Virginia's baseball team is one of the top-ranked squads in the pre-season, and if the season starts as scheduled Friday, Coach Brian O'Connor wants to be sure his team is challenged from the outset.
It's all with an eye on where they finish the year.
The Cavaliers, ranked No. 1 in the pre-season by Baseball America and other outlets, will be tested early in Wilmington, N.C., against three established programs.
Virginia is scheduled to play Kentucky on Friday, VMI on Saturday and UNC-Wilmington on Sunday.
"We needed to be challenged this weekend, and we will get every bit of that," O'Connor said. "The University of Kentucky has got a very good baseball program. They do a really good job. We always have tough, hard-fought games with VMI, and Wilmington was right here in our regional last year and they return 90 percent of their club and their entire pitching rotation. ... We need to find out where we're at."
The Cavaliers have been to the NCAA Tournament in each of O'Connor's 10 seasons, and twice reached the College World Series. Last season, they were swept out of the super regional round on their home field by Mississippi State, done in when their pitching staff was rocked for 17 runs and they uncharacteristically made seven errors.
The losses stayed with the team throughout the off-season, middle infielder Branden Cogswell said.
"I think after the super regional, being so close to Omaha, when we came back, we had the fire, the drive to get better knowing that we were so close," he said. "Really it brought us closer together."
The Cavaliers have a lineup stocked with proven hitters, including Mike Papi, whose .381 average made him Virginia's first ACC batting champion in 32 years; Cogswell, who hit .346 but missed the NCAA Tournament with a broken finger; and Joe McCarthy, who hit third all year as a freshman and batted .336.
The pitching staff looks just as stout, led by sophomore Brandon Waddell. He went 6-3 last season as Virginia's Friday starter, a spot typically reserved for the staff ace. To start the season, O'Connor will use sophomore left-hander Nathan Kirby as his Saturday starter, and sophomore Josh Sborz as his Sunday starter.
Kirby and Sborz both won Virginia player of the year awards in 2012 as high school seniors. The options behind them in the rotation include freshmen Connor Jones, the 2013 Virginia player of the year, and Jack Roberts, whose brother Will pitched the eighth perfect game in Division I history for Virginia in 2011.
Because of the way last season ended, the Cavaliers have placed added emphasis on pitching and defense this off-season. O'Connor said it's all with an eye toward building a team built for Omaha.
"What wins you the games is the pitching and defense and that's the constant that has to be there every day," he said, noting that it's especially true in the new CWS venue. The title series is played at cavernous TD Ameritrade Park, which yielded just three home runs in the CWS last season as light-hitting UCLA won the championship.
"You're humbled really quickly in that ballpark," O'Connor said.
The Cavaliers, never ranked No. 1 in the preseason before, said they are taking the ranking in stride. The players say they are eager to stop talking about it, stop scrimmaging against each other and finally play a game against another team.
"It's still," Cogswell said, "all about going out there and taking care of business."
Kentucky's pitching rotation set
■ Kentucky has set its weekend rotation of junior left-hander A.J. Reed (2-8, 4.04 ERA in 2013) on Friday, junior right-hander Chandler Shepherd (5-0, 2.77 ERA in 2013) on Saturday and sophomore righty Kyle Cody (3-3, 4.84 ERA in 2013) on Sunday, with Monday's starter to be determined.
Virginia is countering with sophomore southpaw Waddell (6-3, 3.96 ERA in 2013) on Friday, with UNC Wilmington starting junior righty Jordan Ramsey (6-6, 2.34 ERA in 2013) on Saturday and VMI using junior right-hander Andrew Woods (2-1, 4.58 ERA in 2013).
■ Kentucky will be meeting Virginia for the first time since 1906, a 7-2 win for the Cavaliers in Charlottesville. UK will be facing UNC Wilmington for the first time since a season-opening trip to Wilmington in 1996, a 6-3 UK win. The Wildcats have never faced VMI. UK will be facing USC Upstate for the third consecutive season in Spartanburg, posting a 6-0 win in 2012 and an 11-10 comeback win in 2013.
■ The Wildcats have played nine games against No. 1 ranked teams in Gary Henderson's six seasons as head coach. UK last topped a No. 1-ranked foe by claiming a series over No. 1 LSU, when UK was ranked No. 2, in 2012 in Lexington. UK has never faced a non-conference opponent that entered the game ranked No. 1.
■ Kentucky went 30-25 last season, including an 11-19 record in the Southeastern Conference. The Wildcats were ranked as high as seventh nationally in early April last season before slumping down the stretch.