May 5, 2010
Fundamentally sound baseball has the Hokies enjoying their best season in years

As he sits in his dugout and watches his team sprint onto English Field, fourth-year Virginia Tech baseball coach Pete Hughes knows he finally has something. He finally has the kind of team he envisioned when he first arrived in Blacksburg in 2007. And he finally has convinced others to believe what the 42-year-old Massachusetts native knew all along – that the Hokies could build a baseball program that could be a factor in the ACC and nationally.

It’s no secret that, when the Hokies joined the ACC for the 2004-05 season, they were farther behind in baseball than in just about any other sport when compared to their new conference rivals. The Hokies had been a very strong team in the Metro Conference, the Atlantic 10 and the BIG EAST, but their new baseball home brought about new challenges. Tech lagged behind its ACC peers in terms of its budget, its facilities, and most of all, its talent level. When it comes to baseball, the ACC is off the charts.

As proof, last year, 56 ACC players were drafted by Major League teams, including three first-rounders.

The league sent seven teams to the NCAA Tournament in 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2009. Six teams went in 2008.

Last year, two ACC teams made the College World Series. Three ACC teams went to Omaha in 2008. That’s three of the eight.

Tech’s administration has made a far greater financial commitment to baseball, including the renovation of English Field, and to Hughes’ budget. And this year, that investment is paying off.

The Hokies are ranked for the first time since 1992 and have series wins over Miami, Florida State and Georgia Tech this year, the latter pair on the road. With a strong finish, the Hokies can make their first NCAA appearance since the 2000 season.

“We knew baseball would take some time, but we knew we had the right guy in Pete Hughes,” Tech AD Jim Weaver said. “Pete’s been able to do a great job in elevating our program, and we knew he would. We knew we had to keep him when Washington called.”

Ah yes, the call from Seattle.

When the University of Washington dismissed its head coach after last season, the school looked to Blacksburg for a replacement, offering the position to Hughes.

“We felt that Pete was the guy to raise the level of our baseball program and when other schools are calling, that showed others felt the same way,” Weaver said.

Weaver responded by reworking Hughes’ contract and extending it through the 2014 season, and has agreed to continue the improvements to English Field. The new left field terrace area and a spacious indoor hitting and pitching complex are completed. A new field turf surface is coming.

When it comes to baseball, Tech might not have Miami’s weather, Florida State’s stadium or Clemson’s tradition, but what Hughes has is a confident, scrappy, well-coached, fundamentally sound baseball team. They advance runners, take the extra base, get the lead man out on force plays, and they’re clutch. Amazingly, the Hokies have hit five pinch-hit home runs already this season. In their recent three-game sweep of Boston College, the Hokies had 14 two-out RBI in the series.

“That’s what winning teams do,” Hughes said. “They believe they’ll get the hit with two outs. They believe they’ll figure out a way to score runs in the ninth inning. We scored 14 runs with two outs over the weekend. That’s amazing. We’re doing good things.”

They’re clutch and they have some talent.

Austin Wates from Richmond was named a preseason All-American by Baseball America back in February and the junior leads the Hokies with a .393 batting average, a .485 on-base percentage, 47 runs scored, 66 hits, four triples, 24 walks and 15 stolen bases.

Junior pitcher Jesse Hahn, who’s always been able to post great numbers on the radar gun, has shown great guts by pitching while battling kidney stones and a far greater level of maturity and confidence this year. He’s 5-2 with a 2.81 ERA this year as the Hokies’ primary Sunday starter. He’s been bothered by a forearm strain in recent weeks but can throw a mid-90s heater that baffles batters and impresses big league scouts at the same time.

Sophomore Mathew Price and lefty Justin Wright give the Hokies a solid three-man rotation, which has excelled during this spring. Closer Ben Rowen, a submarine slinger from California, has become a terrific closer, one of the best in the ACC. Sophomore Ronnie Shaban was the hero of the Georgia Tech week. Shortstop Tim Smalling, the transfer from Arkansas, is making play after play in the field and is second on the team in hitting. Senior Steve Domecus has bombed 10 homers.

The list goes on and on, but most of all, Hughes has a tight team. After all, many of the guys on this squad were part of the 2008 Hokies who set a school record for consecutive losses. That’s not the kind of history anyone wants to make.

But, two years later, many of the same players are having one of the greatest seasons in Hokies’ baseball history. That’s what makes them fun to watch, and a real ‘feel good story’ of Hokie athletics in 2010.

“We knew we had the talent and depth,” Hughes said. “But what I didn’t know was when we’d get over the hump mentally. When would our guys go into Tallahassee and believe they could win a series? Or go into Georgia Tech and believe they could win two out of three? That’s happened this year.”

When your best players, for example, a guy like Wates, have a team-first mentality, it rubs off on the other guys. You can see it how they approach each game and each inning. They are fundamentally solid, aggressive on the bases, possess solid starting pitching, have a terrific closer and display a confidence that they’ll find a way to win a game, regardless of who the opponent may be.

It’s been a decade since Virginia Tech played in the NCAAs, but this year’s team has an excellent chance to make it.

And if you see them in person, you’ll understand why. They’re fun to watch, play good ball, and reflect their coach’s get-it-done personality.

“This is why I left my hometown and life-time job security to come to Virginia Tech,” Hughes said. “I saw what happened here with softball. I saw what happened with golf. They got to the highest level and Jim (Weaver) said he wanted baseball to be next, and I believe him. We can do it here.”

Analyzing spring practice
I had the chance to sit down and talk about the recently concluded spring practice at Tech with head coach Frank Beamer. Beamer was most pleased with the attention to detail his players showed over the past four months since the end of the season.

“We are a better football team right now,” Beamer said. “I really like the direction we’re going in for the fall.”

The head man repeated a common thought that we heard from the coaching staff throughout the spring: Tyrod Taylor took a dramatic step forward, which is impressive considering the Hokies’ quarterback was really sensational over the final five games of the 2009 season.

“Tyrod had an excellent spring,” Beamer said. “He wants to get better and he’s doing that. He is a better quarterback now. He’s very much in control, and he’s very accurate with his throws. He’s throwing it with more zip, too. In every way, I’m really impressed with how Tyrod has gotten better.”

Who were some other notable offensive players this spring from Beamer’s perspective?

“Marcus Davis really stood out,” Beamer said. “He’s a big guy running down the field. Danny Coale, was very, very solid this spring. And Tony Gregory – he showed some real toughness and speed.”

And on the defensive side?

“John Graves is one of our leaders,” Beamer said. “Good player and a great leader. Steven Friday stepped up as a fast guy coming off the edge. And I think at inside linebacker, [Lyndell] Gibson and [Bruce] Taylor played very well. We have helped ourselves at that position.”

Beamer also praised the development of Eddie Whitley, who is replacing Kam Chancellor at free safety. The staff is impressed with how he’s making key calls from the secondary.

At the tackle spots, Beamer feels comfortable, but wants more depth. “We probably have three, but we need at least four,” Beamer said. “[Kwamaine] Battle and [Antoine] Hopkins played well, and we need Hopkins to keep playing hard on every play. He did that this spring, and that’s what he needs to do.”

One uncertainty is at kicker heading into August.

“We’ve got good kickers, but I don’t know if anyone has separated. [Chris] Hazley is probably the field-goal guy. We’ve had a senior step up in each of the past three years and maybe that will happen again. I hope he can have some success. [Justin] Myer is probably the most talented, but hasn’t been consistent. He’s probably the kickoff guy. [Tyler] Weiss, from Murray State, might be the extra-point guy. The verdict is still out, but Hazley probably has a slight edge as of now.”

It’s interesting to go back and watch the way the Hokies played in the final five games of last year. The defense was, of course, incredible starting with that ECU game. And the offense was amazingly productive in just about every category.

It was quite remarkable the number of big plays the Hokies made against some very talented defenses. Tech scored 37 points and put up 438 yards against a very talented Tennessee defense in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. The Vols had one of the SEC’s best defenses last year (fourth in the league) and allowed just 21 touchdowns all season in 12 regular-season games. So if the Hokies’ offense can take a step forward, as Beamer has suggested, that’s very promising for the 2010 season.

A nod to the Stew Crew
Special thanks to the crew from Brunswick County Stewmasters, who once again treated everyone in the athletics department and ISP to lunch on the Friday before the spring game.

The Stew Crew arrived outside the Jamerson Athletics Center at roughly 4 a.m. and began cooking their famous recipe in two gigantic 100-gallon, cast-iron kettles. By 10 a.m., the crowd of hungry coaches and administrators began to form in an area adjacent to Tech’s football practice field.

Stewmaster John Clary points out that, since the crew began this annual tradition in 1993, the Hokies have made a bowl game each year. So they’ve been good luck, too.

The crew from Brunswick County received help from Hokies near and far – from Blacksburg to Texas again this year—and we all thank them for sharing their amazing stew with us again and being part of this annual tradition.

This year, the Stew Crew invited me to help in the cooking process, which in essence, meant dropping thick sticks of butter and large bags of corn into the kettle, and stirring the thick stew with a gigantic paddle. What a thrill!

It was fun to put on the official apron, grab the gigantic paddle and take part in a Virginia tradition that goes all the way back to an 1828 hunting party on the Nottoway River.

Thanks for your hard work every year guys!

Hey Bill,

You always do an excellent job on your sports reporting, but I have to bust your chops on a non-sports item. In your March 30 Roth Report (and the one in the April magazine), you refer to Canadian geese. The correct term for the geese is ‘Canada’ geese since that is the name of the species and not the country of their origin.

Years ago, my ornithology professor at Virginia Tech clarified that for us since we also had referred to them as Canadian geese. Keep up the good work and Go Hokies! Edgar in Alexandria, Va.

Dear Edgar,

Thanks to you, and for Mike Carey in Charleston, W.Va., who also caught my ornithological misstep. You are both absolutely correct. It’s ‘Canada Geese.’ Those Canada honkers are quite impressive and it’s always fun to watch (and hear) them each spring.

Dear Bill,

Where do you think the Hokies will be ranked in the preseason college football poll? I’m hoping in the top five. I think as many as five ACC teams could be ranked (VT, Miami, FSU, GT and UNC). That’s four in the Coastal, which is pretty amazing. This could be the ACC’s best year ever for football. Mike in Melbourne, Fla.


I’m not exactly sure what everyone has coming back in the top 15 or so, but I will say this: the winner of the Virginia Tech-Boise State game will be in the top five when the polls are released the morning following the game. How’s that for dodging a question?

But if I had to guess, I would say Virginia Tech will be between No. 7 and No. 9 when the preseason polls are released in August. Georgia Tech, North Carolina and Miami should be ranked, too.

As for the ‘Noles, I’m with you there completely. Jimbo Fisher has created a new attitude in Tallahassee and I’m eager to see FSU’s early-season game at Oklahoma. If Christian Ponder can bounce back from his shoulder injury – and all reports are good in that regard – FSU has one big-time QB. The ‘Noles are the pick in the Atlantic.


After watching Bruce Taylor at linebacker and in the spring game, I’m starting to think that he has a chance to be one of our great linebackers. He is big and fast and seems much improved. Would he start over Barquell Rivers in the Boise game? Steve in Richmond.


The question is a good one, but probably has more to do with Rivers’ recovery from a torn quad than anything else. Rivers has some experience and has played well in big games, so we’ll see how he looks when he’s able to practice. Taylor, conversely, has never started a game, and Boise would be a heckuva challenge. But remember this: Barquell had never started a game when he came in and did a great job against Cincinnati in the Orange Bowl.

The bottom line is both are terrific linebackers, and I think we’re in pretty good shape at the mike linebacker position. When Barquell is back to 100 percent, it will be a tremendous position for Tech’s defense. Depth is a good thing.


Living in Ohio, I am surrounded by Ohio State fans. I heard a rumor that Tech will play Ohio State, but that the game is 20 years away. Hard to imagine how good the teams be when the players in the game aren’t even born yet, but is it true? Will the Hokies be coming to Columbus? Devin, Hokie in Dayton, Ohio.


Not a rumor. Virginia Tech and Ohio State have agreed to play a two-game series. Tech will play at Ohio State on Sept. 14, 2014. The Buckeyes will play in Blacksburg the following year on Sept. 19, 2015. So think of it this way: any freshman who redshirts for the Hokies or Buckeyes this fall would be fifth-year seniors in 2014. It’s not that far away!


If the Big Ten takes Syracuse, Rutgers and Pitt, what happens to the other Big East schools? Do they join the ACC? Where would they go? Pat in Alexandria, Va.


Now you know why athletic directors at some schools are stressing right now. Conference realignment has so many crazy twists and turns that it’s almost impossible to predict. At the end of the day, common geography and the association of like-minded institutions probably equals a successful and stable conference.


How serious do you think the coaching staff is about using Logan Thomas at tight end or wideout this year? It’s my opinion that he's too talented and too athletic to sit on the bench as a back-up quarterback. That would be a huge waste of athletic ability. Tech is not USC, and when you have five-star athletes like LT, you have to get them on the field as much as possible. That’s my opinion, but would be interested to hear your thoughts. Thanks, Adam in Arlington, Va.


Coach Beamer and his staff want to get the best players on the field, and there’s no question Logan is an amazing talent. If he’s the back-up quarterback, he still might play somewhere else for an occasional snap. He might even get a series or two at quarterback. Think long term: if Thomas is going to be Virginia Tech’s quarterback in 2011, then he needs to be spending time in quarterbacks meetings and getting as many reps as he can in practice this fall at the position.

Furthermore, please don’t underestimate Tech’s talent. I saw the USC Trojans play last year, and I’m not sure I’d trade Ryan Williams, Darren Evans, David Wilson, Jarrett Boykin, Danny Coale, Dyrell Roberts or even Marcus Davis. Would you?


What do you think of the idea of changing the ACC into three divisions for basketball and playing teams within your division three times? That would help the TV ratings (you would see UNC vs. Duke and VT vs. UVa three times each season, plus maybe a fourth in the tournament). Bigger rivalries, more exposure for the TV games equals more money. Rich in Chevy Chase, Md.


A columnist in South Carolina offered a similar thought last month. More so a scheduling pod, not a divisional alignment, where the TV attraction dictates the schedule each year. The Big East currently uses a similar philosophy in which its best teams always play twice. There is no question that, if television is calling the shots, they’d like UNC and Duke to play more than twice each year during the regular season. They’d like to see that game about eight weeks in a row in prime time. Is that fair to those teams? Of course not. But the Yankees play the Red Sox 18 times every year and it makes for great television ratings and marvelous theater nearly every time.

It will be interesting to see how this all plays out in the on-going ACC television negotiations.

More games? Probably.

More games between the top teams? That’s a dicey road to travel.

Would it be fun to see Tech and UVa play more than twice each year? Sure. And it would do well in TV ratings in the state and save money on travel for both schools. But that model might not work league-wide and certainly would further dilute the importance and significance of the regular-season standings, which are already watered down at present because of the unbalanced schedule.

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