- The Washington Times - Friday, June 12, 2009

CHARLOTTESVILLE | The sales pitch Virginia baseball coach Brian O’Connor used when he assembled his first recruiting class wasn’t loaded with gimmicks, nor was it particularly long.

Nevertheless, his simple promise that within four years the Cavaliers would end their season in Omaha, Neb., brimmed with ambition and authenticity.

“The way he said it convinced me,” said fifth-year senior Robert Poutier, the lone member of that class still in the program. “He had me on the spot. Who knew it would take five years, but I’m not going to hold that against him. We always had the opportunity. It seems this year it’s all worked out for us.”

Better than anyone could have imagined. After five years of opening weekend disappointments, the Cavaliers (48-13-1) charged through a loaded regional before rallying from a one-game deficit to oust super regional host Mississippi to secure the school’s first trip to the College World Series.

Virginia will meet third-seeded LSU on Saturday in what not long ago would have been an unthinkable moment.

Sure, the Cavaliers had three NCAA tournament appearances and would poach an ACC title once a decade. But in an ultradeep conference, Virginia usually settled for the second division - at least until O’Connor arrived in July 2003.

“I knew when I came here six years ago that this institution had the ingredients to have a baseball program that could go to Omaha,” O’Connor said. “For me, at the time when I was 32 years old and took this job, I really believed this day would come.”

It just happened to take a while, even if Virginia’s charge into the national rankings didn’t. The Cavaliers have reached six straight postseasons and played at home in three regionals, but a program based more on sound pitching and smart baserunning rather than a lineup littered with hefty boppers kept stumbling.

Few would have been surprised if a team with just four seniors and six juniors encountered similar difficulties this spring. But Virginia won the ACC tournament, then scooted through the regional with a defeat of San Diego State’s Stephen Strasburg and victories at top-ranked UC Irvine on consecutive nights.

That by itself was a breakthrough. The Cavaliers, though, morphed their season into something more memorable last weekend - particularly for the handful of veterans who had learned of the tournament’s fickle nature earlier in their careers.

“One of the reasons it means so much is that I’ve come to realize how hard it is to win one of these things,” senior pitcher Andrew Carraway said. “Some of these younger guys, this is all they’ve been a part of. Maybe they’ll make it to Omaha the next three years, too, but maybe not. They haven’t been on those teams to realize how hard it is and realize how much it matters where the ball bounces.”

The opportunity was there, even as Virginia dealt with traditional ACC heavyweights Clemson, Florida State and Georgia Tech, rising behemoth North Carolina and mid-decade addition Miami in its own league. As a result, the Cavaliers are a program with staying power - and now the big-stage presence to complement their stability.

“I wanted to be able to sustain consistency and have a chance to win 40 games a year and go to the NCAA tournament every year. I just knew if we maintained that consistency, we would build the fan base, we would build the donors, we would have the opportunity to go to Omaha,” O’Connor said. “Omaha doesn’t happen in one year. It happens by consistently building a base to give you that opportunity.”

Omaha, of course, is the college baseball mecca, a word so sacred in the sport that the mere sound of it, Carraway said, “makes you feel like it’s not going to be a real place.”

He wasn’t alone. While the Cavaliers had camouflage shirts made with the phrase “Omaha 1186” to denote the geographic distance, the length of the season made it seem even further away. Even after the players piled onto each other in celebration at Mississippi, the realization of what the Cavaliers had accomplished didn’t entirely click.

“It’s incredible,” sophomore closer Kevin Arico said. “Getting on that plane, we’re all just sitting there [thinking], ‘Did we really just win the super regional? Are we really about to go to Omaha?’ For nobody, it really hasn’t sunk in yet.”

It probably will Friday, when Virginia savors a crammed itinerary on the eve of its College World Series opener. It surely will by Saturday, when the Cavaliers become the first team from Virginia to play in the event since James Madison in 1983.

“I don’t think it’s going to hit a lot of us until we get on that plane and it actually says Omaha on our boarding pass, just because it’s something that’s talked about so much that it becomes this dream land,” Carraway said. “Now we’re actually going there.”

Just as O’Connor promised.

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