Exposure, expectations rise for Virginia
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- A recent story in online magazine Slate examined underdogs in sports -- specifically, how and why the average sports fan, when not already invested in a particular team, roots for the underdog.
The article explained that simply associating the word "underdog" with a team often attracts fans who previously held no allegiances either way. It's an ironic advantage, because owning that descriptor means said team is predicted to lose.
A year ago, the University of Virginia baseball team knew this feeling well. After claiming the 2009 ACC championship as a No. 6 seed, the Cavaliers earned a less-than-desirable seeding in the NCAA tournament regional and super regional. Surprisingly, they clinched both series to earn the program's first trip to the College World Series.
"When we got off the bus in Omaha, one lady said to us, 'You're my Cinderella team this year,'" says sophomore infielder John Hicks. "We definitely had people rooting for us because we were the underdogs."
UVa was eliminated after losing two of its first three games (one to eventual national champion LSU); still, its Omaha debut capped off a season of the most wins (49) in the program's history and heightened its national following.
But as any elite team knows, with national success comes increased expectation, which the Cavs realized as the 2010 season began.
"I hate the fact that in a lot of people's eyes, your program has to be validated by going to Omaha, because there's so many great teams in college baseball, and only eight of them get to go," says head coach Brian O'Connor, who was named the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association and College Baseball Insider national coach of the year in 2009. "But that's the reality of the situation and we did it, and it's brought a lot of national attention to our program."
Baseball America ranked the Cavs second overall in preseason polls thanks in large part to the return of every starting position player and many of their best pitchers alongside one of the nation's best freshman classes (ranked ninth by Baseball America).
"Our coaches stressed in the fall that we'd have a target on our back this year and expectations would be a bit different, but we're going to go about it the same," says junior infielder/outfielder Phil Gosselin. "We've always been hard workers who've paid attention to the details. Just because we went to Omaha, it doesn't change that."
UVa opened the 2010 season on Feb. 19 by winning an away series against 11th-ranked East Carolina. It set another program record by owning Baseball America and Rivals.com's No. 1 ranking for six consecutive weeks from mid-March to mid-April.
April also brought losses: First the Cavaliers lost two of three games to NC State, followed by a Georgia Tech defeat less than a week later. Then came the worst loss of the season: a 12-3 defeat to VMI on April 18.
"You're going to lose games, and Coach harps on how we respond because you gotta be able to come the next day and play," says Gosselin, who leads the ACC in hits and ranks second in the league in batting average. "Nobody's 100 percent at this point in the year, but once the game starts, you've got the adrenaline."
Many have seen this season as the culmination of work that began almost a decade ago. UVa athletic director Craig Littlepage remembered how in 2000 and 2001, a scrupulous examination of all Cavaliers sports programs led to divisions so that some sports were scaled back, while other sports received enhancements and increased funding.
"Different constituencies supporting those sports were given the challenge to help the university put together plans to raise the resources not just to keep those sports alive, but help them advance and thrive, "Littlepage said. "Baseball was one of those sports."
One of the major challenges facing the baseball team, according to Littlepage, was upgrading its facilities.
"Pre-2001," Littlepage said, "our baseball facility was an embarrassment. You would not have put a 'Bad News Bears' on this field."
The baseball program kicked into high gear with the opening of Davenport Field in 2002, the Cavaliers' new multi-million dollar facility and then again with O'Connor's arrival as coach in 2003. The Nebraska native inherited a roster that included future major league stars Mark Reynolds (Arizona Diamondbacks) and Ryan Zimmerman (Washington Nationals).
"I remember the weekend before we went on our first ACC trip seven years ago -- we were 11-1 and playing Seton Hall, and we had the largest crowd they'd ever had at the stadium," O'Connor says. "You could see that if you played good, winning consistent baseball, this community would really support it. I think us going to Omaha last year, and for various weeks this year being ranked No. 1 in the country, you put all that together, and it's taken it to a new level where it's a very difficult ticket to get. It's even forcing us to add more seats to our stadium."
Indeed, close to 980 general-admission seats were added to the first-base side of Davenport Field in mid-April, and UVa plans to add 600 more seats before May 14. Several home games have sold out, leading UVa to rank 23rd nationally in attendance with an average of 2,674 spectators per home game. The current UVa record for average attendance is 1,774 spectators, set in 2007, and the Cavs will shatter that record by season's end.
UVa baseball T-shirts are seen not just on campus but also throughout Charlottesville. Scores of tailgaters gathered on the green lawns outside Davenport before the mid-April Virginia Tech series, and one former UVa player from the late 1990s said that "never happened" when he played.
"When you walk around campus, people recognize you," Hicks says. "At first, no one really talked about the baseball team, but now people know who we are."
Even merchandising sales have experienced the "Omaha effect." According to UVa officials, Virginia averaged $13,699 per season in merchandise sales at Davenport Field for the 2007, 2008 and 2009 seasons. But through the April 21 home game this year, merchandise sales at Davenport totaled $38,385 -- almost a 200 percent increase.
Virginia leads the ACC in batting (.345) and is second in ERA (3.61). One of the Cavs' starting pitchers, freshman Branden Kline, was drafted in the sixth round by the Boston Red Sox this past June but chose to play at UVa instead. He's just one example of the level of talent on the roster. Junior Kevin Arico is tied for first among all Division I pitchers in season saves (13) with Appalachian State pitcher Chris Patterson.
Much credit has gone not only to the recruiting practices of O'Connor, who won his 300th UVa game during his seventh season in April, but also his coaching style.
"He's the best coach I've ever played for," junior outfielder Dan Grovatt says. "He knows how to handle his players. He knows when to yell at you, when to not yell at you, when to sit you down and talk to you, how to get your confidence back. My whole experience here has been amazing."
Left-handed sophomore pitching sensation Danny Hultzen became the school's first ACC Freshman of the Year after finishing 9-1 while also hitting .327. He's 7-1 so far this season and against Duke on Friday threw UVa's first complete game in more than two years, striking out 13 batters (tying a career high) and retiring 21 of the final 22 hitters he faced. He didn't walk a batter.
UVa has few defensive holes, too -- its defense ranks seventh nationally and second in the ACC, and it currently holds a 97.9 percent fielding percentage.
"They have really, really good players," says North Carolina head coach Mike Fox. "I think in 2007, when [O'Connor] and his assistants got that group of freshmen that played so much you sort of take your lumps when playing young ones because you know in the back of your mind that if they get better and develop, you've got a chance for the next couple of years. That's what's happened at Virginia. I'm sure that they're good enough to win the national championship this year."
After taking all three games from Maryland last week, Virginia also swept Duke, earning back-to-back ACC road series sweeps for the first time since 2004. With their 10-5 defeat of VCU on Tuesday, the Cavaliers enter the exam-period break with a 40-9 record (18-6 in the ACC). They'll next face UNC at home from May 14-16 before a rematch against VMI on the 18th.
"Once we start swinging the bat collectively like we can, it'll be very tough to beat us," Grovatt said in mid-April. "I don't think we've necessarily peaked as an offense yet. And that's a good thing."
O'Connor says the Cavs' success ultimately lies in the understanding of their potential. "When I got here, it was just a matter of getting the players to believe that they could be successful at the highest level of college baseball," O'Connor says. "We had the talent; we just needed to put guys in the right position to be successful. And then really believing in it."
Should the Cavaliers return to Omaha in June, it won't be as underdogs. Instead, they just might be the team to beat.
Anna K. Clemmons is a writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine.