CHARLOTTESVILLE — It was almost 16 years ago that Brian O’Connor took over as Virginia’s baseball coach.
At that time, the Cavaliers hadn’t been to the NCAA tournament in seven years, had only been three times in program history and had never gone in back-to-back seasons.
Changing that became O’Connor’s charge. He led UVa to 14 straight NCAA appearances, four trips to the College World Series and the 2015 national championship.
Success begat success.
“It’s about consistency, and you get yourself in the NCAA tournament as much as you can,” O’Connor said this week. “The players start to learn and understand what it takes to win at that time of the year. I’d love for this team to earn that opportunity to do that, because it’s a building block.”
Last season, for the first time in his UVa tenure, O’Connor’s club missed the NCAAs. Wednesday, the Cavaliers open play in the ACC tournament in Durham, North Carolina, assuming they still have some work to do to earn a bid from the NCAA the selection committee.
“We all know what we have to do,” said freshman second-baseman Nic Kent, a first-team all-ACC selection this year.
Most projections have Virginia making the NCAA tournament, a standing helped by the team’s hot finish to the regular season. The Cavaliers have won 10 of their past 14 ballgames, taking two of three in their final two ACC series against Louisville and Virginia Tech.
After finishing ninth overall in the league, they’ll face fifth-seeded North Carolina and fourth-seeded Miami in pool play, starting with Wednesday’s matchup with the Tar Heels. It’s not a particularly favorable schedule, though wins in either or both contests would certainly bolster Virginia’s resume going into the NCAA selection process.
“I’m not too certain about where the team is exactly in the minds of the committee,” sophomore reliever Andrew Abbott said. “Nobody really knows except for the committee where we are. But I think we just have to go down there and play well, show them that we can hang with the best teams.”
O’Connor, whose team has dealt with struggles from Friday night starter Noah Murdock in his past five outings, said converted reliever Chesdin Harrington will start one of the first two games.
The biggest knock on the Cavaliers’ case for a postseason berth could be their league record.
UVa’s 8-4 loss to Tech last Saturday left the Cavs 14-16 in ACC play. Last year, only one team (Texas A&M out of the SEC) made the NCAA field with a sub-.500 conference record. The last time an ACC team reached the NCAAs despite a losing record in league play was 2016, when Boston College, Duke, Georgia Tech and Wake Forest all received at-large bids despite their conference marks.
“It’s hard to know for sure what you have to do to get into the NCAA tournament when you’re in the position that were in right now,” O’Connor said. “I think if we win a game or two, I believe, in this conference, that we’d be deserving of that and I think our RPI would reflect that. But we’re in a situation that we have to control it. So we need to go down to Durham and play to win.”
UVa went 1-2 against North Carolina, winning the opener of a three-game series in Chapel Hill on April 26, then dropping a pair of 5-4 games the next two days.
“We all felt that we could definitely hang with them and we played well against them for the most part,” Kent said. “We just needed one or two more plays. I think we’ve been getting those plays recently.”
Miami swept the Cavaliers on April 13-14, winning 9-6, 2-1 and 3-1. A pair of wins would put Virginia in the ACC semifinals and all but guarantee a spot in the NCAAs. It hasn’t won the ACC tournament since 2011.
“That’s what’s pushing us,” Abbott said. “We have a real shot at something great. Last year wasn’t a great year for us so we want to get back there and start a new streak.”