- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 2, 2011

ANNAPOLIS, Md. — Making its first NCAA tournament appearance in nearly a decade, Navy’s baseball team could have been forgiven for being flustered, even flabbergasted, when it drew top-ranked Virginia in its first game.

But considering the school it represents is one of the nation’s mightiest military academies, perhaps it should come as no surprise that, heading into the encounter, the mood of the Midshipmen is instead one that’s unflinching.

It might come off as wacky or unwise. Virginia’s presence as a perennial powerhouse in college baseball is seemingly legions ahead of Navy’s, which before this year hadn’t made the NCAA tournament since 2002. The Cavaliers have spent much of the season ranked No. 1 in the country and, at Davenport Field, where they’ll host Navy on Friday, they are 30-4 and rank 18th in the country in attendance.

Yet junior outfielder Alex Azor seems unfazed by it all.

“They,” Azor said of the Cavaliers, “put their pants on just as we do.”

Call it the Midshipmen mindset.

It’s a mindset that has the team filled with confidence, competence and, after a terrific turnaround season, maybe even a sprinkling of cockiness. And, perhaps most importantly, it’s a mindset that gives the team a reason to believe heading into the first game Friday.

“This is a game,” Navy coach Paul Kostacopoulos said. “Last time I checked, that’s why you play; you don’t look at odds, you don’t look at pregame stats, you go out and you play, and I think that’s what we’re really good at.”

The Midshipmen are going to have to be. In Virginia, Navy faces a team boasting the second-best earned-run average in the nation at 2.34. It faces a team that just cruised to its third ACC title. And as if that weren’t enough, it faces a team that was so unbeatable during the regular season, it can count the losses it has suffered on two hands.

But Navy’s team is special — if not surprising — too. The team finished first in the Patriot League during the regular season and became the first conference champion since 2007 to go on and win the conference’s postseason tournament as well. The squad never lost a doubleheader at any point over the campaign’s 57 games or was swept in a single conference series. And, of infinite importance to Navy die-hards, it won a series over archrival Army for the first time in recent memory. That came in the conference finals.

“Not beating them in a series the entire time [us seniors] have been here, hearing things about how long it’s been since we won a series against them,” senior infielder Nick Driscoll said, “it was awesome.”

It was awesome not just for players but also for local fans that can still exude the feeling of a small-town, tight-knit community.

“Our fan base is just amazing and sometimes when we’re dragging a little bit in the field, we look up at our fans and they’re still cheering,” Azor said. “That’s the advantage of having a good crowd support.”

An inherent advantage that players and staff think has helped lead the team to where it is now: Patriot League champions preparing to face one of the best teams in America.

“There’s great excitement in every one of our guys’ game, just in how we play, and I think our support has a bit to do with that,” Kostacopoulos said. “I think this year’s just been really exceptional.”

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