Brian O'Connor's lineup card this season has consistently included a half dozen sophomores. And the Virginia baseball coach says those second-year players have been key to his year's 47-win season.
"They've really kind of graduated their games, and have really stepped up and gotten a lot better. Each and every one of them," O'Connor said. "And I think that's had a ton to do with the success we've had this year."
Sophomore outfielder Brandon Downes leads the Cavaliers with 74 hits, nine homer, and 57 RBI. Another second-year outfielder, Mike Papi, leads the ACC with a .400 batting average and .645 slugging percentage, while his .536 on-base percentage leads the country.
Downes and Papi are among four Virginia sophomores who have started at least 50 games this year, along with outfielder Derek Fisher and catcher Nate Irving. Three infielders -- Nick Howard, Kenny Towns, and the injured Branden Cogswell -- have started at least 43 games.
Senior first baseman Jared King is one of just three non-sophomores in the Cavaliers' everyday lineup.
"It's been awesome, just to see those guys come in, and just continue to grow," King said of his sophomore teammates. "Not only as baseball players, but just as men."
"They all have another year under their belt, and have a lot more experience," said O'Connor. "They're more developed and consistent players than they were last year at this time."
Fisher -- who's hitting .315 with seven homers and 44 RBI in 50 games this season -- says a friendly competition has developed among the Cavaliers' sophomore class.
"When we're on the field, just to challenge each other," he said. "We can say anything to each other, whether it's to help each other out, or kid around with one another."
"If it's just hitting in the cages, everyone is trying to hit off the back of the net every time," Downes explained. "In the outfield, it's always a competition, who's trying to make the better play, the better throw."
"They have a good time with it," said O'Connor. "Obviously, we're here for business, and everything's serious. But they enjoy pushing each other and razzing each other. And it's all part of being on a baseball team."
Now those sophomores are on a baseball team that has already won 47 games this spring, and earned the third NCAA national seed in program history.
Virginia was eliminated in the regional round last year. But the second-year Cavaliers now have that postseason experience to take into this weekend.
"I know every one of them got a little taste of the postseason last year," King said. "And I'm sure they're chomping at the bit to get back in there this year, hosting again."
"Just to say that you've been there and done that already is something you can put on the resume," said Fisher. "But I think we've just got to prepare all the other guys, and prepare the team as a whole to, like I said, just kind of approach it as an everyday weekend. Because we've done this countless times."
"But it's just a little bit more relaxing, knowing the second time around," said Downes. "Because we're sophomores. So you'll be a little bit more inclined to know what's going to come."
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