Thanks for the memories, Virginia Baseball
Kenny Towns says 'the future is bright' — but so is the present
A day after the thrill and heartbreak of the College World Series finals, the Virginia baseball team found itself back in Charlottesville – 1,187.4 miles from Omaha. The No. 1 team in Baseball America’s preseason rankings had finished second instead of first, runner-up instead of champion. Knowledge of that fact plainly stung.
“There is still a lot of heartache — this one is going to hurt for a while,” coach Brian O’Connor said, sitting at the podium inside Davenport Field’s Hall of Fame Room.
The Cavaliers entered this season with high aspirations; rightly so, given their 30-man roster and eight 2014 Major League Baseball draftees. Their expectation was to win, and win they did — 53 times. Individual performance mattered little next to the achievement of the group.
O’Connor summed it up neatly: “When you believe in yourself and your success and don’t get it, it is frustrating.”
For those of us on the outside, however, there is much to celebrate. And when the sting of the Cavaliers’ final defeat settles into a gentler, more occasional disappointment, the players might just remember this season with a smile.
Vanderbilt junior outfielder John Norwood’s rocket home run off junior closer Nick Howard does not define this season. The stunned feeling felt after that play was powerful, but it cannot override the emotion many fans likely felt watching their team play this year: Cavalier pride. Less than 24 hours removed from season’s end, Athletics Director Craig Littlepage said, “Tonight is the celebration of the building of a program.”
There was the six-game winning streak following an opening-day loss to Kentucky. There was the seven-game winning streak in the middle of March. There was the nine-game run begun on a Sunday in Miami and concluded on a Friday in Pittsburgh. And there was that very Friday in the Steel City, when sophomore left-hander Nathan Kirby tossed a no-hitter and struck out 18 Panthers.
To forget all that would be a disservice to our Cavaliers. To scrap four-plus months of memories because the final three days went off the desired script — Oak won’t even let his players do that.
“O’Connor told us to be proud of our season and not to hang our heads,” senior right-hander Artie Lewicki said.
Lewicki deserves our salute, as does Whit Mayberry, Austin Young and every junior headed off to the minors in pursuit of his dreams. They bought into what O’Connor’s been selling since his first days here: Virginia baseball means far more than winning. O’Connor said he was “proud” of all the victories, yes, but also “these young men” — his players — “representing this institution with class and dignity.”
Towns said “the future is bright for us,” and that statement says much about these Cavaliers. Towns, after all, was not picked in this year’s 40-round MLB draft. The names of every one of his junior teammates (save infielder Thomas Woodruff, a walk-on) were called. And yet, for Towns, the future is bright where “us” — him and his team — are concerned.
Through all the inevitable flux of a season as long as college baseball’s, these Cavaliers battled. When junior left fielder Derek Fisher broke a bone in his hand, his teammates fluidly changed positions in the field and spots in the batting order. After Lewicki strained his oblique early on, freshman right-hander Alec Bettinger emerged as a midweek starter. Junior center fielder Brandon Downes struggled in the regular season only to notch five hits against Vanderbilt with a national championship on the line. Junior Branden Cogswell switched from shortstop to second base, moving over for freshman Daniel Pinero and his defensive grace, before the season even began.
Which brings us to one final point — home, so to speak. The Cavaliers’ future might be “bright” — and given this program’s track record with O’Connor, it likely is — but the present is not without its own luster.
Yes, Virginia came in second place, not first. And yes, several of the ballplayers that suited up for this team won’t be here next year. Virginia came in second — out of 298 teams. And Fisher, junior first baseman Mike Papi and others have played their last collegiate game, but while they were here, they upped the ante for Cavaliers yet to come.