This past june was déjà vu of sorts for the Virginia baseball team. For the second straight year, the Cavaliers were matched up against Vanderbilt in the College World Series title game. Last season, the team was edged out in three games. But this time, the Cinderella-story Cavaliers defeated the Commodores in three games to take home the program’s first national title, becoming the first ACC team to win a baseball championship in 60 years.
Virginia’s path to the World Series was anything but smooth. After losing a number of players to the MLB draft and injury, head coach Brian O’Connor needed his youngest players to step up. The team battled back from a tough midseason stretch and had more losses than any Virginia baseball team in the past 11 years. But by the time they reached the tournament, the Cavaliers went on a hot streak when it counted the most.
O’Connor credits his team for never letting up despite their difficulties earlier in the season. “We certainly had our fair share of challenges throughout the year,” he says. “Some were due to unfortunate injuries; some were due to youth. But we hung in there due to our leadership within the team.”
Virginia’s trip to the World Series was a much different story from last year. In 2014 the Cavaliers entered the tournament as the No. 3 overall seed. This year, after barely making it into the ACC tournament, the team was once again seeded third—but in their four-team regional. The Cavaliers won the regional and the super regional round, securing a spot in Omaha for another College World Series appearance.
During the series, the Cavaliers paid tribute to Kerrie Orozco, an Omaha police officer who was fatally shot in May while attempting to serve a warrant. Orozco was a member of a gang unit commanded by Lt. Ken Kanger, who was Virginia’s dugout security detail during last year’s World Series. In honor of Orozco, the Cavaliers gave Kanger an engraved bat signed by the entire team. The team also hung T-shirts in their dugout to honor Orozco.
After beating Arkansas in their opening game, the Cavaliers were matched against a talented Florida team that many pundits had tabbed as the favorite to win it all. Virginia took two of three games against the Gators, setting up a rematch with a heavily favored Vanderbilt team led by Dansby Swanson, the No. 1 overall pick in the MLB draft.
Things didn’t start off well for the Cavaliers, who lost 5-1 in the opening game. But the team came back strong. First-year pitcher/center fielder Adam Haseley (Col ’18) and pitcher Josh Sborz (Col ’16) teamed up to shut out the Commodores 3-0 in the second game of the series, forcing a third and final game. Sborz was named Most Outstanding Player of the College World Series after pitching 13 scoreless innings and earning three wins and a save in Omaha.
Pavin Smith (Col ’18), one of the team’s first-year players, rose to the occasion for the Cavaliers in the final game. He homered and drove in three runs. Brandon Waddell (Col ’15) gave a stellar performance on the mound, pitching seven innings and dominating after allowing two runs in the first. Nathan Kirby (Col ’16)—who had missed significant time due to injuries this season—struck out five over the last two innings, helping Virginia clinch its first College World Series with a 4-2 victory.
For O’Connor, who was named Baseball America’s Coach of the Year, winning the school’s first baseball national championship was the culmination of countless hours of hard work by everyone involved with the program. “It was very rewarding because I know how many people put a lot of time and effort to build the program into what it is,” O’Connor says.
Given their success in the postseason and the impressive performance of his young players, O’Connor is excited to see what his team can do next year. “I’m looking forward to next season,” he says. “We have a lot to replace next year. We lost a lot of innings from the pitching standpoint. But we put ourselves in a position to have success.”