By David Teel
8:31 AM EDT, June 15, 2011
The University of Virginia and Charlottesvile have fallen hard for Cavaliers’ baseball. It’s a match not even eHarmony could have imagined.
A decade ago, the sport was a wasteland at Virginia. The team was poor, support negligible, and administrators considered eliminating the program's scholarships.
The Cavaliers’ 2001 home finale against Maryland drew 533.
On Monday, a sellout of 5,050 shoehorned into Davenport Field to watch Virginia and UC Irvine play a winner-take-all game for a berth in the College World Series.
The Cavaliers rewarded the faithful with a memorable ninth-inning rally and 3-2 victory. In turn, the crowd lingered for nearly an hour to share the moment with coach Brian O’Connor, his players and staff.
Players did a victory lap around the field. Some climbed the right-field fence to greet fans in the bleachers. Tyler Wilson and John Hicks paraded a "We're Going To Omaha" banner.
"U.Va., U.Va.," the crowd chanted.
“It's amazing,” O’Connor said, “and I think there's something about our team, maybe our program, that our fans and the people in this community can identify with. I don't know what it is, but I'm sure glad that they're on our side, and I'm sure glad that they support us.”
That support was most evident in the three-game Super Regional against Irvine. Fans not only filled the stadium each day, but also returned en masse Saturday and Sunday after weather delays of 84 minutes and four hours, 18 minutes, respectively.
Monday’s weather was ideal, but the game started at 4 p.m., hardly a convenient time. Still, the joint was jammed.
This may sound sacrilege, but baseball may have surpassed lacrosse in the pecking order at Virginia.
Yes, Dom Starsia coached the Cavaliers to their fifth national championship this season, and yes, baseball is searching for its first. But consider this snapshot.
On Sunday, May 15, Virginia hosted a baseball game against Miami and a first-round NCAA lacrosse tournament game versus Bucknell. Baseball was moved to 11 a.m., because of approaching weather but still drew 4,700. Lacrosse started at 4:15 and attracted 1,705.
A snapshot to be sure, but undeniable evidence of baseball’s appeal.
Virginia sold out five of six NCAA tournament games this season, five of seven last year. Average home attendance for ACC contests this season was 3,655, and the smallest crowd for any game was 1,967 for a mid-weeker against Towson.
Last year, the Cavaliers ranked 19th nationally in average attendance at 3,125, according to the NCAA. Their previous best was 1,774 in 2007.
One more nugget: Of the eight Super Regional sites last weekend, only Texas and defending national champion South Carolina drew larger crowds than Virginia.
"I think if Coach O¿Connor and his staff are together for a long period of time, everybody will come to appreciate — maybe they already do, I hope so — that it¿s a special program," Irvine coach Mike Gillespie said after Monday's Game 3.
Indeed, seems everybody does.
Credit athletic director Craig Littlepage and his staff for raising the money to fund the program, O’Connor and his coaches for assembling an elite roster, and the players for not only performing well, but also appreciating the support.
“It’s special,” said junior Will Roberts, Virginia’s starting pitcher Monday. “It feels like every game, there are more and more people coming out to see us. The fact that we are doing it in front of them is awesome. I don’t think there is any way to describe the feeling that we felt. For us to win in this fashion in front of this packed house was awesome.”