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Hard times toughened Virginia players for their run to title

OMAHA, Neb. — Winning, and winning big, has been the standard for theVirginia baseball program since coach Brian O'Connor took over in 2004, and no excuses were allowed when the most trying circumstances cropped up.

The Cavaliers entered the season without six everyday players and four key relief pitchers from the team that was College World Series runner-up to Vanderbilt. But with one of the nation's top recruiting classes coming in, there was reason to believe Virginia could make another trip to Omaha.

No one, however, could have foreseen the injuries that left the Cavaliers with just 11 healthy position players in March. O'Connor went so far as to pick up a couple guys from the school's club team to fill out the roster.

It wasn't until the last week of the regular season, when there was doubt about the Cavaliers even making the ACC Tournament, that Virginia was primed to make a run.

The Cavaliers wrapped up their first baseball national championship Wednesday night by winning a CWS finals rematch against the defending champion Commodores in three games. When they returned to campus Thursday evening, about 4,000 fans awaited in John Paul Jones Arena, cheering wildly through a highlight video and player and coaches introductions.

The biggest cheers went to senior third baseman Kenny Towns, the last player introduced; to Nathan Kirby, who pitched the final two innings in the decisive game; and O'Connor, who has transformed the program in 12 years as coach.

The way the season unfolded, the title was nothing if not hard-earned.

"The one thing that coach O'Connor and the other coaches kept preaching to us is you've just got to grind through it," senior third baseman Kenny Towns said. "We had a lot of ups and downs, but they didn't expect less out of us. I think going through those ups and downs, we were kind of able to become a tougher team. That showed for us in the postseason."

This was the fourth team in seven years that O'Connor brought to the CWS and, on paper, the least likely to win it.

Statistically, Virginia was a middling team. And at 44-24, the Cavaliers had the fewest wins of any champion since Southern California won the 1968 title with 43. Only Fresno State in 2008 won a national title with more losses (47-31).

Virginia's injury problems started before the season. Outfielder Joe McCarthy needed back surgery in January and missed 35 games. Utility man John La Prise played four games before hip surgery ended his year. No. 1 pitcher Nathan Kirby strained a back muscle in mid-April and was out for nine weeks. There were numerous minor injuries that took a toll.

Connor Jones, a reliever last season, replaced Kirby and excelled as the Friday night starter. Brandon Waddell was steady and then, as he did last year, elevated his performances in the postseason. Waddell won two games in Omaha and pitched a CWS-leading 19 innings.

Josh Sborz, the CWS Most Outstanding Player, won three games in the CWS, pitching 13 shutout innings over four appearances. He extended his streak of innings with no earned runs to 27.

The 2014-15 recruiting class, ranked second to LSU's, lived up to expectations. Outfielder-pitcher Adam Haseley, second baseman Ernie Clement and first baseman Pavin Smith were regulars in the lineup. Four other freshmen were role players and two freshman relievers pitched significant innings.

A team that went 18-18 through March and April and sneaked into the ACC Tournament was 10-2 in the NCAA Tournament as a No. 3 regional seed.

"Once you get here a handful of times, I think it happens when you least expect it," O'Connor said. "Any national championship means a ton. It makes it that much sweeter and that much better when it's like, 'Wow, how did this group of guys do it?' Last year, if we would have won the national championship, everyone would have said they're loaded up with talent and that's what we all predicted. That certainly wasn't the case with the way we went through this season."

Virginia will lose two seniors and up to six underclassmen who were drafted. Expectations won't change, though.

"It will be another fresh new crop of guys that will we'll work to mold into being the best that we can be," O'Connor said.