OMAHA, Neb. -- Virginia may be in the same place it was a year ago, in the College World Series Finals, but it had put a lot of miles under its feet to get back here. Some were planned, some were not. Either way, it’s been a long journey for Virginia since falling in last year’s Finals.
First, before the season, the freshman-heavy Cavaliers spent their Christmas break on a trip to Central America, starting a seven-day tour in Panama. Head coach Brian O’Connor said he felt that this year would be the ideal time to do that sort of team bonding activity, especially with 14 first-years on the squad.
“I just felt it was important for this year's club to have that experience, to hopefully get them to spend time together, to value the relationships they have and the experiences they have with each other,” O’Connor said. “I'd like to believe that it has helped this club. And just to grow a little bit closer together because you'd imagine that there would be difficult times with the youth that we had on this club.”The trip set the tone for the season in a lot of ways. While coming together as a team would take time, a lot of it would have to be done on the road.
Bad weather forced Virginia away from Charlottesville in several times in the first month of the season. The Hoos had to go as far as South Carolina to rent facilities just to be able to play. They didn’t play a home weekend series until March 20-22, leaving just three weekends at Davenport Field remaining on the year.
“Through the first two months of the season, it was a challenge because you start to think, when are we going to catch a break?” O’Connor said. “It was really something like we’ve never experienced.”
It was a lot of time on buses and in hotels for the Cavaliers. It didn’t make it easier that they were also making a lot of trips to doctor’s offices and training rooms.
Right fielder Joe McCarthy missed the first two months of the season after back surgery. Top starting pitcher Nathan Kirby missed the last two, finally returning to the mound in the College World Series last week against Florida. One of the more unique challenges Virginia faced was the constant fluctuation of its catching situation.
Robbie Coman, who caught two CWS Finals games in 2014 and was the starting catcher out of the gate this season, missed significant time with a knee injury. Matt Thaiss filled in and became an offensive leader for the Hoos, but the day Coman was cleared to play, Thaiss went down with a sprained ankle.
“That was crazy,” Thaiss said. “Robbie is a great player. It’s been really fun to play with him the past two years, and he’s one of my best friends on the team. I think having both of us in the lineup every day is good for this team.”
With both of them back, Virginia’s offense is clicking. Thaiss leads the team in batting average (.337) and home runs (10) while taking the everyday role behind the plate. He is 6-for-14 with one homer in Omaha. Coman, the designated hitter, has a .292 mark on the season.
Most of Virginia’s key players have been able to play consistently throughout the postseason, but there are still plenty of injuries on the roster. O’Connor doesn’t delve deep into his bench, and a pinch-hitter is a rare sight for this Virginia team. The simple fact is that the options are not there. It’s up to the nine guys in the lineup to produce.
“It’s kind of cool, it’s been this way for a while,” O’Connor said. “It’s like, these are the guys -- go.”
Virginia has gotten more used to spending time in hotels and on buses, the travel demands extended into the postseaon. Normally a good candidate for a regional host, the Hoos’ struggles through March and April landed them a No. 3 seed in the regional round. They were sent out to Lake Elsinore, California, and won all three games to advance. At long last, something did go their way: One more weekend series at home awaited, a Super Regional against Maryland.
“It was challenging throughout the regular season, but once we got to the postseason, it was like, ‘They’re sending us to California? Great, let’s go,’” O’Connor said.
Now they’re in a familiar place, at least for the non-freshman. Virginia played six games in TD Ameritrade Park Omaha last season. That experience is something the older players have tried to use to guide the freshmen in this year’s trip, and the comfort, confidence and familiarity is trickling down.
“[The injuries] forced our freshmen to step up into bigger roles,” shortstop Danny Pinero said. “I think that’s built a lot of confidence that has carried us in the College World Series. To be thrown into an environment like this as a freshman is crazy, I experienced that last year.”
Speaking of familiarity, the same opponent as last season awaits in Vanderbilt. The College World Series Finals start on Monday at 8 p.m. ET, as Virginia hopes its time on the road this season helps it turn around 2014’s result.