By Jeff White ([email protected])
CHARLOTTESVILLE – When Brian O’Connor arrived at the University of Virginia nearly two decades ago, the phrase “transfer gate” was not part of the lexicon of college athletics. The weather is changing.
“Now that’s obviously part of developing a program in any sport,” said O’Connor, who is entering his 20th season as UVA’s baseball head coach.
Look no further than Disharoon Park. Since the end of last season, the Cavaliers have added eight transfers, by far their most in an offseason under O’Connor. Virginia’s 36-player roster also includes 12 freshmen, meaning more than half the team is new.
“It was a little weird the first two days,” sophomore shortstop Griff O’Ferrall said Friday before UVA’s first practice. “I had to introduce myself to everyone I saw because it was more new kids than comebacks. It’s definitely a different feel, but this group has already mixed really well.
O’Connor said, “We’re doing everything we can to try to shape and integrate this group so that new players in the program can have a really good understanding of what Virginia baseball is about and what we have to do it on a day-to-day basis to be successful.
Some programs, O’Connor said, use the transfer portal “as their primary source of player acquisition. We won’t do that. It will always be an extra for us, depending on the needs. We’ve always been very proud of high school player development, and that was reflected in the Major League Baseball draft and our guys’ success in the draft. This will always be the cornerstone of our program. “
Five of the transfers are pitchers: right-handers Nick Parker (Coastal Carolina), Chase Hungate (VCU) and Brian Edgington (Elton) and left-handers Connelly Early (Army) and Angelo Tonas (Georgetown).
“We have guys on the mound, pitchers, who have a lot of experience in their previous institutions,” O’Connor said. “They’ve been there before. They pitched in NCAA regionals. They know what it is. They just didn’t wear our uniform to do it.
Resupplying pitching personnel was perhaps the Wahoos’ No. 1 priority this offseason. From a team that finished 39-19 after being eliminated at NCAA Regional in Greenville, North Carolina, UVA lost most of its battered arms. The Cavaliers collectively pitched 511.2 innings last season, and the pitchers responsible for two-thirds of those innings are gone, including Nate Savino, Brian Gursky, Devin Ortiz, Dylan Bowers, Paul Kosanovich and Matt Wyatt.
“We have a very talented group of first-year pitchers,” O’Connor said, “but when you can supplement that with guys on the mound who have experience, that’s valuable.”
The position players who transferred are Travis Reifsnider, who JMU used as a catcher, in the outfield and as a designated hitter, and outfielders Ethan O’Donnell (Northwestern) and Tommy Courtney (Pennsylvania).
Reifsnider, a graduate of Richmond Collegiate School, hit .303 last season and led the Colonial Athletic Association in slugging percentage and home runs. He was named to the All-CAA First Team.
O’Donnell hit .320 for Northwestern last season, with 24 doubles, 10 home runs and 39 RBIs. He was a second-team All-Big Ten selection.
At Penn, where he hit .299 last season, Courtney was a four-year starter in center field. (The COVID-19 pandemic ended the Quakers’ 2020 season after eight games.)
Courtney, who lives with Hungate, said her transition to a new town, new school and new curriculum is going well.
“It’s an adjustment, of course,” he said, “but I feel like I’m more mature, obviously, than going to college at 18, when I had Penn originally, so I was able to adapt a little quicker.
“All the programs run differently, so I’m just getting used to it. But it’s been great fun so far. The standards and expectations are pretty clear. I know what is expected of me every day, and that’s what I do. As an older guy, I completely understand that. It’s like that [O’Connor’s] program is executed, and that’s how it goes. I’m a big fan of it.”
Courtney is pursuing a master’s degree in educational psychology, with a focus on social foundations, at AVU’s School of Education and Human Development. Parker, who lives with Early, is in the same program.
When the transfers arrived on Grounds, Courtney said, they initially got close, “but, honestly, after two days of training, you start mingling with everyone. By the time we start training and training with the team, everyone is starting to fit in well.
Parker said: “Everyone here has done a really good job including transfers, freshmen, new guys. Everyone sees what we have to do and sees that everyone is important. We have need everyone to play meaningful innings if we’re going to have a chance of finishing in Omaha.
Like position players, pitchers who transferred brought strong credentials with them. Parker comes from a Coastal program that won the College World Series in 2016, a year after UVA was crowned NCAA champions. Like the Cavaliers, the Chanticleers were sent to the East Carolina-hosted NCAA Region last season. Parker didn’t pitch either of Virginia’s two games with Coastal in Greenville, but he put on a show at the regional.
Against top-seeded ECU, Parker pitched eight scoreless innings and struck out a career-high 10 batters in Coastal’s 9-1 win. For the season, he went 6-3 with a 4.45 ERA.
At Elon, Edgington started 15 games and was 6-4, with a 3.56 ERA. He was a second-team All-CAA.
Hungate made 21 appearances for VCU last season, all out of the bullpen, and went 6-4, with a 3.57 ERA. Two of those appearances came against UVA, which split its two games with the Rams, who went on to win the Atlantic 10 title.
Tonas made a team-record 30 appearances for the Hoyas, all out of the bullpen. Early, who like Reifsnider hails from the Richmond area, was honored as the Patriot League’s top pitcher. He was 7-4 with a 3.26 ERA, struck out 88 in his 85.2 innings, and helped Army win its fourth straight Patriot Championship.
During the NCAA Region in Greenville, Parker said Sunday he had no idea he would end up playing for the Cavaliers. “I kind of walked into the portal without knowing anything, but seeing them play there definitely had a big impact on my decision.”
After four years at Coastal, starting over at another school “was unique for me,” Parker said, “and that was one of the experiences I wanted to have, to be able to see how another place handles things. And I think Coach Oak has been great, to me it seems like he always has a plan in place every day we’re there, and how all of his posts have reasoning behind them.
In 2021, the Hoos qualified for the College World Series for the fifth time in program history, and “I came here because I think we have a great chance to get back to Omaha,” Parker said. “That’s the point.”
Pitching coach Drew Dickinson is set to replace two of his weekend starters last season — Savino and Gursky, who started his college career in Southern California — and that played a part in Parker’s decision to become Rider.
“I wanted a place to have a good opportunity to come in and compete for a spot, and I thought it would be a good fit,” Parker said.
It’s not unusual for Virginia to bring in a dozen freshmen, but “I don’t play at signing 20 new players every year,” O’Connor said. “It’s kind of an anomaly. We’ve lost a significant number of guys to professional baseball, on the pitching side, so a bit of that must have happened. We won’t lose that many after this year, therefore the retention will be better.
The Hoos entered last season with five new transfers, all pitchers. None arrived in Charlottesville with a dazzling resume.
“I would say last year the band was sort of the one that wanted opportunities and really didn’t get a lot of opportunities. [at previous schools]”, O’Connor said.
Gursky, for example, pitched just 30.1 innings for USC in 2021. He pitched 70 innings for UVA last season and was a second-team All-ACC.
The Cavaliers’ new transfers, on the other hand, “were guys in the schools where they come from,” O’Connor said. “They were all actually very successful players at their previous institutions.”
Plus, O’Connor said, they fit well into the culture he built at UVA, where his record is 789-338-2.
“If you always bring the right kind of people, it doesn’t matter if they’re 18 or 22,” O’Connor said. “If it’s the right kind of people – and that’s determined in the recruitment process – then your culture will always be great.
“I thought last year we had a great culture and we had a number of transfers [on that team]. We have a few transfers in our program who have been very successful before in very good programs, and they are great kids who are great students. You can’t take just anyone, they still have to fit into your organization, and you have to feel like they’re the first guys on the team, and I feel the same way about all of them .
“Some of these guys in two weeks with us have become leaders of our team. Because they’re 22 and they have experience, they’re not afraid to say something because they know what to do.
Even before the arrival of O’Donnell, Courtney and Reifsnider, UVA had an exceptional group of position players, including O’Ferrall, Kyle Teel, Jake Gelof, Casey Saucke, Ethan Anderson and Colin Tuft. The big question mark heading into 2023 will be Cavaliers pitching.
Of the team’s returning pitchers, only Jake Berry (56.1), Jay Woolfolk (37.2) and Matthew Buchanan (28.1) pitched more than 20 innings last season.
“We’ll just have to use the fall and preseason to figure out who the guys are and what roles they’ll have from a pitching perspective,” O’Connor said. “We have a completely revamped pitching team.”
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