When you hear about Nashville you likely think Country Music and the state of Virginia is better known as the “Mother of Presidents,” it was the birthplace of 8 U.S. presidents including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. * And yet, two universities, Vanderbilt located in Nashville and The University of Virginia (both better known for their academic reputations) have built baseball powerhouses in a sport that has traditionally been dominated by schools located in the deep South or the West Coast.
Consider their recent run of successes:
Virginia under head coach Brian O’Connor has made 12 consecutive appearances in the NCAA tournament and have made it to the College World Series (CWS) 4 times, have had 39 players drafted into MLB over the past 6 seasons. ** And the Cavaliers won their first ever CWS title last week against…***
The Vanderbilt Commodores whom under the leadership of head coach Tim Corbin have made 10 consecutive NCAA tournament appearances and have played in the CWS finals the last two years, winning the championship last season. Corbin’s 13 seasons has seen the Commodores produce 12 First Round MLB draft choices and since 2003 Vanderbilt has seen 48 of it’s pitchers drafted into the Major Leagues. ****
So what are these two programs doing that has allowed them to stand above more established programs?
It all comes down to their recruiting philosophy!
What type of players have the Cavaliers targeted to build such a strong program?
"The physicality of a player is important, to be able to endure an entire season," O'Connor said. "That's why all you see the guys playing on TV in the big leagues, they're physical specimens. And the pro people like these guys too, because when you're playing 160 ball games in professional baseball, it's a grind, and the more physical you are, the better you hold up.
"You look at our lineup, 3 through 7, and you're talking about big, physical but most importantly athletic guys that can run. They can last longer; they're better late in the season. When you're not as physically gifted, your body wears down quicker throughout an entire season."
As proof of their theory about durability, the Cavaliers were indeed better late. This team was in danger of missing the NCAA tournament all together but a late run got them in and the rest as they say is history. They finished with the fewest wins (44) by an NCAA champion in nearly 50 years but they finished strong to say the least!
As impressive as the size of many of his players, O'Connor said, is their athleticism, and that's a priority in recruiting. The Cavaliers target prospects whom in the field "maybe can play a few different positions," O'Connor said.
"Every one of those guys that plays for us in the outfield, every one of them could play center field.”
"That means they all can run. They also happen to be physical guys. They all happen to be able to hit the ball out of the ballpark; they're all middle-of-the-lineup kind of guys. They could all play center field, so they all cover good territory in the outfield. And so it's been a conscious effort of recruiting guys that don't just hit. They can run, they can get down the baseline, they can be valuable players every day, even if they're not getting two hits and driving in runs."
To this point freshman centerfielder Adam Haseley started game 2 of the CWS on the mound for Virginia even though he had only started 4 games all season and the Cavaliers were down 1 game to none in the best of three series when he got the call (huge pressure spot for anyone let along a freshman!) and he tossed 5 shutout innings.
The elite Division I athlete who played multiple sports in high school may be a vanishing breed, but it's not extinct. O'Connor's program includes such examples as Joe McCarthy, Brandon Downes, Papi, Young, Jared King, Whit Mayberry and Rob Bennie, and the Cav’s are always looking for more.*****
McCarthy was the ACC freshman of the year in 2013, and also starred in football and basketball at Scranton High in Pennsylvania. Downes played quarterback and defensive back at South Plainfield High in New Jersey. Papi was an all-conference basketball player at Tunkhannock High in Pennsylvania, and Young was a three-year letter-winner in hoops at Atlee High in Mechanicsville.
The coaches, O'Connor starred in baseball, basketball and football in high school and McMullan played football and baseball at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.
Noting that former UVA baseball greats Steven Proscia and John Hicks were also football standouts in high school, McMullan said, "We do like those guys. A lot of times parents ask us if we're going to ask their sons not to play football. It's funny, because we respond, `If he doesn't play football, this opportunity at Virginia is not going to be there for him.' We like those guys that like to compete."
"I've always said that if I have a choice between the same player, and one played high school football and one didn't, I will always choose the guy that played football," he said. (Joe McCarthy is a great example of that. There's toughness and a competitiveness that comes from that that I love, and I think that's part of what makes him the player that he is.
Multi-sport athletes tend to be more resilient because they have to role in different crowds and adjust to an ever-changing environment. That was evident in a Virginia team that experienced several key injuries early in the season and endured poor weather and field conditions that forced them to cancel or move 13 games. And as mentioned earlier they nearly missed the NCAA tournament outright!
"That being said, in today's day and age, there's not many guys out there that are doing it, because baseball's become a year-round sport. They play in the fall, the spring and the summer, and they're training in the winter."
To enhance the players' natural size and athleticism, the coaching staff emphasizes strength and conditioning. That's contributed to the program's extraordinary success under O'Connor.
"It starts at the top, and both Kevin and Brian since I've gotten here have been all about the off-field conditioning," said Ed Nordenschild, UVA's director of strength and conditioning. "That gets translated to the athletes, and they take it and run. I don't think it takes much to get guys to believe in the benefits of strength and conditioning."
McMullan said: "I love our plan in the weight room. I love the way Ed handles our guys. He's a teacher. He's going to teach them techniques. He doesn't just throw-weight on the bar. It's fundamental. It's technical. It's a reflection of a lot of the things we do with our players. It's a seamless transition [from the weight room to the field]."
The benefits of weight training are many, Nordenschild said.
Bigger, stronger players are "a little more injury-resistant, for sure," he said. "They have better armor, so to speak. And to be honest, that's the biggest reason why any athlete should hit the weight room: injury prevention. After that it's performance enhancement. But their performance becomes secondary if they're injured. If they're sitting on the bench, they can't help us."
Programs like Virginia and Vanderbilt are maximizing their on-field potential because of the well-rounded athletes they recruit. They seek out young men with all around athleticism because they understand that this diverse background affords them as coaches the best opportunity to get the most out of the athletes. And they emphasize off-field training to keep their players healthy so they can stay on the field of play, which is essential to long-term talent development. And more specifically both staffs understand that baseball players have unique strength and conditioning needs. Applying football or Cross-Fit style training to this population would be a big mistake!
This philosophy shouldn’t be so rare, the fact that it is speaks volumes about why these two non-traditional baseball schools have established themselves as the trendsetters in College Baseball.
***Virginia caps comeback season as College World Series Champs!