The Atlantic Coast Conference no longer has to hear how long it has been since it last won a College World Series title, thanks to Virginia’s 2015 run to the crown.
Now, league favorites Louisville, Miami and the Cavaliers are hoping ACC fans don’t’ have to wait another 60 years before another league team lifts that trophy in Omaha.
Virginia coach Brian O’Connor said the plan when he arrived 12 years ago wasn’t focused on winning it all, just building a consistent winner.
“Wouldn’t you know it, 12 in it, we’re rewarded with a championship,” he said.
Louisville was picked as overall ACC champion by league coaches, outpointing Florida State in the Atlantic Division. Miami, a CWS participant last year, was voted tops in the Coastal Division ahead of Virginia.
All 14 ACC baseball schools, including Notre Dame, open the season on Friday. Syracuse does not field a baseball team.
O’Connor understands there’s no guarantees of repeating or even making it back to the College World Series. Not with so many talented ACC teams to chase down the Cavaliers.
“To sit there and say, ‘Hey, we’re going to do everything to win a national championship.’ That is so far down the road, we can’t even think about that right now,” he said.
Virginia certainly has the firepower to do it again. The Cavaliers return seven of nine position players from last year’s championship club, along with ace starter Connor Jones, who was 7-3 with a 3.18 ERA in 18 starts.
Louisville, which won a record 25 conference games last season, is just as loaded this spring. It’s pitching is led by senior Kyle Funkhouser, who is 26-9 in his career and turned down a contract offer from the Los Angeles Dodgers as the 35th overall pick to return to college.
“When Kyle Funkhouser comes back, it definitely increases your chances of going to Omaha and winning a national championship,” Louisville coach Dan Mc
Funkhouser and the staff are backed up by closer Zack Burdi, who went 6-1 with nine saves and a 0.92 ERA in 20 appearances last year.
Outfielder Corey Ray should provide Louisville’s pop. He hit .325 a year ago with 11 homers and 56 RBIs. He also stole 34 bases.
Some things to watch in the ACC this season:
MIAMI’S STREAK: The Hurricanes won 50 games last year and extended their own college baseball record by qualifying for the NCAA tournament for a 43rd straight season. Miami has not missed the NCAAs since 1972 and should be a sure bet not to do it again this year.
CLEMSON CHANGE: The Tigers changed coaches for the first time since 1993, replacing longtime leader and Hall of Famer Jack Leggett with Monte Lee. Leggett led the Tigers to six College World Series appearances, but none since 2010. Lee took the College of Charleston to the NCAA tournament four times in seven season, including the Super Regional in 2014.
NOTRE DAME LEGACIES: If the Irish go places this year, the pedigrees of a couple of players could be a big reason. Infielder Cavan Biggio is the son of MLB Hall-of-Famer Craig Biggio while outfielder Torii Hunter Jr.’s father Torii Hunter was a standout player for several big league clubs. The younger Hunter, also a receiver on Notre Dame’s football team, expects to see his first college baseball action this spring.
WOLFPACK ARMS: North Carolina State has perhaps the most experienced starting rotation in the league in Brian Brown, Joe O’Donnell and Johnny Piedmonte. Brown and O’Donnell each went 7-3 last season with ERAs under 3.00. Brown and Piedmonte each made a dozen or more starts while O’Donnell is moving up from the bullpen.
RISING WAKE: Wake Forest, which won the CWS in 1955 as the league’s previous champion before Virginia, has taken a back seat in the conference in recent years. 2016 could be different with the potential production it has in third baseman Will Craig and outfielder Stuart Fairchild. The two combined for 141 hits, 18 homers and 99 RBIs last fall and figure to turn that up this season as the Demon Deacons look to make their first NCAA Tournament since 2009.