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State of the program: Virginia baseball

After an up and down season on the diamond, where do the ‘Hoos stand moving forward?

COLLEGE BASEBALL: APR 10 Virginia at Miami Photo by Samuel Lewis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

​​As the 2021-2022 athletic year has come to an end for the Virginia Cavaliers, we at Streaking the Lawn will be running a state of the program series for the numerous athletic programs that are a part of the university.

In the past few weeks we took a look at the men’s lacrosse program, the women’s basketball program, and the men’s basketball program by evaluating the confidence level in four critical categories: success over the last five years, coaching staff, current roster makeup, and the future roster/recruiting. The four degrees of confidence are, in descending order, extreme, solid, mild, and low.

Today, we turn our attention to the Virginia Cavaliers baseball program which returned to Omaha in 2021 and is poised to regain its spot among baseball powerhouses.

Confidence in performance over the last 5 years: Mild

I’m going to be a tough grader on this one, but that’s more due to the high bar Virginia has set over the last 20 years than how this program is situated. Going back to 2018, Virginia has missed the NCAA tournament more times than they’ve made it (one year was due to COVID, so at the least its tied 2-2) and even though they made it to Omaha in 2021, they did so as the #3 seed in their regional meaning they entered the tournament outside the top-32 teams in the field.

Even this season, they set the mark for the hottest start in the program’s history only to come back down to earth when ACC play began. They’re on the verge of “Solid” but a far cry from the five year stretch between 2011 and 2015 which saw the Hoos go to Omaha three times and notch the College World Series title in 2015. Furthermore, they’re lacking the consistency that saw the program host a regional in nine out of the thirteen years between 2004 and 2016

Confidence in coaching staff: Extreme

But, Coach Brian O’Connor is still at the helm. It’s amazing how only three years removed from winning a national championship, I started hearing rumblings about how Coach O’Connor may have lost a step and how things might be turning a little stale at Disharoon Park. But then Virginia went on a magical run to Omaha in 2021 and O’Connor once again proved why he’s one of the best leading men in all of college baseball.

During the downturn however, he saw his long-time pitching coach Karl Kuhn take the head coaching job at Radford in the spring of 2019. In came Drew Dickinson who found immediate success leading the Cavalier pitching staff to a new single season strikeout record in 2021 and seeing four of his pitchers selected in the MLB draft, which set the mark for most in the ACC.

Speaking of records, 2022 was historic for the Hoos at the plate, a credit to Associate Head Coach Kevin McMullen. McMullen serves as hitting coach and recruiting coordinator and this year he led the Virginia batters to an offensive explosion. Cavalier batters set a record for most home runs in a season, as well as top-three all-time in runs scored, RBI, and slugging percentage. With much of the firepower returning, the Virginia lineup is in good hands as it’s been for the better part of nineteen seasons.

Confidence in current roster: Solid

To say I’m bullish on this current roster would be an understatement. HOWEVER, there are significant question marks around the pitching staff which keep me from “Extreme” confidence. The program is heading back in the right direction with a run to Omaha and a near-miss at hosting in the 2022 Regionals. After a three year hiatus from NCAA postseason play, the program is heading in the right direction.

The excitement starts at the plate. Returning next season are All-Americans Jake Gelof and Kyle Teel. After a strong finish to the 2021 season (where he hit all six of his home runs in the postseason), Gelof exploded in 2022. He set a new single season record for most RBI in a year and he’s ten shy of the career record for home runs in a season. Meanwhile, Teel had a down year compared with his 2021 campaign, though some of that could be forgiven as he took over full time catching duties after playing mostly in the outfield during his first year. Still, if batting .276 with six home runs and 45 RBI is a down year, I’ll take it.

Then there’s the rising second year class. I was downright giddy watching Griff O’Ferrall play early in the year knowing he’d be in Charlottesville for two more years. The freshman shortstop batted .308, got on base at a .406 clip and stole 17 bases (easily leading the team) from the lead off spot. Even better was Casey Saucke who batted .360 with seven home runs on his way to being named Freshman All-American by College Baseball Newspaper.

Joining O’Ferrall and Saucke in the class are Ethan Anderson, Justin Rubin, and Colin Tuft. Anderson and Rubin batted over .300 while Tuft scored 30 runs with just 96 at bats.

On the mound, Virginia will have to find some starts. Nate Savino is likely to get drafted while Brian Gursky came to Virginia as a graduate transfer. In all, Virginia is losing at least 42 of their 58 games started. Leading the way from the rotation will be Jake Berry who flashed at times compiling a 5-3 record in nine starts (20 appearances overall). Berry had a 4.79 ERA but did record a 11.06 K/9 Inning.

Matthew Buchanan returns after going 3-1 in four starts and 17 appearances, but the excitement on the mound will come in the form of Jay Woolfolk. Woolfolk joined Saucke on College Baseball Newspaper’s Freshman All-American list and was electric out of the bullpen striking out 55 batters in 37.1 innings. He was generally the first Cavalier out of the bullpen and was trusted by the coaching staff in the biggest spots in the season.

The only issue with Woolfolk is whether he’ll continue to pull double duty in 2023. He’s the backup quarterback on the Cavalier football team and with Brennan Armstrong likely departing after this season, he may find himself the prospective starter in Spring Ball, meaning his availability for baseball may be compromised.

Beyond those who we know are returning, we’ll keep a close eye on summer departures. Among those who can return should they choose are most notably Chris Newell and Brandon Neeck along with Max Cotier, Matt Wyatt, and Jacob Hodorovich.

Confidence in future roster/recruiting: Solid

Baseball recruiting is always difficult to project because the best of the best get drafted and it’s hard for coaches to get them on grounds. Then for the ones that do enroll, they tend to transition differently. Take for example the class of 2012 which featured Virginia’s Gatorade Player of the Year in Nathan Kirby who took a year to acclimate to the college game, while it was the largely unheralded Brandon Waddell who went on to be Virginia’s Friday night starter for the entire 2013 season.

This year’s class features one prospective Cavalier who may not make it to grounds in Jack O’Connor. A right handed pitcher out of Bishop O’Connell in Arlington, O’Connor is rated among Keith Law’s Top 100 prospects. He’ll likely be drafted in the first couple of rounds and then we Virginia fans will play the waiting game.

Even if the Hoos lose O’Connor to the draft, they have a plethora of arms ready to come in and contribute as the best recruits in the class are all pitchers. Overall, Perfect Game has Virginia with the #14 best recruiting class in the country (5th in the ACC) with Bradley Hodges, a left handed pitcher out of Fleming Island Florida joining O’Connor as one of two Virginia commits in Perfect Game’s top-100 recruits for the Class of 2022.

But as is the case with all sports, the emergence of the transfer portal has added another dimension to college baseball recruiting. And like last year when the Hoos picked up pitching mainstays Brian Gursky and Will Geerdes, the Hoos were active in the portal once again. Coming in from Harrisonburg is this season’s leader in the CAA in home runs, Travis Reifsnider. Reifsnider batter .303 for the Dukes and should be able to move into the outfield where both left and center fields have been vacated by Alex Tappen and Chris Newell.

All in all, there’s no reason to worry about the Virginia baseball program moving forward. With O’Connor at the helm UVA always has the chance to make a run. There’s just the matter of establishing more consistent elite play like that in the early 2010s.