Last season, the Virginia baseball team was shaping up to be a real contender for postseason play — it won 13 of 15 home games, outscored its opponents by as many as 19 runs on multiple occasions and even came out triumphant against strong teams like NC State. All of this success came to an abrupt end when the COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancelation of the season, and fans were left devastated.
This year, the Cavaliers will return to Disharoon Park in the hopes of recording some wins. Although we don’t know any details about the schedule yet, what we can assume is that there will be a lot of exciting baseball in the spring. Let’s break down three reasons why this team is poised for prosperity in the upcoming year.
Coming into this season, the Cavaliers are ranked No. 5 in Baseball America’s preseason rankings. Individual players have also made their mark throughout the preseason including junior infielder Zack Gelof, senior left-hander Andrew Abbott and sophomore outfielder Chris Newell — who were all named to the Collegiate Baseball Newspaper’s preseason All-America team. Additionally, Newell and graduate right-hander Stephen Schoch made it on the D1Baseball Preseason All-America team — making Virginia one of only 12 colleges to have more than one player named to the team. Gelof also collected two other All-American honors from Baseball America and Perfect Game.
All four of these players are looking to build upon the success they have found in previous years. Newell, the youngest of the group, has been showered with recognition during his short time at Virginia — and deservingly so. He led his teammates last season in batting average, RBI and stolen bases, started all 18 games and topped off the season by being named the National co-Freshman of the Year by the Collegiate Baseball Newspaper.
Alongside him is Gelof — an incredibly versatile player who is strong at bat and perhaps even stronger on third base. In his freshman season, he was one of three Cavaliers to start all 56 games and last season, he started all 18 games — all on third base. In the 2020 D1Baseball Top 30 Power Rankings, Gelof was ranked the No. 3 third baseman in the country. Not only that, but Gelof also ranked fourth in the NCAA for runs and 11th in the NCAA for total bases in 2020.
On the other side of play is Abbott — D1Baseball’s No. 7 ranked relief pitcher in college baseball. Last season, Abbott pitched in nine games, struck out 28 batters in just 13.1 innings and only allowed two runs in those innings. His improvement since his freshman year and dedication to the game has been noticed and, for the first time, Abbott will be a starting pitcher for the Cavaliers this year.
Alongside Abbott, Schoch will be another key to the Cavaliers’ 2021 success. Last season was actually Schoch’s first with the Cavaliers after transferring from UMBC, and right out of the pen, he proved his worth and struck out 24 batters in 16.2 innings throughout the season. These innings were spread across 11 separate appearances — the most by any pitcher on the team and the second most by pitchers in the NCAA.
Our freshman class
To accompany these established returners is a freshman class of 11 — including a top-ranked left-hander, a top-ranked third baseman and the New Jersey Gatorade Player of the Year, to name a few. It’s clear that the accolades brought by this class are aplenty and that each athlete will bring his own unique advantage to the team.
In addition to getting excited about the freshman class’s accomplishments, it’s worthy to note that they have already earned praise from multiple returning players in the short time they have had together.
“All of the first years are doing a great job,” graduate catcher Logan Michaels said. “Last year I felt like it was the best team I've ever played for … but coming into this year … we got very close very quick and I think that’s gonna be huge for us going forward.”
The bond between the freshmen players and the more experienced players was very evident last year, as multiple rookie players made their way into the rotation early on. This year, the team can only hope a similar bond is formed once the season begins.
“The rookie class that came in is really good and I think they just add fuel to the fire,” Gelof said.
He has particular reason to be eagerly anticipating the freshman debut as his brother, freshman shortstop Jake Gelof, joins the team this year. Throughout the season, he looks to make his way into the rotation between second and third base and impress the masses — as his brother has already done.
Changes to the Major League Baseball draft and new NCAA eligibility rules are working together in a unique way this year. The Major League Baseball draft rules were modified to only allow for five rounds of picks rather than the typical 40 rounds. This left a large number of players undrafted, but since many collegiate sports teams had their seasons cut short due to COVID-19, spring sport athletes were given an extra year of eligibility by the NCAA.
Now, any players who could have been drafted — or otherwise could not return to their college team — can return for another season and prepare even further for their next steps. This creates a really exciting circumstance in the college baseball world, which is brimming with more talent than ever before.
“Most college baseball teams, they’ll be the best they’ve been in quite some time,” Coach Brian O’Connor said. “I think it’s gonna be as talented, as fun, as challenging a season that college baseball has ever had.”
These modifications are very helpful for Virginia, as all but two players from last year chose to exercise their extra year of eligibility. Notably, the aforementioned pitchers Schoch and Abbott will be returning to the mound in 2021, despite previously being set to depart the program.
For these reasons, among many others, the near future of the Virginia baseball team appears quite promising. When the Cavaliers return to the field after months of waiting for the season to arrive, we can only hope they will bring some fierce energy and unwavering enthusiasm — two things they’ll surely need to succeed this year.