Virginia baseball coach Brian O’Connor addressed a few media members Tuesday afternoon at Disharoon Park, sporting a wide grin on a few occasions when discussing his program.
O’Connor has good reason to smile.
His team is fresh off a College World Series appearance, and he signed a contract extension this offseason that spans through the 2027 season.
While his current team, which began fall practices Tuesday, lost significant talent to graduation and the MLB Draft, the challenge of welcoming in newcomers may have brought a bigger smile to O’Connor’s face than any other topic discussed.
“When you have new faces, I think it’s exciting,” O’Connor said. “They don’t know any better, they just listen and they do.”
Virginia has 18 new players this season when counting incoming freshmen and transfer additions. O’Connor says that’s the largest group of newcomers he’s had since taking the UVa head coaching gig.
It’ll take time for the team to build chemistry, which is part of the value of fall practices.
“There are two different types of learning curves,” fifth-year senior Alex Tappen said. “There’s a learning curve for us, which is learning everyone’s name, and there’s the learning curve for the incoming guys, which is learning about Virginia baseball and the culture and everything.”
It’s a group that looks different than a season ago, but a few noteworthy names remain, ready to contribute on the field and pass down the culture of the program.
O’Connor points to sophomores Kyle Teel and Jake Gelof as two returning players who made significant impacts a season ago. Teel hit a team-best .335 and launched nine home runs and 41 RBI. Gelof ripped four home runs in 38 games, coming on strong in the postseason.
Judging from Tuesday’s practice, Gelof looked like he added muscle this offseason, and both Gelof and Teel were rocketing balls during batting practice. They’re expected to be important factors this season, and they’re both reasons why O’Connor is excited about what other newcomers can add this year.
“They’re just up there attacking, having fun,” O’Connor said. “They don’t have a lot of pressure. A lot of times in our game, youth can be an advantage.”
Virginia does possess significant returning experience among its position players.
Tappen figures to play in the outfield, as does Chris Newell, an athletic junior with effortless power. Tappen and Newell combined to hit 11 home runs last spring.
Fifth-year senior Devin Ortiz can play first base and designated hitter. Max Cotier is a reliable second baseman with talent and potential. While Logan Michaels is gone at catcher, Teel figures to step into that starting role.
The group of returning players exudes confidence after pushing UVa to Omaha last season for the first time since 2015.
“It’s also a monkey off our back,” Tappen said.
As for the pitching, O’Connor wishes he had more experience.
The team’s weekend rotation of Andrew Abbott, Mike Vasil and Griff McGarry turned into MLB Draft picks. Closer Stephen Schoch graduated, and reliever Zach Messinger was selected by the New York Yankees. Those five pitchers logged over 300 combined innings — more than half of the team’s total innings pitched — last season.
Junior Nate Savino, who spent time in the rotation last season, is joined by junior Matt Wyatt and senior Brandon Neeck. Both Neeck and Wyatt are inexperienced, but they performed well in the postseason and have filthy stuff. They figure to see time this season in some capacity, whether it’s as weekend starters or relievers.
Ortiz is another option at pitcher. Paul Kosanovich is back for a fifth season, and he’s shown the ability to contribute out of the bullpen.
Figuring out a potential rotation of pitchers is a focus for O’Connor’s group this fall. Another area of interest is the left side of the infield.
Third baseman Zack Gelof and shortstop Nic Kent were both MLB Draft picks, leaving UVa with two key positions to fill.
“We lost a ton of players,” O’Connor said.
UVa’s losses are evident, but it hasn’t done anything to diminish the team’s spirit. With a decent collection of returners and a deep class of incoming players, the Cavaliers have their sights set on a return to Omaha.
That goal is many months away, though. First they’ll go through fall ball, practicing fundamentals and sorting through position battles as the group filled with new players seeks cohesion and consistency.
“We have a ton of work to do,” O’Connor said.