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Experience Key To Virginia's Success

For the 7th time in 15 years, and the third time in the last four years, Virginia is in Omaha competing in the College World Series. Last season, UVA's Omaha experience was basically limited to Kyle Teel, Jake Gelof, and Jake Barry. This year, the 'Hoos return five regular starters from last year's lineup as well as key bench pieces Luke Hanson and Anthony Stephan. Jacob Ference, who transferred from Salisbury, has National Championship experience from the Division III level.

Junior Griff O'Ferrall, who has led off and started at shortstop nearly every game for UVA over the last three seasons, has assumed a veteran leadership role in his second Omaha visit. The Richmond native plans to ensure a repeat of last year doesn't occur in 2024.

"I think the first time you're there, you're kind of there and it's a whole experience," O'Ferrall said following Virginia's Super Regional clinching win over Kansas State. "You don't really know what to look for. And there's a lot going on. Two one-run losses last year definitely left a bad taste in our mouth."

All season, Virginia has been paced by their elite offense. Their .336 batting average is second in the nation and the best in Omaha. They're Top 5 nationally in doubles, runs, and slugging. Their 11th in the country in home runs. Nobody left in the tournament has scored more runs this year than the 'Hoos. Only one Virginia starter doesn't hit over .300-- and that's Harrison Didawick, who is hitting .297 and is currently the school record holder for home runs in a season with 23.

"I think the main thing for us is not trying to press, not trying to do too much," O'Ferrall said about the dangerous Wahoo offense. "We have the talent to score at any time, at any point of the lineup."

As good as UVA's offense has been, the story of the postseason has been their pitching staff. Virginia only had six quality starts all season heading into the NCAA Tournament and now have three over their last five games. As much experience in Omaha as they have offensively, Coach Brian O'Connor was quick to stress the lack of experience on the pitching side, despite the presence of Evan Blanco, Jay Woolfolk, Angelo Tonas, and Chase Hungate from last year.

"We lost an incredible amount of innings from last year, the 2023 Omaha team," O'Connor said. "I think something like 75% of it... they just haven't done it and had the experience."

Virginia's starting rotation during the 2023 postseason consisted of Brian Edgington, Nick Parker, and Connelly Early. Jake Berry was the primary closer. All four of those arms either graduated or moved on to professional baseball. This year's ace, Evan Blanco, was a key lefty out of the bullpen while Jay Woolfolk struggled in his brief appearances a year ago. O'Connor believes in this pitching staff, however, and he's been rewarded for his faith during this Omaha runs.

"I knew that there were going to be some struggling moments, and I just kept telling everybody that you got to learn, adapt, get better, and it will get better," the Hall of Famer said. "This pitching staff has peaked and is peaking at the most important time of the year."

Virginia is confident that it's experience, especially on the offensive side, will prove the difference this year.

"It definitely gives us an edge knowing what to expect from a standpoint of atmosphere itself," explained O'Ferrall. "I remember last year the first game -- the first couple of innings, you are a little bit in awe and just a little bit in shock just with the atmosphere itself and how many people are in the stands."

"I feel great about this club," O'Connor said, echoing O'Ferrall's sentiments. "This year is different. Six of our players in our lineup were here last year and played in this event, and a number of pitchers."

O'Connor wanted his players to ensure that while they and their families should enjoy the moment, they need to remember why they're here. "[We made] sure that they communicated with their families that we are here to win a national championship."

Last year, Virginia lost two games by one run and found themselves eliminated before the end of the weekend. They will not let that happen this year.

"We're going into it with more of a demeanor of we're going to do some damage," O'Ferrall said. And with that previous Omaha experience combining with Virginia's explosive offense, they might just be able to do some serious damage in 2024.

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