UVA’s Meet the Team Day, ‘1186 to Omaha’ set for Saturday

O’Connor opens practice with emphasis on pitching

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Photo: UVA Athletics

Brian O’Connor opened up his 16th season as Virginia’s baseball coach on Friday when his Cavaliers officially began practice at Disharoon Park.

While the veteran skipper doesn’t need any motivation to get his program back to postseason play, he admitted that viewing the documentary “1186 to Omaha,” reviewing UVA’s College World Series championship in 2015, got his juices flowing.

“I will tell you that when you watch that movie as the coach, you get fired up about working to have that opportunity again,” O’Connor said.

The Virginia head coach invites all Wahoo fans to Saturday’s “Meet the Team” event and to view the “1186 to Omaha” film at John Paul Jones Arena.

Here is Saturday’s schedule for the event (admission is free):

4 p.m. — Doors open to the public. UVA team autograph session (third floor, main concourse)

5 p.m. — Introduction of the 2020 team (basketball court)

5:10 p.m. — “1186 to Omaha,” will be shown on Hoovision (Section 108 open for seating)

6 p.m. — Event concludes

“We all enjoyed the movie [last] Saturday,” O’Connor said of the documentary, which was shown to Wahoo fans attending the annual UVA Baseball Hall of Fame ceremony. “It was very well done. I haven’t talked to anybody who was there that night that didn’t enjoy it. Certainly it’s a great lesson for this year’s team.

“I talked to a lot of our players the next day and a lot of them didn’t know the story behind that team. Most of them had no idea what that team went through. Certainly there’s a lot of great lessons in there.”

While that is true, O’Connor said he didn’t feel that the present team necessarily needed that type of inspiration heading into the 2020 season, which begins Feb. 14 with a three-game series against top-25 Oklahoma in Pensacola, Fla. UVA’s home opener will be Feb. 18 versus VMI.

“I had a good feeling in the fall [about the ‘20 team] and [the same feeling] these first 10 days back,” the coach said. “These guys have a renewed step about them. I love the energy. There’s a lot of new and young players, but there’s a ton of talent.”

Last year’s team struggled with injuries and a lack of production on the mound en route to a 32-24 season, the second consecutive year of missing the NCAA Tournament after 13 consecutive years in postseason play. 

The fact that it was the most inexperienced pitching staff in O’Connor’s illustrious career was the major downfall, something that should be corrected this time around.

“I hope it’s going to be a lot better and that means more wins,” the coach said. “We knew going into last season that we had a lot of inexperienced pitchers. That’s not an area you want to be inexperienced in. We showed a lot of signs of that in the totality of the year.”

For example, UVA posted only 14 quality starts in 56 games.

“That’s something we need to significantly improve on,” O’Connor said.

With Andrew Abbott, Griff McGarry, Kyle Whitten and a number of other pitchers returning, that should help. The coach believes those hurlers understand what it takes to win at a high level of college baseball.

A big portion of the next three weeks of practice will be dedicated to getting the arms ready on the mound under the direction of new pitching coach Drew Dickinson from Illinois. Dickinson replaced long-time O’Connor aid Karl Kuhn, who took the head coaching job at Radford University.

“We have to figure out some other things, too” O’Connor said. “I couldn’t tell you who our starting shortstop is going to be right now because we don’t have anyone that started there last year. There’s still some good competition [at short], and we’re going to be great at that position.”

One of UVA’s shortcomings last season was finishing games. The Cavaliers were 6-8 in one-run contests, 11 of those ACC games, and three of those losses to ACC champion North Carolina. O’Connor doesn’t dwell on that fact when he’s talking to his present team, but they understand an emphasis on finishing games this season.

“It’s woven into everything we do every day whether it’s a conditioning exercise or whatever we do,” the coach said. “We talk about finishing things. It’s a mentality that you work to try to instill in them every day.

“They’re smart, they get that most of those weekends we started 1-0, but we didn’t finish .500 in league play. We have to be better throughout. I think a lot of that starts with consistent starting pitching. If you get good consistent starts on a regular basis, you’re going to win your fair share of games.”

O’Connor believes that in order to make the NCAA’s, it usually comes down to performance within a team’s league. That will be a challenge for the Cavaliers this season because the coach thinks that the ACC is going to be one of the best leagues in the country.

“I’ll tell you our league is going to be one of the best in my 16 years here, especially our side (the Coastal Division),” O’Connor said. “There are some really great teams in the ACC and the top 25 shows that.”

The coach was right. There are eight ACC teams ranked among Baseball America’s preseason Top 25: 2) Louisville; 5) Miami; 12) Florida State; 15) Duke; 17) N.C. State; 18) North Carolina; 20) Wake Forest; 21) Georgia Tech.

“I’m excited for [UVA’s players] to work and get better each day the next three weeks, and excited to see them compete,” O’Connor said.

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