Coach Of The Year: O’Connor The Soothsayer

Virginia head coach Brian O’Connor, D1Baseball.com’s inaugural Coach of the Year, might just be a soothsayer disguised as a college baseball coach.

As his banged up Cavaliers trudged through a rigorous April schedule, and ended that month with a 27-18 overall record and 10-14 mark in the Atlantic Coast Conference, a postseason berth seemed in doubt. Sure, the Cavaliers had some nice wins and a reasonably good RPI. But that ACC record, along with the way the Cavaliers were playing, wasn’t going to cut it.

O’Connor, though, like the excellent coach and leader that he is, still had hope. Sure, having Nathan Kirby on the shelf because of an injury was a tough pill to swallow. And yes, outfielder Joe McCarthy was slowly coming back from a back injury, while in turn, the Cavaliers were counting on several young players to fill some rather large holes. But O’Connor just knew his team could prevail if they stayed patient and finished the regular season on a high note.

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“We’re counting on rookies way too much, and they are going to be inconsistent,” O’Connor told me via text back in early May. “We just have to finish strong, get in the tournament, and I think we could cause some problems for some teams.”

It’s safe to say the Cavaliers accomplished the goal of being the problem team, storming through one of the hardest NCAA regionals, winning the NCAA super regional over Maryland, and putting together a magical run through the College World Series to earn the program’s first national title.

Virginia CelebratesIt’s a story of one team with a strong will to persevere, and a coach, who while frustrated at times throughout the 2015 season, stayed true to his team, and with his coaching staff, pressed all the right buttons to do the unthinkable despite the huge obstacles.

“I’ve been really fortunate to be around some great leaders of men. There’s Jim Hendry and the great impact he’s had on me, both as a player, coach and friend,” O’Connor said. “I never thought I would win a national title [when he started coaching], but I did think about putting together the best program possible and going from there. I knew what I wanted to do.

“The two people I personally have learned a lot from in terms of experiences are Jim Hendry and Paul Mainieri,” he added. “Paul and I talked [the morning before the series finale in Omaha] a little, and shared some insights on some things that maybe I needed to think about. That’s what friends that care about each other do.”

With plenty of guidance and more going O’Connor’s direction throughout the season, he did what most coaches can only dream of doing in a year that seemed destined to see the Cavaliers fall short of their lofty preseason goals.

The Road To Omaha

Virginia’s road through the 2015 campaign got off to a rocky start, and not necessarily in terms of wins and losses. The Cavaliers lost outfielder Joe McCarthy, a preseason All-American, to an injury, and unseasonably cold weather and wintry weather was causing havoc on Charlottesville, Va., and other areas in the mid-Atlantic, forcing the Cavaliers and others to shift their schedules.

After sweeping East Carolina on the road to start the season, the Cavaliers were supposed to return home the next weekend. Instead, the Cavaliers didn’t play at home because of weather and didn’t play a true home game until March 11th in a midweek bout against Old Dominion. In all, the Cavaliers spent the first weeks of the season in Greenville, N.C., Charleston, S.C., Myrtle Beach, S.C., and Cary, N.C. — not exactly optimal for a team hoping to establish consistency and avoid tiring from the rigors of the season.

Brian O'Connor (right) looks at Nathan Kirby readies for the final pitch of the game against Vandy. (Kendall Rogers)Brian O’Connor (right) looks at Nathan Kirby readies for the final pitch of the game against Vandy. (Kendall Rogers)

The Cavaliers put together an impressive record during that road trip, primarily because of a weak, weather-adjusted schedule, but those travels caught up with them. They began ACC play with a series win over Pittsburgh, but that’d be the last success they’d see for a while. The Cavaliers hit the road the second week of ACC play and were surprisingly swept by Pat Mason’s Virginia Tech club. The following weekend, the Cavaliers dropped two of three at home to Florida State, allowing 25 runs the final two games of the series with CWS hero Josh Sborz allowing three runs in just 2/3 innings of work in Game Two of the series.

Virginia didn’t truly rebound from that start despite some successful weekends. For instance, it hit the road and swept Notre Dame, but returned home to get swept by Louisville, hit the road to lose a series to Georgia Tech, and like the roller-coaster season it was, the Cavaliers took a home series over Miami before dropping two of three for NC State to end April, and to finish the month with a dismal ACC mark and postseason hopes essentially hanging in the balance.

“I think sometimes you’re blinded. You’re consumed with being in the moment and getting something right. We’d never really been in that situation before,” O’Connor said. “We were 18-19 in March and April, and I can’t tell you how many endless hours and meetings our coaching staff had about what we need to do, the things we needed to change.

“But that’s what we do, and that’s why we get paychecks,” he continued. “And that’s our responsibility, giving it back to those kids who wear a uniform.”

It was after the NC State series that O’Connor had what would be best described as a heart-to-heart talk with his team, and the Cavaliers seemed to be a different team from that point forward.

“You had to grind through it. There were a lot of ups and downs throughout the season, and the coaches didn’t expect anything less out of us,” Virginia’s Kenny Towns said. “They kept high expectations, and going through those tough times made us a better, tougher and more resilient team. And it started with Coach [O’Connor] and the other coaches passing it down to us.”

The Cavaliers took a series from Duke the following weekend, but with still an ACC record of 12-15, they felt more work needed to be done the final weekend of the regular season at North Carolina. Both UVa. and the Tar Heels were fighting for postseason berths, and the Cavaliers in particular couldn’t afford to fall to 16 or 17 conference losses, and get into the field of 64.

Virginia played like a team on a mission that weekend. It won a thriller in the series opener before winning the final two games of the series, and the finale in convincing fashion, 8-2.

Suddenly, with a high RPI and .500 conference mark, the Cavaliers were clearly in the field, and yep, they were still dangerous.

“We’ve talked to a lot of coaches in our programs about consistency and giving yourself a chance to play in the NCAA tournament each year,” O’Connor said. “I remember those conversations.”

The Cavaliers saw an opportunity and didn’t let it pass by.

A Fitting Close

Brian O’Connor has had better baseball teams than the 2015 squad, especially considering the injuries that occurred throughout the season. The 2014 Cavaliers were favored to win the national title in Omaha last year and fell short against Vanderbilt in the CWS Finals.

This program has also had an enormous amount of success throughout the O’Connor era — four CWS appearances, six NCAA super regional appearances, and 12 NCAA regional appearances — all 12 seasons he’s called Davenport Field and UVa. his home.

Virginia wins the national titleVirginia had a magical finish to the season. (Kendall Rogers)

But forever, this Cavaliers team will have a special place in O’Connor’s heart. Sure, the Cavaliers entered the season as one of the favorites to play for a national championship. But the adversity this team saw and conquered was truly something to see.

Though McCarthy, who was injured the first half of the season, wasn’t amazing in Omaha, he certainly provided some big postseason moments along the way. And how about righthander Josh Sborz, who, without stud closer Nick Howard this season, had to be that elite arm on the back-end of games? Though Sborz had his inconsistent moments earlier in the season, he couldn’t have been better in the postseason on the way to CWS MVP honors, showcasing blow-away mid-90s velocity at times and a filthy slider.

There’s also Nathan Kirby. The preseason All-American had high hopes for the ’15 campaign, but a lat injury put him in the shelf for several weeks and he wasn’t available until the Cavaliers got to Omaha. Once there, he started a game against Florida and looked good for a couple of innings, while, with the Cavaliers clinging to a close advantage in the latter innings against Vanderbilt in Game Three of the CWS Finals, they turned the game over to Kirby, who, ironically enough, closed out the game to win the national title.

Those types of stories were abound for the Cavaliers this past season, but the story wouldn’t have ended that way had O’Connor, the ultimate soothsayer, not kept his team calm, focused, confident and focused on the primary objective.

Just find a way to the postseason, and let the chips fall where they may. We could be dangerous, he consistently said.

Everyone already knew O’Connor was a great coach. Now, he will forever be mentioned amongst the best in college baseball history.

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