After a 4-3 loss to TCU in the College World Series ended Virginia baseball’s 2023 season, the Cavaliers headed home from Omaha with mixed feelings. Proud of how far they’d come, but irritated by how close they’d been to achieving college baseball glory. Now, Virginia is ready to take another swing for the fences.
The Cavaliers bring back six of their starting position players as well as several of their younger pieces that have developed over the offseason. Combine that with a top-20 ranked 2023 recruiting class — a group headlined by No. 20 ranked freshman left-handed pitcher Tommy Roldan and No. 5 ranked freshman first baseman Antonio Perrotta — and several talented transfer players, and Virginia once again has a very talented roster capable of making it back to the College World Series.
That being said, the Cavaliers will certainly rely on some players to fill larger roles than they did in 2023 — and in some cases, new roles — in order to succeed. The most notable change will be junior Ethan Anderson’s position swap from a utility player to a primary catcher. While the Preseason Second Team All-American’s hitting has been a large part of his success in the past for Virginia, Coach Brian O’Connor believes Anderson will thrive in his new defensive role as well.
“As our guys move on to the next year, hitters like Ethan Anderson move up … it’s now their time to be in that middle of the order role,” Coach O’Connor said. “He’s proven for two years to be a great player. I’m not asking any more of him, we’re just asking him to change position, and he’s made a terrific transition.”
Another aspect of the Cavaliers that will be in transition this season is pitching. Having lost essentially all three of their weekend starters, it appears as if many arms will have to step up for this Virginia squad to continue to have quality innings on the mound. Sophomore pitcher Jack O’Connor is the only returning arm to throw more than 50 innings, so all eyes will be on the sophomore as the team looks for him to make the jump and lead the staff in 2024. Nonetheless, the young pitcher feels ready for whatever comes at him and feels the same about the abilities of his teammates.
“The thing that is great about this team right now, especially on the pitching side, there are so many options,” Jack O’Connor said. “Any single person on this staff can fit into any role, and that is just how powerful our staff is right now and everyone is showing out with their best.”
Elsewhere on the mound for the Cavaliers, look for sophomore pitcher Bradley Hodges and junior pitcher Jay Woolfolk to take on a lot of innings as well. Hodges had a great offseason that included playing in the Cape Cod Baseball League, in addition to a dominant fall season with Virginia. The sophomore’s elite fastball routinely blows hitters away, but the key for Hodges’ success will be mastering command of his offspeed pitches, as he lacked a secondary option in 2023.
“Bradley Hodges had a tremendous fall, you could argue he had the best fall consistently of all of our pitchers. [Hodges] got some great experience last year, and was a highly touted left-handed pitcher,” Coach O’Connor said. “We’re looking for him to play a significant role in that pitching staff this year.”
For Woolfolk, improvements are almost destined to come now that he has put his full attention on baseball after announcing he would be stepping away from Virginia football in July. Being able to spend the whole offseason with the team developing his pitches and focusing on all aspects of the game should turn him into a stud pitcher that Virginia can plug in as either a starter or a reliever.
“The concentration, and the focus [he] can give to baseball is a lot bigger from him,” Jack O’Connor said. “I think he’s trying to learn his two-seam and his four-seam a little bit better, and there’s little things he can do to elevate his game that he now has the time to focus on. It’s awesome for him.”
Other players to watch for this year on the Cavaliers include the outfield quartet of sophomore Harrison Didawick, junior outfielders Anthony Stephan and Casey Saucke and graduate student outfielder and Indiana transfer Bobby Whalen. The former three were the most consistent starting outfield for Virginia last season and largely hit well while only committing two errors the entire season. Add in Whalen to the mix, who hit .277 last year with the Hoosiers, and the Cavaliers have deadly depth in the outfield for 2024 that only improved over the offseason.
“Harrison Didawick took a big step forward this fall from an offensive standpoint… he got a lot physically stronger, so now the ball is coming off his bat a bit differently,” Coach O’Connor said. “Bobby Whalen from Indiana had a great fall as well, Anthony Stephan has continued to develop as well and will be a key factor in the middle of that lineup as well.”
All in all, Virginia is a long way away from being able to punch a ticket back to the College World Series. But this team is hungry to be the next Team 1186 — a term given to Virginia’s 2015 outfit that won the College World Series — and the thought of being back in Omaha has driven everyone to work their hardest.
“What they learned on that journey to get there is so pivotal,” Coach O’Connor said. They can reflect back on what happened last year to help them through the challenging moments that we’ll go through this spring. There’s no replacement for experiencing it, and those guys that we have back from last year’s team, a lot of them know what it felt like to have to perform to get to the next game, to get to Omaha.”
While Coach O’Connor and the team’s primary goal is redemption in the College World Series, the Cavaliers have a 55-game regular season and an ACC Tournament to get through first. That journey begins Feb. 16 at 3 p.m. when Virginia will kickstart its 2024 campaign with a home series against Hofstra.