The road trips they took as professional baseball players blur together for former University of Virginia stars Danny Hultzen and Steven Proscia.
Their travels as UVA players?
“Those are the times you’ll never forget,” Hultzen said Tuesday at Davenport Field.
Hultzen and Proscia are now student assistant coaches for the Cavaliers, who arrived in this city Wednesday afternoon and will begin play in the NCAA tournament Friday.
The No. 2 seed in the double-elimination regional hosted by Texas Christian University, UVA (42-14) meets No. 3 seed Dallas Baptist University (40-19) at 4 p.m. Eastern. ESPNU will televise the game. Top-seeded TCU (42-16) takes on No. 4 seed Central Connecticut State University (36-20) in the second game Friday.
Most bracketologists projected UVA would be one of the tournament’s regional hosts – a distinction reserved for the top 16 teams in the 64-team field – but the NCAA selection committee thought otherwise. And so, in their 14th consecutive NCAA tourney, the Wahoos find themselves opening away from Charlottesville for the fifth time.
That doesn’t mean the Cavaliers’ season will end in Fort Worth. Under head coach Brian O’Connor, who’s in his 14th season with the ’Hoos, they’ve twice reached the College World Series after opening the NCAA tournament on the road. UVA’s record in NCAA regionals away from Davenport Field is 7-4.
“At the end of the day, it’s still baseball,” Hultzen said.
O’Connor said: “We’re going to be really loose. We’re going to have a lot of fun. We’re going to compete and we don’t have any pressure on us.”
Hultzen and Proscia were freshmen in 2009 when the Cavaliers were sent to Irvine, California, for the first weekend of the NCAA tournament.
That team, after winning the ACC Tournament, was ranked No. 6 nationally in one prominent computer-based rating, and many expected Charlottesville to be awarded an NCAA regional. But the selection committee snubbed the ’Hoos, and so they crossed the country.
“I remember not being aware that it was a big deal at all,” Hultzen said. He and Proscia “were freshmen, so that was our first time going through it. I remember not even thinking that [hosting a regional] was an option, really, but looking back on it now, it was kind of a similar situation [to this year] where we had the résumé to host, but it just didn’t go that way.”
The players, Proscia recalled, “weren’t really too upset or anything like that when we found out we weren’t hosting. We were just excited about the opportunity, especially when we found out where we were going.”
Irvine was the site of what was dubbed the “regional of death.” It brought together seventh-ranked Virginia, No. 1-ranked University of California-Irvine, defending NCAA champion Fresno State University, and San Diego State University, which had the nation’s best pitcher in Stephen Strasburg (now a star for the Washington Nationals).
In 2005, O’Connor’s second season with the Cavaliers, they went 0-2 at an NCAA regional in Corvallis, Oregon. In 2008, they went 1-2 in Fullerton, California.
In 2009, everything came together for O’Connor’s club. Virginia opened the regional with a win over Strasburg and San Diego State, then defeated UC-Irvine twice to advance to a super regional for the first time in program history. The Cavaliers then secured their first berth in the College World Series by winning a best-of-three series in Oxford, Mississippi, home of the University of Mississippi.
The Rebels won the opener, but the ’Hoos took the next two games, stunning the rowdy home crowd in Oxford.
“The most hostile environment we played in by far was Ole Miss,” Hultzen said. “They had funny chants; they were on you 24/7; they looked up your family members’ names and chanted them at you when you were playing in the outfield or warming up in the bullpen. I’m sure [Proscia] got it at third base all the time.”
The Cavaliers returned to Omaha in 2011 – when Hultzen and Proscia were juniors – and again in ’14 and ’15. In ’11 and ’14, UVA hosted NCAA regionals (and super regionals) at Davenport Field.
In 2015, the ’Hoos were sent back to California, where they were seeded No. 3 in the regional in Lake Elsinore. That didn’t faze Virginia, which won all three of its games at the regional, defeating the second-seeded University of Southern California twice and fourth-seeded San Diego State once.
That set up a super regional matchup with former ACC rival University of Maryland at Davenport Field, where Virginia needed only two games to secure a spot in the eight-team College World Series field.
In 2014, UVA had finished as NCAA runner-up after losing to Vanderbilt University in the best-of-three College World Series Finals. In 2015, the Cavaliers broke through, defeating Vandy 4-2 in the decisive third game of the championship series.
Many of the leaders on this UVA team, including juniors Adam Haseley, Pavin Smith and Ernie Clement and fifth-year senior Robbie Coman, played key roles in 2015, too. O’Connor expects that to pay dividends in this NCAA tournament.
UVA’s veterans remember “that experience in 2015 going out to Lake Elsinore, and what we went through to win that one,” O’Connor said, “and what we went through to get to Omaha, so they can impart some great wisdom [to] some of these new players and some of the young players: ‘Listen, just because you’re not hosting doesn’t mean you can’t continue on and play the next weekend and then beyond.’ That’s where leadership steps in.”
Virginia’s players “know the stories of the past,” O’Connor said. “They know what we did in 2015. They’ve heard the story of 2009, of going out to Irvine and where that trail took us and where it ended and how things went with that. They’re familiar with the past of Virginia baseball and what’s happened in those cases. They’re grown-ups. They understand what the situation is, and they’ll handle it.”
When the team met Monday morning at Davenport Field, O’Connor asked his players if they had any thoughts about the selection committee’s decision, Coman recalled, “and [Clement] said, ‘Let’s go on the road and beat somebody.’ That’s kind of what everybody felt like.”
Given a choice, of course, the Cavaliers would prefer to be preparing to play in a regional in Charlottesville. Still, Proscia noted, “there’s no real formula for success in getting to Omaha. It’s tournament time. You’ve got to go out there and compete and put your best against their best and see who wins. That’s pretty much what it comes down to, whether you’re on the road or you’re home. It would be nice to play in front of your home fans, but once again, it’s tournament time. You’ve just got to get it done.”
Proscia said he always liked playing on the road, “because your attention to detail has got to get raised a notch. You’re playing in someone else’s home park in front of their home fans. You’re going to have that hostile environment, but if you’re focused on the task at hand and you’re prepared and ready to go, you just go out there and compete.”
The Cavaliers’ record in road games this season is 11-7. They’re 3-1 at neutral sites.
“I think the atmosphere on the road is almost as good as being at home,” said Smith, who on Wednesday was named a semifinalist for the Golden Spikes Award – given to the nation’s top amateur player – as was Haseley.
“Obviously they’re not cheering for you,” Smith said, “but silencing the crowd is almost as good as getting the uproar from it ... [Also,] being with your teammates, being in a hotel, kind of bonding together and that whole thing, it really just makes it a fun experience.”