Relentless Virginia rolls past K-State and into Omaha for seventh time

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Photo: UVA Athletics

The question posed to Kansas State coach Pete Hughes wasn’t easy to swallow. Hughes’ Wildcats, attempting to get to Omaha for the first time in program history, had just been swept by powerhouse Virginia, wiping away K-State’s dream.

Hughes was asked about UVA’s program, which had just earned its seventh trip to the College World Series in 15 years, including three of the last four. Had the veteran coach not been a long-time friend and admirer of Virginia coach Brian O’Connor, he might have deflected the question.

Instead, Hughes answered, feeling like he was a breathing UVA baseball infomercial.

“[Virginia] is the gold standard of college baseball,” Hughes said. “They are Omaha-driven and fueled every single year. The programs that are gold-standard are the ones that can refuel, reload, have their rosters get turned around with the draft and come back and win the same amount of games and compete to go to Omaha. It’s good to see people with integrity winning at a high level, because that’s not always the case these days.”

Kansas State felt the full fury of Virginia’s best baseball of the season, the pitching coming around at just the right time to blend with the nation’s most explosive offense. The Wildcats, just as Mississippi State had done the weekend before, threw everything they had at the Cavaliers, but to no avail, as Virginia sailed to a spotless 5-0 record through the NCAA Regional and Super Regional for back-to-back trips to Omaha.

UVA, 46-15, again broke open a Thriller Diller tight ballgame in the late innings, exploding for five runs in the top of the ninth toward a 10-4 romp of the Wildcats, who finished 35-26.

Behind another gritty performance by starting junior right-hander Jay Woolfolk, backed by a greedy bullpen and a relentless, late-inning hitting attack, Virginia stormed to a lead that sucked the air out of Kansas State.

After scoring five of seven runs with two outs in Friday night’s opening game against the Wildcats, Virginia was even more productive on Saturday with all 10 runs coming with two outs. In total, 15 of UVA’s 17 runs over the two games came after the fourth inning, something O’Connor referenced often in terms of his team’s relentless style of play.

Moments after the Cavaliers had erupted with a five-run, ninth inning to sweep the best-of-three series, after watching his team’s victorious dogpile in the middle of Disharoon Park, O’Connor breathed in the moment, stopped to smell the roses as he gazed all around the stadium, taking it all in.

“Just extremely proud,” said O’Connor. “You have to have great players that are team-first players, that are passionate and care about this baseball program. But it takes much more than that, right? Just to look around at the people that you know, whether it’s an elderly couple that comes to every game, even the games in February, or the people in the luxury suites that made our expansion happen.”

Hughes pointed out that great players make a difference, but that they have to have great coaches, and Virginia had just that.

O’Connor and his staff were flawless in their game plans, decisions and in-game adjustments as they navigated the postseason without a scratch and no sooner had the celebration ended, the coach was already looking down the road — not the road to Omaha, but the road to the future.

“This won’t stop,” O’Connor proclaimed. “We can’t stay where we’re at. College baseball is very competitive for players, facilities and everything that it takes to be successful and we’ll keep pushing this thing forward as the years go on.”

For the second straight day, it was a nip-and-tuck game, tied 2-2 after two innings, Virginia going up 4-2 and leading 5-4 heading into the ninth, when all hell broke loose.

Catcher Jacob Ference, who had gone hitless in the game, slammed a two-out, two-run triple that got past Kansas State center fielder Brendan Jones, scoring Ethan Anderson, who had singled to center, and Casey Saucke, who reached on a chopper up the middle, opening up the Virginia lead to 7-4 against reliever Josh Wintroub.

Harrison Didawick walked and stole second before Henry Godbout walked to load the bases for pinch-hitter Luke Hanson. K-State changed pitchers again, going with JJ Slack, who received a rude welcome to the game.

Hanson ripped a three-run double down the third-base line that completely blew open the game to 10-4.

Chase Hungate, who has thrown 6.1 scoreless innings of relief, closed out the Wildcats by retiring six consecutive batters.

Woolfolk, who received a standing ovation for the second time in less than a week, was resolute against the Wildcats after giving up two runs early in the game. The junior, who survived a shaky season only to come on strong at the right time, went 6.1 innings, scattering six hits, striking out seven and walking two in 102 pitches to earn the win (4-1).

“Woolfolk battled and kept his composure,” K-State’s Hughes said of his rival. “That’s what good pitchers do.”

O’Connor was most appreciative of Woolfolk’s effort as he watched a determined warrior give his all.

“Jay Woolfolk, I’m sure he would tell you he didn’t have his best stuff today (Woolfolk later confirmed just that), but he grinded it out and kept his team in the ball game and did everything he possibly could do,” O’Connor said.

Woolfolk, who strung together his two longest outings of the season under the most pressure-packed conditions in the Regional and Super Regional, enjoyed the moment.

“This definitely means a little more to me, knowing that I haven’t had the greatest start to my year, but Coach O’Connor always told me, it’s not how you started a year, it’s how you finish it, and just going out there these past two weekends, helping the team as best I can, battling and knowing your offense is going to score, that’s the easiest way to pitch,” Woolfolk said.

Now, O’Connor and his Wahoos are headed back to Omaha, the seventh trip in the last 15 years (only Florida with eight has more during that span), and Griff O’Ferrall is looking forward to back-to-back trips.

“I think it’s extremely difficult,” O’Ferrall said of the feat. “Going three times in the last four years is not normal and I think it’s important for us to kind of realize that as a team and appreciate the work we’ve done this year.

“Every journey is a little different. This season had a lot more twists and turns than last year and a lot more comeback wins (23), so we’ve been put through a lot of challenges. But seeing how the whole team kind of came together at the right time, right when the playoffs started, we were put in that position by the coaches to play our best ball right now.”