Brian O'Connor's Virginia vision
Anna Katherine Clemmons [ARCHIVE]
June 6, 2013
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CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- On a brisk, sunny Sunday in May, the Virginia Cavaliers prepared for their second-to-last home game of the season. The Wahoos, ranked seventh nationally, had walloped the Duke Blue Devils, 17-8, the night before and were hoping to sweep the weekend series. On Senior Day, 4,646 fans packed into Davenport Field, cheering on a young team that, despite lacking the superstar talent of recent UVa rosters, had cobbled wins together all season, often in the final outs.

But through the first two innings, the Cavaliers played sluggishly and disorganized. Duke claimed a 2-0 lead. UVa coach Brian O'Connor, now in his 10th season leading the Cavaliers, wasn't pleased.

"There was a lot of yelling, a lot of holding people accountable in our dugout, and it got pretty heated," O'Connor said. "The gist of it was, we weren't doing what we'd said we'd do. After the game, I reminded the team that you all chose to come here because you had high expectations for yourself and this team. You were told by our coaching staff that we'd hold you accountable every day. And it's our responsibility to challenge you when you're not holding up to your end of the bargain."

The reprimand worked. The Cavs went out in the bottom of the second and scored five runs before going on to win 14-6, claiming their fourth ACC series sweep of the season. The next weekend, the Wahoos traveled to Chapel Hill and won two out of three games against UNC, then the top-ranked team in the nation, capturing their first series at Carolina since 2007.

Accountability. Consistency. Expectations of how his players should work on and off the field. These foundations of the program run by O'Connor -- along with assistant coaches Kevin McMullan and Karl Kuhn -- have led to remarkable success over the past 10 years, whether the four-time ACC Coach of the Year is leading a roster of future major leaguers or a squad like this season's, which surprised many by being ranked in the nation's top 10 heading into the postseason.

Because although the faces change, the results remain the same. As the Cavaliers host another NCAA regional this weekend, the talented trio of "Oak, Mac and K" has transformed Virginia baseball into one of the nation's powerhouse programs.

Kyle Werman arrived at the University of Virginia in 2001. A strong academic student and starting second baseman for his high school squad, Werman hoped to walk onto the baseball team and felt that the Cavaliers, under then-head coach Dennis Womack, were a good choice.

At the time, UVa didn't compete with UNC, Clemson and Florida State for recruits; just a few years before, university administrators had considered reducing baseball to a club sport.

"What attracted people to UVa baseball then was that you're playing Division I, ACC baseball at one of the best academic schools in the country," Werman said. "The depth of the program wasn't where it is now."

Nor were the facilities. Although Davenport Field had been dedicated in 2002, the rest of the facilities were subpar: a chain-link fence circling the field's circumference, run-down bleachers and press box, and a less-than-sturdy dugout where players risked rolling an ankle. Still, Womack, who now works in sports administration at UVa, led the 2003 team, which included Werman, to a 29-25 record.

O'Connor arrived that July. In the first months of his tenure, he, McMullan and Kuhn focused more on baseball than on settling in, sharing a suite at an extended stay hotel rather than finding houses. They often worked at the baseball offices until midnight only to return to the field at 6 or 7 a.m.

"When I came here, I felt that the university was fully ready to commit to this being a successful baseball program," O'Connor said. "It wasn't a matter of what had been done in the past, as I knew Coach Womack was a very good coach. It was more my staff and I instituting what we felt that the foundation of the program needed to be.

"From the first day of practice, we told the team that they were going to be held accountable every day by our coaching staff on what being a UVa player is all about. I'm very proud to say that that has not changed in 10 years."

In one of those early practices, O'Connor gave his players instructions to run four 300s -- 300 yards around the turf field adjacent to the baseball diamond -- with 90 seconds of rest between each one. On their first attempt, only four players finished within O'Connor's set time limit. Several players threw up. Afterward, O'Connor told the team that, by the end of the fall, each player would be able to run nine 300s in the same time frame.

Two weeks later, after running every day at 6:30 a.m., the team was hitting the mark -- with only 30 seconds of rest between each one. "We learned that sense of 'you can do a lot more than you think you can,' that mental toughness, and it carried onto the field," Werman said. "We believed we could do things greater than we thought."

They put that belief into action in a mid-March series against Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets were ranked in the nation's top 20, and few people expected the Cavaliers to win a game. Instead, the Wahoos swept the series, claiming the third victory in a top-of-the-10th inning thriller.

"Once we swept [Georgia Tech], it was a complete buy-in to O'Connor and his coaching staff's expectations," Werman said. "Prior to 2004, we thought we were good and hoped to win. In 2004 and beyond, we thought we were good and expected to win."

"They gained our respect and trust right away, especially the way practices were run," said former Cavalier Mark Reynolds, who is now playing in his seventh major league season and was in his last year at UVa in O'Connor's inaugural season. "They named captains and gave the upperclassmen responsibility of running the ship -- and they wanted us to run it the right way."

That April, the Cavaliers were ranked 10th in the nation by the Collegiate Baseball Newspaper, then the highest ranking in the program's history. They finished the season second in the ACC with an 18-6 record and hosted an NCAA regional. Although they were eliminated by Vanderbilt, the Cavaliers had completed one of their best seasons in history and begun the trend of breaking program records almost every season.

"For the first five years that we were here, we were the new kid on the block trying to prove ourselves," O'Connor said. "That's changed a little when you win a couple of ACC championships, but not too much. You still have to go out there and feel like you're having to prove what kind of team you have in that particular year."

Case in point: the 2013 Cavaliers. Despite this being labeled by many as a "rebuilding" year, the Cavs began the season 14-0. In late April, after sweeping FSU, the Wahoos ranked among the nation's top five...
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