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Teel: UVA players formed enduring bonds during 2015 College World Series saga

Teel: UVA players formed enduring bonds during 2015 College World Series saga

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Prior to the 2015 season, 13 of 14 ACC baseball coaches picked Virginia to finish atop the league’s Coastal Division. Ten selected the Cavaliers to win the overall conference championship, and every preseason poll ranked them among the nation’s top five.

But entering the regular season’s final three-game series at North Carolina, UVA was in danger of missing not only the NCAA tournament but also the ACC tournament. Virginia was 12-15 in league play and languishing in fifth place among the division’s seven teams.

Gathering his club in the outfield at UNC’s Boshamer Stadium following a preseries workout, UVA coach Brian O’Connor starkly outlined the weekend’s stakes: win or else.

“In coaching, sometimes you don’t want to make the moment too big. Just go play,” O’Connor said last week. “I get that, and I’ve done that many times. But this was different. They had overcome so many challenges during the year that I wasn’t going to sugarcoat it for them. I was going to shoot them straight.”

The Cavaliers responded with a series sweep, earning a place in the ACC tournament, virtually securing their 12th consecutive NCAA bid and igniting one of college baseball’s most stirring postseason runs.

Five years ago Wednesday, Virginia defeated Vanderbilt 4-2 in a decisive Game 3 of the College World Series finals. The implausible transformation from bubble team to first-time national champion forged lifelong bonds and inspired an ACC Network documentary.

“I tell everybody all the time that we stunk,” Thomas Woodruff, a senior reserve outfielder in 2015, said with a laugh. “We did not play well. … It took a little while for us to figure out who we were and how to play together.”

Once they figured it out, once they were remotely healthy, the Cavaliers rediscovered the form that carried them to the 2014 CWS finals — they lost that series, also to Vanderbilt, also in three games. But the journey had some hairpin turns, witness UVA’s modest 44 wins, fewest for a national champion since Southern California’s 43 in 1968.

Nathan Kirby, the pitching staff’s ace and a 2014 first-team All-American, missed nine weeks with a strained lat muscle; back surgery shelved all-ACC outfielder Joe McCarthy for half the season, while hip surgery sidelined veteran utility man John La Prise for all but four games.

Now add that attrition to the departures of three 2014 first-round Major League Baseball draft picks — Nick Howard, Derek Fisher and Mike Papi — plus second-day draft choices Brandon Downes, Branden Cogswell and Artie Lewicki.

The Cavaliers opened the season on an 11-1 binge. But a 1-5 ACC start relegated them to weeks of NCAA tournament uncertainty.

“Every season has its challenges you have to overcome,” O’Connor said. “But that one was like no other we’ve experienced. That’s what I’ll always take away, the perseverance and the ability to find a way. And that was during the [regular] season and postseason.

“And the other thing I’d say is that team, when we got into the NCAA tournament and the regional, that team was a lot of fun. They were loose, they were enjoying the moment. We’ve certainly had a lot of teams before that might have been predicted to win it, No. 1 in the country and things like that, and so with that comes a lot of pressure, and sometimes you see a team play not to lose. That team played to win.”

And win the Cavaliers did. After a disappointing 1-3 mark in the ACC tournament, they went 10-2 in the NCAA tournament, losing only to Florida and Vanderbilt, both at the CWS in Omaha, Neb., minutes from O’Connor’s hometown of Council Bluffs, Iowa.

Virginia won tournament games in every way imaginable: pitchers’ duels; an interminable slugfest that ended after 4 a.m. EDT; a walk-off single by freshman second baseman Ernie Clement; Mariano Rivera-caliber closing from Josh Sborz.

Moreover, the Cavaliers thrived with lineups that O’Connor and his staff never envisioned during preseason.

Strictly a pitcher during his first two years, Kevin Doherty became a regular in the outfield. Making a rare start, walk-on Woodruff contributed three hits and two RBIs in a 3-0 Game 2 victory over Vanderbilt.

That same night, freshman Adam Haseley, the everyday center fielder, pitched five scoreless innings, followed by four more shutout innings from Sborz.

“We had a ton of fun,” said Brandon Waddell, the Game 3 winning pitcher, “and you could feel it on the field. Teams that we played were kind of uptight, pressing at times, where we were just, ‘Hey, let’s go out and play our best game.’ We didn’t let a ton of small stuff that didn’t go our way affect us, and in the long run that worked out. …

“I never lost faith that someone could step up and get it done, even though it might not have looked the way you expected.”

Even the NCAA tournament bracket looked foreign to Virginia. In each of the previous five seasons, the Cavaliers had hosted a regional and, if they advanced, a super regional. As a No. 3 regional seed in 2015, UVA was sent to Lake Elsinore, Calif.

Final exams completed, expectations minimal, the freshman-laden Cavaliers chartered west.

“I don’t want to call it vacation,” Woodruff said, “but it was a little bit like we were getting away from everything that had stressed us out during the year and getting a chance to restart. I think that really played into us building some momentum.”

The momentum was immediate as Virginia swept the regional with victories over Southern California, San Diego State and, in a rematch, USC. The last win, 14-10 in 11 innings, ended at 4:18 a.m. EDT after 441 pitches, seven errors, and four hours and 48 minutes.

‘Twas during the second USC game, with the Trojans hitting late-inning ropes that somehow found UVA gloves, when O’Connor and his assistant coaches began wondering if the Cavaliers possessed a touch of postseason magic.

Virginia was bracketed to play at UCLA, the tournament’s No. 1 overall seed, in the super regionals. But while the Cavaliers enjoyed an off day at the beach and a Los Angeles Angels game, Maryland upset homestanding UCLA in a regional, moving UVA to a host role for the super regional.

The Cavaliers swept the Terps in two games, winning the finale 5-4 on Clement’s two-run, walk-off single.

“All of these things that played out — you’re just, wow,” O’Connor said. “And that’s why I think you have to be really good, but you got to have some good fortune, too. You got to have some things go your way. And hey, you know what? The year before, it didn’t go our way at the end.

“Maybe the big-guy upstairs was looking down on us saying, ‘Hey, it’s their turn,’ because I can tell you there were a lot of teams in the College World Series that year out of the eight that were more talented than us. That doesn’t take anything away from our guys. It just is what it is.”

Waddell and Woodruff aren’t offended by the assessment. Indeed, they vividly recall how gifted their opponents were in Omaha, where they faced current major leaguers such as Vanderbilt’s Walker Buehler and Dansby Swanson, Arkansas’ Andrew Benintendi and Florida’s Pete Alonso and Harrison Bader.

Alonso set a major league rookie record last season by hitting 53 home runs for the New York Mets, but Waddell questions if any traveled farther than the one Alonso hit off him in Omaha.

Waddell beat Florida twice in the CWS, and Alonso didn’t get the ball out of the infield in the first game, a 1-0 UVA victory. But in the second game, Alonso hit a two-run homer to dead center.

“That’s probably the [longest] home run I’ve ever given up,” Waddell said. ‘If you want to picture a no-doubter, add about 50 feet. That ball was absolutely crushed. … Change-up, outer third, basically at the belt, right there for him. It just hung up there, and he hit it about a quarter-mile.”

Four nights later, Waddell pitched seven innings in Game 3 against Vanderbilt, yielding only two runs and retiring the last 11 hitters he faced. With Sborz gassed from four innings the previous night, Kirby, making his first relief appearance in two years, struck out five in two shutout innings to earn his first career save.

Freshman first baseman Pavin Smith drove in three runs, two with a fourth-inning homer, and third baseman Kenny Towns drove in the other. Sborz, who closed the season with 27 consecutive scoreless innings, 13 in Omaha, was named the CWS most valuable player.

Many among UVA’s 2015 core — catcher Matt Thaiss, shortstop Daniel Pinero, pitcher Connor Jones, Haseley, Smith, McCarthy, Clement, Waddell, Kirby and Sborz — are playing professional baseball, though not yet this season because of COVID-19. Doherty works in the finance world, Woodruff in sales engineering in Phoenix.

O’Connor and assistant coaches Kevin McMullan and Matt Kirby remain at Virginia. Then-pitching coach Karl Kuhn is Radford’s head coach.

The former teammates connect in-person during their baseball travels, and Woodruff sees folks during spring training in Arizona. Social media and texting provide other avenues, and most of the club reunited in Charlottesville in January for a watch party showcasing “1186 to Omaha,” the ACC Network documentary on the 2015 season, so titled because Omaha is 1,186 miles from UVA.

Waddell and Woodruff said there’s even talk of the Cavaliers one day reprising their December 2014 team-building trip to Costa Rica.

“What I go back to, and what brings me the most joy about everything we accomplished there, would just be that final moment of dogpiling on the field and being able to share that with everybody and really celebrate,” Waddell said. “Especially after 2014.”

“There’s just this overwhelming feeling of accomplishment,” Woodruff said, “especially having been there four years. … That emotion just doesn’t go away. It’s something that will … bond us forever.”

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