- The Washington Times - Friday, June 2, 2006

CHARLOTTESVILLE — The signs of success are on display both beyond the left-field wall at Davenport Field and at third base at RFK Stadium. The University of Virginia baseball program has emerged from an ACC also-ran to a national power with a major league influence.

Just beyond the wall at Davenport Field, temporary bleachers are being installed for this weekend’s NCAA regional. Virginia is a home site for the second time in three years — and second time in school history — after setting a program record for wins with its 46-13 record, including a three-game sweep of the tournament’s top overall seed, Clemson.

The Cavaliers are the top seed in the four-team tournament and could make a serious run at the College World Series while alumnus Ryan Zimmerman is quickly becoming a big league fixture. Zimmerman, a rookie of the year candidate who still would be playing at Virginia if he had not left after his junior season, is the Washington Nationals’ cornerstone and everyday third baseman.

Zimmerman may have left Charlottesville after he was the fourth overall pick, but his departure has not slowed the surging program, which entered the ACC tournament ranked in the top 10 in every national poll and is on the cusp of joining the sport’s elite.

“Expectations around here have changed,” Cavaliers coach Brian O’Connor said. “Expectations are good. But our expectations from coaches and players will always be higher than what other people have. When that’s the case, you are fine. I love the expectations because it means you have really accomplished something.”

O’Connor has taken Virginia to the NCAA tournament in each of his three seasons after the program had made it only three times previously — the last in 1996. This season’s squad is built on pitching and defense and boasts a .324 team batting average.

The Cavaliers have the nation’s second-lowest ERA at 2.81 behind Cal State-Fullerton and are led by ACC Player of the Year Sean Doolittle, a left-handed pitcher/first baseman who is 11-1 with a 1.87 ERA and is hitting .308 with 53 RBI. The Cavaliers reached their highest ranking in school history at No. 5 in the coaches’ poll last week and bring the No. 7 mark into this afternoon’s game against Lehigh in the opener of the double-elimination tournament.

O’Connor, 35, was the program’s second significant addition. The first and most important was the construction of $4 million Davenport Field with seating for 2,000, six luxury boxes and a spacious clubhouse.

The old facility was bare bones with bleachers. Players had to get dressed in University Hall several hundred yards away. Crowds were sparse and largely made up of family and friends. It was an embarrassment next to parks of ACC powers Clemson, Florida State and Georgia Tech.

“They built a brand new stadium,” Zimmerman said. “If you’ve got a nice stadium, that helps you recruit. So I knew they were on the way up. There were a couple of good recruits who went there with me. I just felt like it was on the rise.”

Davenport has been expanded by temporary stands to accommodate 3,200 for the regional, which also includes South Carolina and Evansville. Mystery remains about who funded the new park; best-selling author John Grisham, who lives in Charlottesville and has a son, Ty, who played for the Cavaliers, has been rumored to be the financier.

Now, there are 850 season-ticket holders and the six luxury suites sold out for $6,500 for the season. And the pristine ballpark, with Bermuda grass, is not finished yet. A Jumbotron — believed to be the first at a college stadium — is scheduled to be installed before next season.

“All the ingredients were here for a top-25 program if the administration was committed to winning,” said O’Connor, who pitched for Creighton in the College World Series and spent 10 seasons as Notre Dame’s pitching coach. “We offer one of the top public educations in the country. We are in one of the top baseball conferences in the country. The University of Virginia is a fun school for players to go to and the [high school] players in the state are very, very good.”

O’Connor saw many similarities between Virginia and a premier program at Notre Dame. Once he got assurances the school would increase scholarships to the maximum allowed, raise the recruiting budgets and assistant coaches’ salaries to compete with the top ACC teams, he was convinced he could win.

The Cavaliers went 29-25 in 2003 to end four straight losing seasons. Coach Dennis Womack left after the season, his 23rd running the team.

O’Connor did not inherit a winning program, but he was left some talent, including Zimmerman and Joe Koshansky, the 2004 ACC Player of the Year who pitched and played the field. The first baseman is now a rising star at Class AA Tulsa in the Colorado Rockies’ minor league system.

With Womack’s players, the Cavaliers tied the then-program record of 44 wins, made the NCAA tournament and played host to their first regional before losing to Vanderbilt in the final.

“I was pleasantly surprised,” O’Connor said of his first team’s success.

The new coach also took on the nation’s best on the recruiting trail. Doolittle, a sophomore from New Jersey, chose the Cavaliers largely because O’Connor told him he could continue hitting while other programs wanted him to exclusively pitch.

“They had Joe Koshansky, who was a two-way player,” said Doolittle, who is 6-foot-3, 190 pounds and throws in the low 90s. “Plus I was really drawn to the enthusiasm [O’Connor] had and where they were taking it. I wanted to be part of it and build a tradition.”

Doolittle likely will be a top pick when he is eligible for the major league draft after next season. Players attending four-year colleges are not eligible for the draft until after their third year.

The Cavaliers are building through high school recruits supplemented by junior college transfers, including starting catcher Beau Seabury and right fielder Brandon Marsh (team-high .386 batting average). O’Connor’s first class included Doolittle, set-up man Michael Schwimer and left fielder Brandon Guyer (.329 batting average, 53 RBI).

“[O’Connor] was the only coach to come to my house on a visit,” said Guyer, a Herndon High graduate who passed on offers from mainstay programs Miami, Clemson and South Carolina. “You could see he really wanted me here. I didn’t get that from any other coaches.”

The coach feels the incoming class could be even better if the players all arrive on campus and don’t sign with major league teams after the draft. The current freshman class has starting second baseman David Adams (.319), third baseman Jeremy Farrell (.343), shortstop Greg Miclat (.317) and No. 2 pitcher Jacob Thompson (10-3, 2.20 ERA).

Adams was a top-50 recruit from outside Miami.

“A lot of people never heard of Virginia baseball,” Adams said. “They said you could have gone anywhere. I wanted to get away and I really liked it here.”

He wasn’t alone and now Charlottesville — despite its freezing conditions for February games and a lack of tradition — is becoming a hotbed for college baseball. The Cavaliers have posted three consecutive 40-win seasons — the benchmark for success similar to 20 wins in college basketball — and plan to continue building this weekend.

If Virginia wins the region title, it will meet the winner of the University of Georgia region in a best-of-three super regional for a trip to the College World Series in Omaha, Neb.

“The next step is we need to win a regional,” O’Connor said. “We talk about going to Omaha. That’s our goal. Things have to go your way. You get to Omaha by being consistent and giving yourself that opportunity every year. Then one year it goes your way.”

Staff writer Mark Zuckerman contributed to this article.

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