Virginia center fielder Ethan O’Donnell was all smiles following his first collegiate postseason hit– a go-ahead 3-run home run in the 7th inning of the Charlottesville Regional final– that helped his team advance to a Super Regional. A sell-out crowd roared as the junior transfer rounded the bases. This moment was a far cry from playing at Northwestern, where O’Donnell spent his first two years.
“Seeing close to 6000 people in the stands cheering for us, it's something we don’t take for granted,” O’Donnell said about the capacity crowd at Disharoon Park in Charlottesville. “It’s been a long journey.”
O’Donnell and the ‘Hoos had to wait one more day to learn who their Super Regional opponents would be, as Duke and Coastal Carolina were playing Monday night to determine the Conway Regional. O’Donnell had no qualms expressing his preferences between Duke and Coastal Carolina.
“I’ll be watching tomorrow and rooting for Duke to win.”
The reason why is that Blue Devils’ third baseman and leading hitter, Jay Beshears, was O’Donnell’s roommate and close friend for two seasons at Northwestern. Duke won the Conway Regional thanks in large part to Beshears’ two home runs. Prior to this season, neither O’Donnell nor Beshears had even had the opportunity to play in a conference tournament, much less an NCAA Regional.
“That’s why I had to hit that one tonight,” O’Donnell joked with a wide grin in response to his former roommate’s two home runs over Regional weekend. “I needed to catch up!”
“Every time he hits a home run, I'm like, ‘all right now, I gotta get one’,” explained Beshears. “It’s more of a competition we have between each other.”
"He got me last year,” O’Donnell said with a laugh. “But I got him freshman year." The two sluggers entered the NCAA Tournament tied with 12 home runs each on the season, but following Regionals, Beshears holds a slim advantage, 14-13.
Northwestern finished 26-29 last season and missed the Big 10 Tournament. Head Coach Spencer Allen decided to step down the day after the season ended, leaving the program in flux. Both Beshears and O’Donnell decided to transfer due to the uncertainty of the coaching situation. The two rising juniors entered the transfer portal in search of the right fit for them as student athletes.
“Academics were a big part of it,” said O’Donnell on his decision to commit to Virginia. “It was hard to pass up that Northwestern degree after two years, but Virginia is a good school.”
Beshears echoed O’Donnell’s primary consideration. “Academics was always one of my reasons for what school and university I chose to play baseball. Northwestern has good academics, and I was able to play there. Duke is pretty similar academically, so it was a no doubter. It just felt like the right choice.”
O’Donnell had a secondary motivation when choosing Virginia. “This program has done such a great job at developing young men. In my time here, I’ve definitely developed as a player. Off the field, who I am as a person, who I am as a brother, a husband one day, a son– those are the things that are truly important. This coaching staff doesn't just develop you to be good baseball players, they prepare you to be good men.”
Both players appear to have made the right decisions, and their new schools have benefited. Additionally, Wake Forest’s Sean Sullivan, who also transferred from Northwestern last summer, has likewise made a major impact in the ACC, as he’s been one of the nation’s top pitchers for the nation’s number one team. O’Donnell is hitting .372 and was named All ACC first team, while Beshears led Duke in hitting with a .332 average and 29 extra base hits. All three schools were ranked in the Top 25 towards the end of the year, and all three programs are playing in Super Regionals this weekend.
Beshears talks about how he’s followed the performances of his former teammates. “I always keep an eye on them, and after we play our weekend series, I'll always check in on them, see how their series went, see how they played. I'm stoked and so happy that they're also playing great.”
“I follow them religiously,” said O’Donnell. “I follow their success on Twitter and watch highlights.”
Beshears followed that sentiment with how pleased he is the trio has been successful. “It's just awesome to see what we were able to do, not only together at Northwestern, but now moving on to being opponents, it's fun to see how well they're playing and performing. It's great to keep in touch with them while they're doing so well.”
“They're not my teammates anymore, but they're still life long friends," O'Donnell said about the relationships they've forged beyond the diamond. "We all had to figure out the right fit for ourselves and in the end, we all made the best choice for ourselves. It was the right choice.”
During the ACC Tournament, Beshears foreshadowed a potential postseason matchup.“I'm excited that we get to all share it and hopefully meet up in Omaha and play against each other.”
Well, it may not be Omaha, but O’Donnell and Beshears are going head-to-head in a Super Regional, something neither expected while rooming together in Evanston, Illinois. After this weekend's series between Duke and Virginia, one of the two friends will have gone from Northwestern to Omaha in just over a year.