Starring on UVA’s First College World Series Teams, He’s Now Returning as Coach – and Graduate

June 11, 2024 By Andrew Ramspacher, fpa5up@virginia.edu Andrew Ramspacher, fpa5up@virginia.edu

Find a spot in front of the pitcher’s mound, grab on to a fellow University of Virginia baseball teammate or coach and smile wide.

You’re going to Omaha.

It had been a few years, but John Hicks still knew the celebratory drill following UVA’s win over Kansas State University on Saturday that sent the Cavaliers back to the College World Series. 

Hicks, wearing a Virginia hat, navy pullover and gray pants, moved into the third row of euphoric Wahoos and held on to Brian O’Connor’s right shoulder. A camera snapped and another moment in this program’s proud recent history was captured.

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There are now seven photos like this since 2009: A Virginia team posing on the infield after winning an NCAA Super Regional series. Hicks is in three of them.

A star player on the 2009 and 2011 Cavalier squads that advanced to the CWS, Hicks, after a long professional baseball career, returned to his alma mater this season with two goals in mind: help the Hoos get to Omaha as an assistant coach and finally walk the Lawn as a UVA graduate. 

He’s succeeded in both. 

“Seeing everything come to fruition,” Hicks said, “it’s pretty special.”

 

 

Hicks, selected by the Seattle Mariners in the fourth round of the 2011 Major League Baseball Draft, left UVA after his third year on Grounds, 24 credit hours shy of completing his foreign affairs degree.

Even while pursuing his big league dreams – which came true when he debuted for the Mariners in 2015 and continued for the next several seasons with the Detroit Tigers and Texas Rangers – Hicks remained committed to finishing his UVA education, taking the occasional online and January term courses when time allowed.

He needed 13 credit hours when he retired from playing professionally at the end of last season, a semester’s worth of courses that he figured he’d try to conquer while hanging around his old digs as a student assistant coach. 

O’Connor, UVA’s head coach of 21 seasons, happily welcomed Hicks to the staff and then watched as the now-34-year-old father of two juggled his breadth of responsibilities. 

“It would be after batting practice, before a game, and he’s in (the clubhouse) reading and doing papers and whatever he needs to do,” O’Connor said. “And I laughed because I told him he's studying a lot more this year than the three years he was a player.”

Group photo featuring UVA Baseball players.
From the time he participated in 2011 as a player to Saturday as a coach, Hicks is a veteran of the celebratory team photo at Disharoon Park following a UVA win in the NCAA Super Regional round. (UVA Athletics photos)

Hicks always took the ribbing in stride. 

“I have a different perspective now,” Hicks said. “And I try to do as much work during the week while I’m here, before practice and things like that. That way, when I get home, I can be a dad, which is my most important job, and a husband, and take care of my family and spend time with them.”

Hicks’ family, including his wife Leslie and young sons Walker and Kash, joined him on May 19 when he did indeed walk the Lawn as a UVA graduate. 

 

 

The clubhouse cramming sessions must have paid off as Hicks finished with a GPA just under 3.5 this semester – “by far my best in college,” he said. 

Hicks isn’t the first former player under O’Connor to return to earn their degree while helping the team. Kevin Arico, an All-America pitcher, in 2010, was most notably a student assistant on the 2015 team that won the national championship, and other program standouts such as Danny Hultzen and Tyler Cannon have done the same. 

It’s Hicks’ approach to the role, though, that stands out from his predecessors. He commutes each day from his hometown of Goochland, a 50-minute drive, and “doesn’t miss,” O’Connor said. “Unless something's wrong with one of his kids or things like that, he’s here every day and present and adds an incredible amount of value to our organization.”

Hicks, a 2019 UVA Baseball Hall of Fame inductee, is a “great person to be around,” senior catcher Jacob Ference said. 

“We get someone who has been to pinnacle of baseball in the Major Leagues to give us those types of experiences,” Ference said, “and just help us in any facet of the game. He also helps us become better men.”

Candid Picture of Hicks with UVA Baseball team
Hicks spent the spring semester on Grounds commuting from Goochland to attend class and help the baseball team. (UVA Athletics photo)

Hicks took one course – International Politics in the Nuclear Age – this semester alongside five players on the roster. Whether in the classroom or at the park, he’s made a lasting impact on the 2024 Cavaliers. 

“It speaks of how special UVA is, that guys want to come back and finish their degree,” junior catcher/designated hitter Ethan Anderson said, “and John Hicks, coming back and spending the whole season with us – he has a family, and the time he invested in going on the road with us and the late night practices he spends time with us, it’s amazing.”

Beyond what he hopes is a long stay in Omaha – UVA begins play on Friday against the University of North Carolina – Hicks is unsure of his next move. It could be coaching; it could be something else.

He just knows he hasn’t regretted these last hectic six months. 

“It’s been surreal,” Hicks said.