Virginia Earns Return Trip To Omaha For Incredible 7th Time

Virginia Cavaliers Virginia celebrates a Super Regional win against Kansas State, which earned the program’s 7th trip to the College World Series. ~ Photo by Kris Wright/TheSabre.com

As players began to swarm the mound for an all too familiar June dogpile in Charlottesville, Virginia baseball coach Brian O’Connor wore a beaming smile that not even an ice, cold Gatorade bath could damper.

“I won’t be able to get this smile off my face that they have the opportunity to go back to Omaha,” O’Connor said in the postgame press conference.

UVA punched its ticket to the College World Series for the seventh time in program history and third time in the last four years with a 10-4 win over Kansas State in the Super Regional on Saturday. Virginia scored all 10 of its runs with 2 outs in the closeout game, a sign of the mentality O’Connor has seen in his players throughout the season.

“They’re tigers,” O’Connor said. “They’re just completely relentless in everything that they do.”

The Cavaliers will make back-to-back trips to Omaha for only the second time in program history, the only other time coming in 2014 and 2015. Despite featuring many of the same names from last year’s team, the 1,186 mile path back looked very different.

“Every journey is a little different,” shortstop Griff O’Ferrall said. “This season had a lot more twists and turns I would say than our trip last year. A lot more comeback wins, a lot more weird games. I think we’ve been put through a lot of challenges throughout the season.”

Last season featured stars Jake Gelof and Kyle Teel along with a strong corps of transfer pitchers, which helped carry Virginia to a No. 7 national seed. A year later the Cavaliers have been buoyed by another historic offense made up of the whole lineup, faced the challenge of a depleted and at times sub optimal pitching staff, which cast many doubts over their ceiling.

The narrative started to change this postseason, though, with strong pitching and defense leading Virginia on a 5-0 run through the Regional and Super Regional rounds. Starters Evan Blanco, Jay Woolfolk, and Joe Savino never allowed more than 4 earned runs and the bullpen did not allow a single run until the 8th inning of the closeout win over Kansas State.

Throughout the year, UVA became defined by the comeback win with 23 come-from-behind performances, including three straight this postseason. The “never say die” attitude started on day one in the season opener against Hofstra when the team rallied from a 4-1 deficit and carried all the way through to June.

“I don’t think people understand getting to a Regional is hard,” Saturday’s starting pitcher Jay Woolfolk said. “Having to win the season is hard, college baseball is just hard.”

This run will stand out even more in the record books as only the second time Virginia has gone 5-0 in the Regional and Super Regional rounds, joining the 2015 National Championship team.

“It’s so hard to be perfect, to go 5-0,” O’Connor said. “You see it with Regionals and Super Regionals all over the country because the other team in the other dugout is really, really good.”

In the opposite dugout this series was a coach very familiar with Virginia’s rise throughout the last two decades. Despite this being the first ever matchup between the two programs, Kansas State coach Pete Hughes goes back with O’Connor and stood on the opposing side of the Commonwealth Clash as Virginia Tech’s head coach from 2007-2013.

Hughes joked he felt like an infomercial for Virginia baseball throughout the week, but he is one who provides a unique perspective on the program having seen them a decade ago and then now.

“They’re the gold standard of college baseball,” Hughes said. “They are Omaha driven and fueled every single year.”

O’Connor says Omaha is brought up very little in conversation during the season each year, but the idea is omnipresent. The Cavaliers break down their huddle after every game with “Omaha,” pictures and trophies of previous trips can be found throughout Disharoon Park, as can the familiar moniker “1186 to Omaha.”

When O’Connor first arrived nearly two decades ago, the word Omaha was a distant thought for a program with three regional appearances in program history. The first few years in Charlottesville brought more postseason baseball, but still little suggested a program on the verge of becoming the “gold standard.” The Hoos hosted Regionals three out of four years from 2004-2007 but never broke through.

“After the first four years, everybody was saying ‘geez, how come they can’t win a Regional,’” O’Connor said. “It takes time, it takes experience, it takes having the opportunity and learning from it.

“Candidly, I was the one that needed to learn the most. I was a raving lunatic the first four years,” he continued. “I figured out that they’re going to partly take on the personality of leadership.”

O’Connor has brought up his demeanor in his first couple of seasons at Virginia a few times during this season’s Super Regional, which he credits as part of the reason the Cavaliers finally started to break through. UVA made its first Super Regional in 2009 with a win in Irvine, California, and quickly followed up with the program’s first trip to the College World Series for the first time with a three-game series win at Ole Miss.

Now 16 years later, Virginia has punched its seventh ticket to Omaha (2009, 2011, 2014, 2015, 2021, 2023, 2024). The seven trips are the second most among of any program in the country during that timeframe. O’Connor also becomes the third coach in ACC history to take his team to the College World Series at least seven times, joining Florida State’s Mike Martin and North Carolina’s Mike Fox.

“Fortunately in 2009 we were able to punch through and have learned a lot in the six trips that we’ve had there and we’ll put those things into motion to give ourselves the best chance to compete for a National Championship,” O’Connor said.

For the second year in a row, UVA players trotted around a packed Disharoon Park in their final home game giving high-fives, taking selfies, jumping up on the outfield walls to give hugs, and signing baseballs. For O’Ferrall, the Richmond native who attended many Virginia athletic events as a kid, he knew that earning that celebration was never a given.

“Going three of the last four years is not normal,” O’Ferrall said. “It’s not something I take for granted because growing up I was one of those kids down the line screaming for balls and asking for signatures.”

Despite growing up down the road, Woolfolk never attended a Virginia game, but from the moment he was being recruited by UVA he understood the expectations.

“Talking to Coach Oak over the phone, you kind of got the experience just by that,” Woolfolk said. “Obviously he put this program together and I’m blessed to be coached by him.”

O’Connor came prepared to the press conference with a picture of Woolfolk as a first year in the summer of 2021 right after he arrived on Grounds for football practice, wearing a Virginia baseball jersey for the first time. The long-tenured Virginia coach said moments like the one shown in the picture show it starts day one in the program, adding “all those little things matter and they all add up.”

“The pressure is putting them in situations and preparing them from the first day that they arrive here and how we talk to them as coaches and the standards that we hold them to,” O’Connor said. “That’s what this is about.”

Hughes said his Kansas State squad aspires to find the breakthrough just like O’Connor and the Cavaliers did 16 years ago. But he says what has made the program shine over the years is the consistency. Sitting at 46 wins on the way back to Omaha, the UVA program has won 35+ games in 18 of O’Connor’s 21 seasons, which counts the shortened 2020 campaign. The Hoos have cracked 40 wins 13 times, 45 wins 8 times, and 50 wins 5 times.

“Programs that are gold standard are the ones that can refuel, reload, have their rosters get turned around with the draft,” Hughes said. “Come back and win the same amount of games.”

As Coach O’Connor scanned The Dish during the most recent Super celebration, he saw many of the faces who were there from day one like UVA rector Robert Hardie, the first person to take him out for dinner 21 years ago. The moment provided a realization about the lengths the program has progressed over the years, but also how much more O’Connor wants for Virginia baseball.

“This won’t stop, we’ll continue to build,” O’Connor said. “I’ve made it a priority that we can’t stay where we’re at.”

The sour taste of two one-run losses and a short stay in Omaha a year ago still sits with the nearly 20 returnees from last season’s team. O’Ferrall said the first trip was a lot to take in at Charles Schwab Field in Omaha, but the approach is different this time around. When Virginia faces ACC rivals North Carolina in its College World Series opener, the country will see a team playing its best baseball.

“We’re going into it with a demeanor of we’re going to do some damage,” O’Ferrall said.

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