Saturday, June 27, 2015

A Cinderella Story
A Cinderella Story, no not the Hilary Duff and Chad Michael Murray movie, the 2015 University of Virginia baseball team. By now, you’ve probably heard it—starring breakthrough actors like Adam Haseley, Ernie Clement, Pavin Smith, and Thomas Woodruff, veterans like Brandon Waddell, Josh Sborz, and Kenny Towns, battered stars like Nathan Kirby and Joe McCarthy, and a great supporting cast, the Cavaliers won their first ever NCAA baseball championship after almost failing to make their own conference tournament no less. But this story isn’t a fairytale; it’s a story that’s been in the making for 12 years; it’s a story about how consistency inevitably breeds championships.

Twelve years ago, Brian O’Connor was hired to replace long-time head coach Dennis Womack, thereby transforming Virginia baseball eternally. Since O’Connor’s hiring in July of 2003, the Cavaliers haven’t missed a single NCAA tournament. The number of NCAA tournaments UVa. appeared in the 56-year-history of the NCAA Baseball Tournament before O’Connor? Three.

The Cavaliers didn’t reach the Super Regional round for another five years after O’Connor’s first season, but they kept at it and were rewarded with their first ever College World Series appearance in 2009 (where they lost to Arkansas, a team they beat this year on their way to the title, in the second round of the CWS).

Another Super Regional appearance soon followed in 2010, and in 2011, the Cavaliers were back in Omaha—this time as the No.1 overall seed in the tournament. This was also the year that the coaching staff pulled a flu-ridden Danny Hultzen, star pitcher and the second overall pick in the 2011 Major League Baseball Draft, from an elimination game against South Carolina, with the Cavaliers just one win away from the championship series—a move not uncommon for O’Connor’s coaching staff who value their players’ health and future more than anything.

With Hultzen gone the following season, the Cavaliers tied the fewest number of wins in the O’Connor era (They also recorded 39 wins in 2008). Nevertheless, Virginia hosted a regional in Charlottesville for the third straight year before returning to the Super Regional in 2013, proving that 2012 was just a minor blip on the radar, and in 2014, the Cavaliers were one win away from winning a national championship, reaching the finals of the College World Series for the first time ever.

With a preseason No.2 ranking in tow to start the 2015 season, the Cavaliers were primed for another deep NCAA run, going 12-1 in their first 13 games. Then the inconsistencies began for the injury-laden Cavaliers, who lost seven of their next nine games without McCarthy, who had back surgery before the start of the season and John La Priese, who had only played in four games prior undergoing season-ending hip surgery on April 1. Twenty days after permanently losing La Priese for the season, the Cavaliers lost one of their aces in pitcher Nathan Kirby for the last month of the season (but you probably know all of this already from reading the fairytale). In total, the Cavaliers had four stretches in the 2015 regular season where they lost three or more games—a first under O’Connor’s tutelage.

But as they’ve always done and will continue to do under O’Connor, the Cavaliers adjusted and closed out the regular season with five straight wins. They lost three straight in the ACC Tournament after winning the play-in game to get into the contest, but the ACC Tournament isn’t really where the Cavaliers thrive anyhoo, having only won two conference championships under O’Connor’s leadership. Where they’ve really thrived is in the NCAA tournament, and they had done just enough to make it into the field of 64 to allow consistency to take over yet again. The Cavaliers took that consistency and rolled with it, combining it with the players who upheld that consistency and the luck of the draw (Maryland knocked off the No. 1 overall seed in UCLA), the Omahoos went 10-2 in their final 12 games, holding the hottest-hitting team in the tournament, No.4 Florida, to just four runs in their two wins against the Gators, before exacting revenge on Vanderbilt in the finals for that elusive championship trophy Brian O’Connor set out for 12 years ago.

You probably doubt my consistency argument right now, but you can’t debate it because no matter what, the great teams will always eventually win. Just take a look at an example in the CWS’s counterpart, the Women’s College World Series. The Florida softball team reached the WCWS seven times before eventually winning it in 2014 and repeating this year. They even lost in the championship series twice in 2008 and 2011.

This argument also proves true in college basketball. After winning the national title in 2010, Duke lost in the second round twice before eventually winning it again earlier this year. In fact, Duke hasn’t missed the Big Dance since 1995. On the other hand, Virginia has only recently been invited to the Dance on a more consistent basis. They haven’t won one yet, but if Tony Bennett keeps churning out championship-caliber teams, they’ll get there one day.

And sure there are outliers like the Golden State Warriors, who won with a first-year head coach, but they didn’t have to go through the most consistent team in the NBA in the past 20 years, the San Antonio Spurs.

And then there are teams that will never win a national championship like the UVa. football team because they haven’t even found consistency at the starting quarterback position since 2004. But let’s not think about the football team right now as I have digressed, Hoo fans; let us revel in the successes of our baseball team whose story won’t be ending anytime soon, even if this chapter was a fairytale.