One day before Virginia’s Super Regional against Maryland, coach Brian O’Connor did something he had never done before — he took a selfie. Two days later, O’Connor piled onto the mound of humanity which had formed over freshman Ernie Clement, whose two-run single punched the Cavaliers’ ticket to Omaha.
“I wanted to remind [the players] that this is fun, and they should enjoy it,” O’Connor said of the selfie.
The season was not always a fun one for the program. Virginia (now 40-22, 15-15 ACC) took a long, strange trip filled with ups and a plethora of downs to the 2015 College World Series. Still, even in an uncommonly difficult season, the end result of postseason success has not changed.
“Last year was a great experience — being able to go there for my first time,” senior Kenny Towns said. “But with what we’ve been through this year it’s even more sweet for me.”
While it seems like an eternity, the Cavaliers began their season exactly four months ago and were soon ranked number one in the nation. Despite the absence of junior Joe McCarthy, who would miss the first half of the season due to back surgery, and a rash of newcomers in the starting lineup, Virginia won its first 10 games.
Then, as if someone flipped a switch, the Cavaliers dropped eight of their next 12. Consistency, or a lack thereof, plagued Virginia throughout the regular season.
“There were many days and nights of frustration,” O’Connor said. “You can’t take winning for granted. Wins are hard to come by, and things are going to happen. If you stick by the players and continue to believe in them… it’s amazing what they can accomplish.”
With its collective back against the wall, Virginia played just well enough through the latter half of the conference slate to make it into the ACC Tournament. After a 1-3 finish in the tourney the Cavaliers were selected as the third seed in the Lake Elsinore regional.
They haven’t lost since.
Two wins against USC and a victory against San Diego State sent Virginia back to Charlottesville with a regional title and a looming matchup with the Terrapins (42-24, 14-10 Big Ten).
The Cavaliers would sweep Maryland in two games, but not without the need of late-game heroics — junior Kevin Doherty drove home the go-ahead run in the eighth inning of game one and Virginia entered the bottom of the ninth behind 4-2 in the second game.
The pressure of late-game situations have not gotten to the Cavaliers in this postseason. Partly because their future had been in doubt for large parts of the season.
“Since the NCAA tournament started people weren’t expecting much from us, so it took the pressure off of us,” Towns said. “We played loose baseball and played very well.”
In a strange reversal, No. 14 Virginia enters the 2015 College World Series as an underdog. The Cavaliers are the lowest-ranked of all eight participants and share a pool with No. 2 Florida, No. 9 Miami and No. 11 Arkansas.
The other end of the bracket features top-ranked LSU, No. 4 TCU, No. 7 Vanderbilt and No. 13 Cal State Fullerton.
Virginia enters play bolstered by the return of junior left hander Nathan Kirby. The 40th pick in the 2015 MLB Draft, Kirby has not pitched since April 17, when his outing against the Hurricanes was cut short by a strain in his left latissimus muscle.
While an ace for the previous year and a half, Kirby may come out of the bullpen to begin the College World Series.
“I don’t have any [expectations],” Kirby said. “Whenever my name is called I’ll be out there.”