A young Virginia team unfazed by challenges and its more muted coach traveled cross country and defeated the best pitcher in college baseball and the nation's No. 1-ranked team — twice — on its home field.
The stingy Cavaliers succeeded by limiting opponents' chances, a novel approach on an NCAA regional weekend chock full of offense and beer-league softball scores.
"I felt like you couldn't get any more confident than we were, coming out of the ACC tournament," O'Connor told reporters Monday morning while awaiting a flight from Los Angeles International Airport, "and now to go out to California and do what we did and who we did it against, there's no question that the team believes in themselves and believes that they can accomplish anything.
"Looking back on it, it's proven to be a very, very good thing that we did get sent out here, other than our all-day travel back (Monday) and how exhausted we are."
The Cavaliers (46-12-1) are two wins away from their first College World Series appearance, after a lights-out pitching and defensive performance at the Irvine, Calif., regional last weekend.
Virginia will travel to Oxford, Miss., to face Mississippi in a best-of-three Super Regional this weekend. Mississippi won its regional Monday night with a 4-1 victory over Western Kentucky.
Though the Cavaliers would prefer to play at home, if they duplicate last weekend, it won't matter if they play in an airplane hangar in Walla Walla, Wash.
Virginia defeated San Diego State and presumptive No. 1 draft pick Stephen Strasburg in the opener Friday, then throttled consensus No. 1 UC Irvine on back-to-back days on the Anteaters' field.
The Cavs' pitching staff allowed just two runs in three games. Cavaliers pitchers struck out 23 and walked six. Opponents batted .210, and the Cavs played error-free.
Virginia got quality starts on all three days, beginning with Robert Morey. The sophomore from Virginia Beach threw six shutout innings versus Strasburg and struck out nine.
The next two days, freshman Danny Hultzen and senior Andrew Carraway limited a UC Irvine lineup that averaged 7.4 runs per game and had seven starters batting better than .300 to a combined one run and 10 hits in 14 1/3 innings.
"It was really incredible," O'Connor said. "To go out to a regional like ours and only give up two runs was really impressive. Along with that was the great defense that we played. We played tremendous defense behind those pitchers."
Pitching and defense provided a big cushion for the Cavaliers, who scored just 14 runs over the weekend, by far the fewest of any of the teams that made the Super Regionals. Thirty-five teams scored at least 10 runs in one of their regional games. Thirteen teams scored more runs in one game than Virginia did all weekend.
Florida State scored more runs in two innings of its absurd 37-6 win Sunday against Ohio State than Virginia did in Irvine. Elon scored more runs in one game than the Cavs did all weekend and lost — 17-15 to Southern Miss.
"I felt all year long that we had a really good ballclub," O'Connor said. "I just thought it was a matter of time before I got that bullpen figured out and that bullpen got confidence in itself, and I felt like once we did that, that we could really, really have a special club, and fortunately that's proven to be true."
Hard to say which is more remarkable — the Cavaliers' success with an everyday lineup that often consists of four freshmen and three sophomores, or O'Connor's approach to handling such a young squad.
Even O'Connor admits to being a bit surprised by his team's collective poise. The Cavs have won seven consecutive postseason games, all on the road.
"In the dugout in the past, in previous years, when things haven't been going our way, you could sense panic," O'Connor said. "You could sense frustration. The last two weeks, I haven't sensed that in our dugout at all. … It just seems like there's been an aura of confidence in our dugout that's something like I haven't had since I've been the coach here."
O'Connor, 38, is in his sixth season at Virginia and has built the Cavaliers into one of the nation's best programs. They are one of just 16 programs to reach the NCAA tournament each of the past six seasons, but this is the Cavs' first trip to the Super Regionals.
He has resisted the urge to micromanage such a young group and said he is more relaxed than previous years, probably due to experience.
"Maybe with a younger ballclub," he said, "I've kind of felt like I need to just let them go out and play. Maybe in the past with a more experienced ballclub, I've gotten frustrated and disappointed when you don't have success immediately within a game. With this younger team, I haven't screamed and hollered as much. I've just kind of let the game come our way, and this team has earned that. They've responded."
Dave Fairbank can be reached at 247-4637 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more from Fairbank, read his blog at dailypress.com/fromthetarpit.
Up nextWHAT: Best-of-3 NCAA Super Regional. Winner advances to College World Series in Omaha, Neb.
WHO: Virginia (46-12-1) at Mississippi (44-18).
WHEN: June 5-8 or June 6-8.