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College Podcast: Virginia Coach Brian O’Connor Looks Ahead To 2021

In a challenging fall practice period where no two college baseball programs are going about things the same way and some will be happy to get on the field at all, a team can get a significant head start on 2021 just by having the fall feel anything close to normal.

With his team having been fortunate enough for that to be the case, Virginia coach Brian O’Connor feels good about where the Cavaliers, a likely top-five squad heading into the 2021 season, sit at this point in time.

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“Our veterans have been back for five weeks now and have been working out and practicing,” O’Connor said on BA's College Podcast, presented by MyBookie and Rapsodo. “Our rookies arrived two weeks ago and moved into the dorms, so we actually started full fall baseball about ten days ago. So we’re off and running.”

The Cavaliers also felt like they were off and running during the 2020 season after initially dropping two of three to a talented Oklahoma team in a neutral site series in Florida to begin the campaign.

After returning home from that series loss to the Sooners, they won 12 of their final 14 games, including a series win over North Carolina State in what turned out to be the last weekend of the season, to end the shortened season 14-4.

“I really felt like, coming out of that first ACC weekend against NC State, and I thought NC State had a really good club, I just thought we had some really good, positive momentum going and thought we were off to having a great year last year,” O’Connor said.

Even in the small sample of 18 games, the 2020 season was marked by impressive performances from Virginia’s young core of players.

Righthander Mike Vasil, who had his struggles as a freshman in 2019, was off to a fast start, as were freshmen like second baseman Max Cotier, outfielder Chris Newell and lefthander Nate Savino, who had just turned in his strongest start of the year when the season ended.

“From that weekend (against Oklahoma), I saw our team continue to build and build and started to build some pitching depth,” O’Connor said. “I really liked to see that last weekend (that) Nate Savino, the mid-year (enrollee) lefthander out of high school, made a start on Sunday against NC State and pitched the deepest he had pitched so far that year, so I was encouraged by that.

“I was really encouraged by the development of our young players. Max Cotier, our second baseman, who was a freshman last year, Chris Newell. You just started to see now that the games had started to pile up a little bit, you started to see their development and their emergence. I started to see a guy like Mike Vasil in his second year with us really start to emerge a little bit, which was good to see.”

Savino’s season was among the most highly-anticipated for any freshman in the country last season, given not only his incredible talent, but also for the fact that he enrolled at Virginia in January to begin his college career a season early.

That particular move for incoming players is not actually something that Brian O’Connor normally supports.

“I am not at all, personally, an advocate of this, unless the player really, really wants to do it, first and foremost,” O’Connor said.

But that’s the thing about Savino. Not only was he set on coming to Virginia early, but his talent was so undeniable that the Cavaliers were better off as a team having him playing as soon as possible and O’Connor was confident that having him debut so soon wouldn’t harm his development as a player.

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“In Nate Savino’s case, he was pounding my door down wanting to do this, so he had a strong desire to do it,” O’Connor said. “And secondly, personally, I don’t think (enrolling early) works unless you as a college baseball coach actually think they’re really going to contribute to your organization right away. Otherwise, I think it’s a detriment to them. So Nate Savino is a rarity in that his skill level was so high that I knew that he could make an immediate impact for us.”

Savino projects to be a part of an outstanding Virginia rotation in 2021 that could also feature Vasil, righthander Griff McGarry, who led the team in ERA last season, and lefthander Andrew Abbott.

At the end of last season, it was a fair assumption that Abbott, a highly-accomplished pitcher with outstanding stuff, would be drafted. And given that he graduated in three years and thus already had a degree in hand, the timing seemed right for him to move on.

But the stars didn’t align, Abbott’s name wasn’t called, and O’Connor understandably felt for his player.

“I was devastated for Andrew Abbott, I really was. I was really incredibly disappointed,” O’Connor said. “Sure, coming out of it, is it a positive for Virginia baseball and the 2021 team? Absolutely. I’d be crazy to say that you wouldn’t want the kid back. There was part of me that did not, either. I was crushed for the young man because I felt like his talent and his ability dictated him going in a certain area, and it didn’t work out.”

After initially being disappointed with not being drafted, Abbott met with O’Connor and began to look ahead to the 2021 season, which will include a new challenge in starting games. To this point, Abbott has served primarily as a shutdown reliever for the Cavaliers, earning a spot on Team USA along the way.

“We’re working with him really hard on being a starter,” O’Connor said. “He’s been starting since we started this fall. He’s working really hard on his changeup, he looks fantastic, he was up to 95 mph the other night in a scrimmage. Just ecstatic about having him back, a big plus for our club from a winning standpoint this spring.”

Not to be outdone by a standout pitching staff, the Virginia offense, which ended the season hitting .309/.418/.514 as a team, is back intact. That includes Newell, Cotier, third baseman Zack Gelof, whose five homers led the team in 2020, shortstop Nic Kent and catcher Logan Michaels.

“I’m really, really excited about this offensive club, as excited as I’ve been in a number of years,” O’Connor said. “Part of that excitement comes from experience. There’s two things, there’s talent and experience. There’s a high, high value in the experience category. We’ve got a lot of it on this club. You look at a depth chart on our team and every guy that played in a starting capacity for us position player-wise is back, every one of them.”

The Cavaliers haven’t been in the postseason since 2017. They likely would have gotten there in 2020 had the year not played out as it did, but now it looks as if that will only delay that return to regionals by a year.

Of course, with the talent on this particular roster, expectations for Virginia will be much higher than simply making a return to postseason play.

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