those guys with the team and we are a timely hitting team. We get timely hits when we need to. If they don’t score, that’s all it takes to win a ball game. I have total confidence in my pitching staff and confidence in our offensive lineup to get it done when it counts.”