Feature: First-year head coach Billy O’Conner talks about upcoming season
Photo courtesy of goxavier.com | First-year head coach Billy O’Conner takes over a Xavier team that has had a recent string of success, winning the Big East two years in a row.
The Xavier baseball team will hit the diamond this year fresh off an NCAA Regional tournament appearance, but this time it has a new face of the program: Billy O’Conner.
He enters his first full season at the helm of the Xavier baseball team as the seventh head coach in program history.
O’Conner is no stranger to Xavier as he has Cincinnati blood. The familiarity he has with the school stems from his enjoyment of Xavier basketball and the cherished moments he had growing up around the university.
“I’ve been a Xavier basketball fan pretty much my whole life. (My father) has had season tickets, and we’ve been coming to games since before the Cintas Center,” O’Conner said. “The affinity towards Xavier as a university and athletic department was ingrained in me early on.”
O’Conner followed in the footsteps of his father as they both graduated from Xavier, and now he now takes the reins of his alma mater’s team as a head coach.
O’Conner was a student athlete himself and played on the Xavier baseball team during the 2008 and 2009 seasons after transferring from Indiana University.
As a catcher, he was an integral part of a Musketeers squad that claimed victory in the 2009 Atlantic 10 Conference Tournament during his senior year. O’Conner was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player that year.
“Having the opportunity to come here and transfer in and play here for my junior and senior years, it was everything that I was hoping for in my college experience,” O’Conner said.
“I was so lucky to get the experience…It was a really special experience for me. It was everything I was looking for from start to finish, between athletics to social to academics to obviously going out and winning championships as well.”
O’Conner is now in his seventh season as a member of the coaching staff. He served as an assistant coach for the last six seasons before being named the head coach this year.
He feels comfortable and more at ease having the chance to take over a program that he has been a part of for the past several seasons.
“One of the easier parts of the transition is the continuity we’ve been able to have,” O’Conner said about the transition to head coach. “(I’m) pretty familiar with everything that goes on here, from the academics to the people that I interact with to just the layout of campus.”
Being promoted to the head coaching position, in O’Conner’s opinion, has also gone smoothly because of the rapport he’s developed with one of the assistant coaches, Nick Otte.
“He’s been here for nine years, and we’ve worked together for seven of those nine years,” O’Conner said. “To have a continuity between the two of us and how we’ve worked together really eased that transition.”
O’Conner has previous managerial experience with a collegiate-level team. In 2012, he was named the Joe Carbone Manager of the Year as the skipper for the Cincinnati Steam, a summer team that plays host to some of the nation’s top college baseball players.
The team plays in the Great Lakes Collegiate League with other teams spread out across Ohio, Michigan and Indiana as well as Canada. That year, he helped lead the Steam to a regular season title.
As the new head coach, O’Conner hopes to pass along many of the same experiences that he had as a player at Xavier to current members of his team.
“I feel like (the Xavier Baseball program) did so much for me and for my development,” O’Conner said. “Now, to be able to offer that same opportunity to guys in our program, to help them develop, to help them grow as men and really have great experiences, that’s pretty special for me.”
O’Conner inherits a Xavier squad that has outright won the Big East Conference for two consecutive seasons and three of the last four seasons.
This season, the Musketeers will once again play out a high strength of schedule with series against perennial tournament-caliber teams including Florida State, Louisville and Dallas Baptist.
“We always want to challenge ourselves in our nonconference schedule,” O’Conner said. “We talk about it a lot within our team, but we want to be a great program, and I think to be a great program, you have to challenge yourself against established great programs.”
One of O’Conner’s goals is to take this program to new heights and to establish it as one of the nation’s best.
“We want to be a national title contender,” O’Conner said. “We want to go to Omaha. We want to be on the national stage.”
O’Conner believes the best way to accomplish this is to take on strong opponents.
The Musketeers, however, are primed to take on the challenge. Xavier returns a bevy of talented starters from its lineup a year ago, particularly in the middle of the order.
Some important names to keep watch of this season are third baseman/designated hitter Conor Grammes, who is a preseason All-Big East selection and graduate senior outfielder Joe Gellenbeck, who has hit 25 homeruns throughout the past two seasons.
A pair of four-year starters in senior outfielder Will LaRue and senior catcher Nate Soria also provide a plethora of experience.
Junior infielder and three-year starter Chris Givin will also provide veteran experience this season.
While Xavier returns many experienced pieces to the lineup, one area where it will have to rely on some of its young talent in particular is with the starting pitchers.
Some notable players to be on the lookout for on the mound are senior right-handed pitcher Damien Richard and a trio of freshmen: southpaws Trevor Olson and Nick Zwack and righty Griffin Lanoue.
The Musketeers will look to start their season on a high note on Friday when they travel to Tallahassee, Fla., to square off against preseason No. 5 Florida State in a three-game series. The first pitch is set for 4 p.m., and the game will be broadcasted on ACC Network Extra.
By: Luke Feliciano ~Sports Editor~