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Resilient Cavs roll into NCAA tourney

The image remained in Virginia players' minds throughout the offseason.

Even as the Cavaliers watched nine of their team members drafted in June, the picture they couldn't forget was of the Oklahoma Sooners piling on top of one another on Davenport Field, seconds after they'd beaten the Cavs in the super regional and earned a ticket to the 2010 College World Series.

"Watching Oklahoma dog-pile on our field is something that's stuck in all of our minds," All-American junior pitcher Danny Hultzen says. "That added to our fuel this year. We're doing our best to make sure something like that doesn't happen again."

This season, the Cavaliers held the nation's No. 1 ranking from March 29 through May 21. They finished the regular season with a 45-9 overall record and a 22-8 mark in the ACC before winning the ACC tournament championship this past weekend, earning a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament and home field advantage for this weekend's action.

By losing only one league series all season, Virginia became the first ACC team to win nine conference series in back-to-back seasons. The record also placed them in elite company nationwide -- among the five major baseball conferences (ACC, Big 12, C-USA, Pac-10 and SEC), only four teams had just one series loss -- Oregon State, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia.

Perhaps most impressive is not the Cavaliers' stat line but the collective performances that pieced together their season. After last June's draft, Virginia lost its entire starting outfield, starting catcher and several key pitchers, leaving many questions over whether it would repeat the success of the previous two years.

"We knew that we were going to lose a lot of our big guys, mainly on offense, so it was a question of who'd come back from the summer bigger and stronger?" pitcher Will Roberts says. "But every year that I've been here, we've had guys step up that we didn't think we were counting on."

UVA head coach Brian O'Connor, named the ACC Coach of the Year for the second consecutive season, agreed.

"We lost a lot of talent from last year and coming into the season, there were a lot of question marks on who'd fit into what roles," O'Connor says. "But there were many players [who] were waiting their turn. Our shortstop Chris Taylor played very little last year, but he's a very good player. Players like John Barr, David Coleman and Kenny Swab, who maybe hadn't been everyday players in their career -- this was their opportunity to make their mark. And they're certainly doing that."

Case in point: UVA's first-round ACC rournament win over Wake Forest on May 25, in which UVA's four through six hitters -- Steven Proscia, Jared King, Swab and Taylor -- combined to go 9-for-12 (3-for-4 each). Following the ACC championship game, a 7-2 win over Florida State, Proscia was voted the tournament's MVP, racking up a stat line of 7-for-16 (.438) with five extra-base hits and five RBIs. Taylor and Swab joined Proscia on the all-tournament team.

The Cavaliers' success has been marked by both consistency and resiliency -- not from defeat but from close calls, like their last regular-season home series against Miami. Virginia started Hultzen in the series' first matchup. But the ACC Pitcher of the Year for the second consecutive season -- the first player in conference history to ever claim back-to-back titles -- struggled in the first inning as Miami scored five runs. Still, Hultzen would go on to pitch six more innings (all scoreless) as the Cavs struggled offensively and ultimately lost the game, 6-2.

Rather than focus on the loss, starters Tyler Wilson and Roberts -- then both undefeated on the season -- came out the next two days and delivered near-flawless performances, as Virginia took the last two games. The Cavs headed to Chapel Hill for the regular season's final weekend, where they suffered their only series loss of the year, a sweep at the hands of North Carolina.

"There have been times this year when we've fallen down by three runs, and they haven't panicked at all," O'Connor says. "I wish their coach would take on the way they carry themselves because I can tell you that sometimes I'm not feeling that way. There's no quit in them. They're very calm and confident that they'll do what it takes to be successful."

Hultzen, a projected top-10 draft pick who was also drafted out of high school, has anchored the starting rotation. Posting a 10-3 record and a 1.59 ERA, his 136 strikeouts lead the conference and rank second nationally. The junior left-hander owns a 30-5 career record for an 85 percent win percentage -- the most victories in UVA history -- and also owns the Cavalier's record in total strikeouts.

Senior starter Wilson is a perfect 7-0 on the season with a 2.41 ERA. And on March 29, Roberts, who graduated from Virginia in three years with a degree in economics, pitched the first perfect game in Cavaliers' history. He recorded 27 straight outs and threw 98 pitches against George Washington to earn the second perfect game in ACC history and the first in Division I baseball since 2002. He's currently 10-1 on the season with a 1.78 ERA, and both he and Hultzen have been named semifinalists for the Dick Howser Trophy, which honors the top player in college baseball.

Offensively, the Cavaliers have dominated as well. Junior catcher John Hicks, who ranks in UVA's all-time top-10 in hits and is currently batting .338, is a semifinalist for the Johnny Bench Award. Proscia, who is tied with Hicks in leading the team in plate appearances with 237, is batting .333 with 79 hits.

Fans, too, have continued to notice the Cavaliers' success. At the start of the regular season's final week, UVA was 18th nationally in attendance at a total of 95,356 (a Cavalier regular-season record). Virginia averaged 2,979 attendees per game, which is 20th in D-I. Its season high was the last game against Miami -- 4,700 fans-- and they had 14 home games with crowds of more than 3,000. Like last year, UVa continued to add seats at Davenport Field, including an additional 249 behind the right-field wall before the Miami series, which officially grew the stadium's capacity to more than 5,000. For the upcoming regional series at Davenport, UVA media relations reports that over 2,500 ticket books have been sold.

"It's been incredible," Proscia says. "When I was a freshman, we'd get maybe a couple hundred fans for a game. Now we're getting 2,000 fans for a mid-week game, and the [Miami series] we've been selling out. It's great for us because we go out and have our fans behind us, and it's a better environment to play in."

Continued success has almost meant high postseason expectations, which has been a bit of a roller-coaster ride for the team in the last two years. "In Omaha in 2009, no one expected anything from us, so we took that and played free and easy because we didn't put any pressure on ourselves," Hultzen says. "Then these past two years [in the regular season] we've been the guys with the targets on our backs. But that hasn't changed the way we've played -- whether we're No. 1 in the nation or No. 300, we know we still have to go out and play hard."

O'Connor said that during the team's inaugural week as the No. 1 ranked club this year, he acknowledged the placement and congratulated the team. But after that initial discussion, he didn't dwell on the ranking nor revisit the topic, even as their top ranking continued for eight straight weeks.

"We all know that our end goal is to get to Omaha and win," Hultzen says. "Sometimes when we break the huddle, we yell -- '1,2,3, Omaha!' But at the same time, we know that we only get there one day at a time. We have to focus on the task at hand, and that's been everyone's mindset since day one. Taking it day by day -- and eventually reaching our goal of Omaha."

Anna K. Clemmons is a writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine.

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