Defending champ Virginia not taking CWS trips for granted


Eric Olson - AP Sports Writer



Eric Olson

AP Sports Writer

OMAHA, Neb. — Virginia has reached the College World Series four of the last seven years, finished as the runner-up in 2014 and as national champion in 2015.

Unlike Texas coach Augie Garrido, who famously says any year that doesn’t end at the CWS is a disappointment, Cavaliers coach Brian O’Connor refuses to judge his program by appearances in Omaha.

“I don’t want that, because I know how hard it is to get there,” O’Connor said. “There are so many great college baseball programs that can’t get there. If you use that as a measuring stick, that’s pretty dangerous. Is that a goal of ours? Do we talk about it? Do we work to try to make that happen? Sure. … We’re certainly proud of the fact that we’ve been there quite a bit lately, and that will be our goal. It’s not going to be our measuring stick.”

The Cavaliers maxed out last year, overcoming injuries and a midseason funk to qualify for the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament. They lost three straight there and were a No. 3 regional seed for the NCAA Tournament. The Cavaliers won a three-game CWS finals over 2014 champion Vanderbilt and finished 44-24, the fewest wins by any champion since Southern California won the 1968 title with 43.

“Certainly there’s a confidence that comes from winning a national championship, and all the accolades can be a little bit overwhelming,” O’Connor said. “That was six months ago, and we talked a lot in the fall that we’re proud of what we accomplished and nobody can take that away from us but we need to move on. They understand it’s a different group. There are 17 new players who weren’t on the team last year. Certainly they’ve got a lot to prove.”

Matt Thaiss, who hit 10 homers and drove in 64 runs, is among seven returning everyday players. Pavin Smith also is back after hitting seven homers as a freshman, including one in the title-clinching win.

No. 1 pitcher Connor Jones is the only returning weekend starter, and the Cavaliers lost the CWS Most Outstanding Player in closer Josh Sborz.

“I think we have talent on the mound,” O’Connor said. “We just don’t have a lot of experience there. As soon as they gain experience, I think we’ll become a better club.”

Some things to know entering the season, which starts next Friday:

THREE-TIME FINALISTS? Virginia and Vanderbilt will be trying to reach the CWS finals for the third straight year. Since Southern California’s dominant era of the early 1970s, only two teams have gone to the finals three years in a row — Texas in 1983-85 and South Carolina in 2010-12.

TALKIN’ BASEBALL: College baseball saw a significant increase in offense with the introduction of the raised-seam ball last season. There were 32 teams that hit 50 homers in 2015 compared with 10 teams that hit that many in 2014. The per-team average of 0.55 homers a game was up from 0.39. The national batting average went from .270 to .274 and per-team scoring from 5.1 runs a game to 5.4.

BEST EARLY SERIES: Florida plays a three-game series at Miami Feb. 26-28 in what probably will be a meeting of top-10 teams. The Gators won two of three regular-season games over the Hurricanes and outscored them 25-5 in two CWS games last year.

NEW COACHES: There are 17 new head coaches in Division I, including Monte Lee at Clemson, Steve Rodriguez at Baylor, Jay Johnson at Arizona, Marty Lees at Washington State, Rick Hirtensteiner at Pepperdine and Matt Heath at the College of Charleston.

OLD-TIMER: Tony Rossi is starting his 47th season at Siena. He’s the longest-tenured active head coach at one school in any Division I sport. The 72-year-old ranks second all-time in longevity at one school. This season he passes Joe Paterno, who was Penn State’s head football coach for 46 years. The record is 55 years by the late Grambling football coach Eddie Robinson.

Eric Olson

AP Sports Writer

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