Today, the University of Virginia Cavaliers traveled to Nationals Park to be honored by the Nats. The team met with Ryan Zimmerman on the field and watched the game from the PNC Diamond Club. And leave it to Ryan to send them home happy with a walk off home run against the Marlins.
Last spring, Virginia competed in their first College World Series and captured the school's third ACC championship. They were 49-15-1 for the season.
Much of their recent success has been attributed to National Coach of the Year Brian O'Connor and his impressive recruiting efforts.
"They get some of the best kids in the country every year," said UVA alum Ryan Zimmerman.
"People want to go there. They're getting a little bit more popular throughout the whole country, not just on the East Coast."
Part of that popularity can be directly attributed to Zimmerman and his quick rise to the Majors, but the humble All Star would never take any credit, despite his recent $250,000 donation to the program.
"From a recruiting standpoint, it makes a world of difference," said O'Connor. "It proves to players that you can come to the University of Virginia and get better as a player, get your degree and be a Big Leaguer."
Ryan Zimmerman and Arizona third baseman Mark Reynolds are two of the program's most notable alumni in Major League Baseball, though dozens of O'Connor's players have been drafted in the MLB First-Year player draft.
"Anytime you have a player that plays for your program in college baseball and they ascend to the Major Leagues within 60 days after wearing your uniform, it's something pretty special," said O'Connor.
The fact that Zimmerman plays just a few hours from the university is also very helpful to UVA's program. It allows the team to travel up for games and for Ryan to make some offseason appearances in Charlottesville. In fact, the team scheduled a Charlottesville stop during their Winter Caravan this year, using Zimmerman's familar face in central Virginia to strengthen and grow the fanbase throughout that region.
"I think anytime you have somebody who grew up, or went to a school around here, it obviously helps because a lot of people are familiar with it," said Zimmerman. "A lot of people tell me how much they enjoy watching [the Nationals] - that it's nice to have a team other than the Orioles."
But Zimmerman is more than a familiar face with a penchant for making sparkling defensive plays and driving in runs. Both Zimmerman and Reynolds are good examples of the Cavaliers commitment to developing quality players who are also great people.
"Our coaches teach character and they preach it a lot," said UVA third baseman Steven Proscia, who signed with Virginia hoping to follow Zimmerman and Reynolds to the Majors.
"I watched him play a couple of games and I was like, 'I want to be like him.' So I knew [UVA] would be able to help me do that," Proscia continued.
Though he sets an example with his teammates here in the Nationals clubhouse, Zimmerman also continues to set an example for players in O'Connor's program as well.
"Ryan's got a lot of pride in his work. He's a great person. He deserves this. He worked so hard in college to make himself a better player and he deserves the success that he's having," O'Connor continued.
For Zimmerman, it was a good opportunity to congratulate his former team on all of their recent success, and to thank his coaches and alma mater with a dramatic walk off home run.
"They did allow me to get me where I am today, so to see them succeed and do well is nice," he said.