Bill Hass on the ACC: Virginia Faces One More Challenge on Its Long Road to the College World Series
June 12, 2009
By Bill Hass
GREENSBORO, N.C. - Quite frankly, the Virginia baseball team doesn't care how long the road has been to Johnny Rosenblatt Stadium.
The Cavaliers had to travel 2,551 miles to a regional in Irvine, Calif., which they won. They followed that by going 964 miles to that Oxford, Miss Super Regional, which they also won.
So another 1,188 miles to Omaha, Neb., the site of the College World Series, doesn't bother them at all.
By the time the Cavaliers take the field on Saturday, they will have traveled 8,218 miles as the MapQuest crow flies.
"None of that mattered to us," said Virginia relief pitcher Kevin Arico. "It's not how you start; it's how you finish. We have been living by that all season long. This was our goal, to get here; let people think what they want. We are so glad and so excited to be where we are right now."
Virginia's feat was not unique. Arkansas and Southern Mississippi also won Regionals and Super Regionals on the road to make it to Omaha, but they didn't travel nearly as many miles as Virginia.
In addition to the distance, the Cavaliers had to hack their way through difficult opposition. In their first game, they faced San Diego State's Stephen Strasburg, the No. 1 pick in the MLB Draft this week. They won 5-1. Then they turned back host Cal-Irvine, the consensus No. 1 team in the country, twice on its home field.
Next they went to Ole Miss and lost the first game, but bounced back to win the next two in an exceptionally tough venue.
"You have to be talented and extremely mentally tough to win games on the road," said Virginia coach Brian O'Connor. "I felt like our club had shown that quality the entire season, to lose difficult games and to bounce back the next day and not hang their heads and feel sorry for themselves.
"(The travel) was a major challenge, but they're 18 to 22 years old. I think it's harder on the coaches than it is for the players. Their bodies adapt to time changes and travel a lot better than I do. They're young kids, they've got energy and they're just excited to continue to be playing."
Virginia will play its opening game Saturday at 7 p.m. EDT against LSU. The other ACC representative, North Carolina, will open Sunday at 2 p.m. EDT against Arizona State.
The ACC teams are in opposite brackets. Virginia is in Bracket A with LSU, Arkansas and Cal State-Fullerton. The Tar Heels are in Bracket B with Arizona State, Texas and Southern Miss.
On paper, Virginia will be an underdog again. It's the first time the school has advanced to the CWS. LSU, by comparison, has been there numerous times and has five national titles, the last in 2000.
Arico (pronounced ah-REE-co) said it's important for the Cavs to continue their "day in, day out" approach.
"It is absolutely incredible," he said. "We couldn't be any more excited than we are right now. After battling so long over the course of the season, we've been fighting so hard and we're exactly in the spot we want to be. We're just unbearably happy to still be playing ball.
"We're never out of a game, we firmly believe that. When our backs are against the wall, that's when we're at our best."
The Cavs have their share of good hitters, led by Jarrett Parker (.364, 16 HR, 65 RBIs), Dan Grovatt (.365-7-50), Steven Proscia (.332-9-57), Phil Gosselin (.314-6-63) and Tyler Cannon (.339-1-37). There's also Danny Hultzen, who put together stats of .333 with three homers and 33 RBIs when he wasn't on the mound.
And it's pitching that has been the Cavs' trademark this season, as usual under O'Connor. Virginia has a team ERA of 3.14, third best in the country. In fact, the top five teams in ERA (Arizona State, Texas, Virginia, Fullerton and North Carolina) plus the No. 9 team (LSU) are all in Omaha., which is no coincidence.
Virginia has two stalwart starters in Hultzen (9-1, 2.09 ERA) and Andrew Carraway (8-1, 4.13). Late in the season, Robert Morey moved into the third starting slot and has compiled a 3-0 mark and 3.11 ERA.
The bullpen is equally important. Tyler Wilson (9-2, 2.72) can come into a game and pitch several innings or get one or two key outs. Matt Packer (3-4, 3.95) and Robert Poutier (3-0, 2.21) are other versatile members of the pen.
Then there's Arico, a 6-foot-4, 210-pound sophomore from Flemington, N.J. He was a starter in high school but converted to relief in college, appearing in 12 games with a 2-0 mark and 5.02 ERA as a freshman.
He didn't start this season as Virginia's closer, but O'Connor figured Arico might fit the bill. O'Connor tinkered with the staff until they settled into the roles he felt gave the Cavs the best chance to be successful.
Arico's good arm, coupled with his self-confidence, were among the things that caught O'Connor's eye.
"I've really liked Kevin Arico since the day he walked on our campus," the coach said. "I always felt he had some special qualities that could push him into that closer role. Not only is his stuff really good, I think he's got great poise. He has a lot of confidence in himself. He does not believe that anybody can beat him.
"It was just a matter of, throughout the season, getting him experience at the end of the game, in different parts of the game, and as it moved along throughout the year he just kept getting better and better and more and more consistent. That's what you want out of your closer. They're not going to get it done every time, but you need somebody at the end of the game who has a lot of guts, that's got a lot of self-confidence and who's going to be consistent. Kevin has furnished that for us throughout the year. And since (we made that move), we've never looked back."
It wasn't a seamless transition for Arico.
"In the beginning it was quite a change," he said of being converting to relief. "The second the coach looks down the bench and says `start your stuff up and get ready, we might need you for the next inning to get us out of a jam or something,' it lights a little fire under you and gets you ready to go."
Having gotten a taste of that in his freshman year, Arico then had to adapt to the pressure of closing games.
"Going into it, it was very difficult for me," Arico said, "a lot different than coming in during the middle of a game to get out of a little jam. Ninety percent of the time the game is on the line for you to collect three outs.
"It was hard. At first I struggled with it. Coach O'Connor was a closer in college and I talked to him and learned. The mentality of it is a completely different aspect to the game. It was tough to adjust to at first (but) eventually I found my way."
Arico learned one lesson quickly.
"The one thing you learn right off the bat is that having a short-term memory is critical," he said. "First guy comes up and hits a double off the wall, you have to be able to flush that out and go right after the next guy. It takes time and it's a big adjustment, but it's something you have to learn."
Arico notched a save in one of Virginia's three wins in Irvine, but there was a chance for him to crack under pressure in Oxford. In the first game he surrendered walk-off home run in the 12th inning as Mississippi won.
Virginia won the second game, when Packer earned the save, and Arico returned to the mound in the ninth inning of the final game. By rule, it wasn't a save situation because Virginia had a 5-1 lead. But his job was to close the game and earn Virginia's trip to Omaha. The first thing he had to do was forget the home run in game one.
"It was blocked out," he said. "The second you hit that mound, you have nothing to do but collect three outs, one at a time. I gave up a leadoff single that almost hit me in the head, almost got decapitated on the second pitch in the inning. But it's important to flush it out and go after the next hitter."
He retired the next three batters, then survived the inevitable celebration of players piling on top of him.
"By the time the outfielders and all the rest of the guys got on top I was getting crushed on the bottom," Arico said. "I was pinching people's legs hoping they would squirm away from me so I could sneak out. I got a couple of bumps and bruises from the guys but we're all right, we're ready to go."
That "ready to go" attitude has helped carry the Cavaliers to the threshold of a national championship. Crossing over won't be easy, but nothing else has been to this point, either.
O'Connor is quite familiar with this atmosphere. He grew up in Council Bluffs, Iowa, a 10-minute drive across the Missouri River to Rosenblatt Stadium. His father started taking him and his brothers to CWS games when O'Connor was 4. He also pitched in the event when he was at Creighton.
He has done his best to prepare his players for the media obligations they face. By the time they meet LSU, he wants them ready to play and win.
"They'll just be going out there to play a ball game on Saturday," O'Connor said. "That's how I want them to look at it and that's been a big reason why they've had success.
"I want them to enjoy what they've accomplished, but then focus and understand what the task is at hand. This team has done a really good job of that all year long. They've been a very resilient group; they've answered everything that's been thrown at them."
No matter what deficit they may face, Arico believes the Cavaliers will never give up.
"In the late innings when we need clutch hitting or clutch pitches, things seem to be falling our way," he said. "We're going to fight to the last out. We have 27 outs to play and that's how we're going to take it."
Bill Hass is a long-time observer of ACC sports. His career at the Greensboro News & Record spanned 36 years, from 1969 until his retirement in March, 2006. He is now writing "Bill Hass on the ACC" for theACC.com. His weekly columns will keep fans plugged in to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
E-mail Bill Hass
This article can not be copied or reproduced without the express written consent of the Atlantic Coast Conference.