New York Yankees great Derek Jeter once said, “There may be people that have more talent than you do, but there’s no excuse for anyone to work harder than you do.” For Virginia Tech baseball, redshirt sophomore Jack Owens has come to epitomize that quote in his first year as a member of the Hokies.
The proof can be seen in Owens’ otherworldly batting numbers through the first 35 games. The infielder is batting .368 with a .434 on base percentage and 57 hits. In fact, his 57 hits are the second best mark in the nation, only behind Mississippi State’s Ben Rooker who has compiled 58 hits. Owens credits his success to a bulldog-like mentality at the plate, refusing to go down without a fight.
“Mentally, it’s finding a way to compete at the plate,” said Owens. “A lot of people are better hitters than me and can hit the ball further and all that, but I’m up there dying to find a way onto first base. Whether it be making the other team make an error or hitting a gap shot, it doesn’t matter to me.”
Head coach Pat Mason pointed to a determined approach that Owens carries to the dish that sets him apart from other hitters on the team and in the league. An approach that is beaming with confidence, believing that he will get the job done no matter who is on the mound.
“He’s really confident,” said Mason. “It’s interesting because he’s sort of a low key guy. He’s got some energy and he’s got good relations with everyone on the team. I think he’s got a pretty good sense of humor and all that. When he gets in the batter’s box, he just becomes a really confident athlete. It’s comfortable for him. He doesn’t press. He just sees the ball and hits the ball, as simple as that sounds. He makes great adjustments. He could look bad on one pitch, and that very next pitch is all a sudden a ball driven into the gap. The biggest thing he does, especially hitting wise, is just the extreme confidence in his ability to hit.”
It hasn’t always been a bed of roses for Owens, however. The Burke, VA native started his career at East Carolina University and saw limited action, appearing in only two games and getting three plate appearances. Owens decided to look elsewhere and transfer to a different school. Playing for the highly touted travel team, the Evoshield Canes, in high school, Mason actually had recruited Owens before he decided on ECU. Because of this, the Hokie coaching staff had already done their homework on Owens and knew he would be a perfect fit.
“We got the release from East Carolina, and me and my parents sent it to a lot of schools, kind of keeping our options open,” Owens said. “One of the first calls was Coach [Ryan] Connolly. He called and was immediately excited saying, ‘We need an infielder and we need you.’ I knew right then it was in-state and my mom went here so we had some familiarity with the school. It was where I wanted to be. It wasn’t a hard decision for me.”
However, that was only the start of the process for Owens. According to NCAA transfer rules, he was required to sit out the 2016 season. For a guy who grew up playing baseball all the time, whether it was back in little league or in summer travel leagues, Owens had to deal with the fact that he couldn’t lace up the cleats and step on the diamond during the season. It was a helpless feeling as all he could do was watch as the Hokies struggled to a 19-36 mark in 2016.
“Last year was one of the hardest years of my life with having to sit out and watch the season unfold in the unfortunate ways that it did last year,” Owens said. “Everything happens for a reason. God had a plan and my parents always told me that they were behind me no matter what I did. I really wanted to find a place to play that fit me the right way and Virginia Tech was it. I knew that spending a year sitting out was worth it for this school.
“It’s all one big melting pot of things that you have never done. I hadn’t taken a day off from baseball since I was probably 10 years old and had to go to basketball. Again, my parents told me that they had my back and the coaches reassured me. I felt like I was family the second I walked through the doors here. Understanding and knowing that I made a huge jump and had to sit back a year, it was tough but everyone had my back and it’s good now.”
When faced with moments of uncertainty in life, people can either choose to fold under the pressure or they can use it as a learning experience to better the future outcomes. Owens chose the latter, using the year off as a time of reflection to prepare him for the current moment.
“It taught me that life is bigger than baseball,” said Owens. “It gave me that time to step back and really think about, ‘Is this what I want? Is this what I want to spend my time doing?’ And it really was. That’s what I feel a big part of the success this year is. I believe that I have been through a lot more than freshmen coming in or even people in my grade. I’ve had to switch states, make new friends, a whole new school. For me, I’ve been through the worst part of it. Now I just get to finally play and have fun.”
Owens began the year batting in the ninth spot of the order, but the coaching staff quickly took notice of the impact he had each time he stepped to the plate. He was moved to bat lead-off and has manned the top of the order ever since. During his time in the lead-off spot, Owens has become the prime example of a table setter, as he’s second on the team with 38 runs scored (Ryan Tufts leads the way with 39 runs).
“I love batting first and I think that I can get on base more than I can get out,” Owens said. “I truly believe that my personal on base percentage should be above .500. I work my tail off trying to get on first base any way possible. It’s been working out pretty well. Getting Sam [Fragale] some RBI’s and Tom [Stoffel] some RBI’s and all that.”
“We value that and would want all of our nine hitters to have that same mindset- anything you can do to get on base,” said Mason. “The rest of the things will take care of themselves, whether they’re home runs. Jack is trying to get on base and all of a sudden they miss with a fastball in, he turns on it and it’s a home run. He’s not trying to hit a home run, those just happen to come. Sam has a similar approach right now, but that mindset is great. The fact that he knows that if he can get on base, he’s creating havoc for opponents is a badge of honor for him.”
While the statistics speak for themselves, it hasn’t always been Owens’ numbers that have done all the talking. For much of the 2016 campaign, Tech was lacking an energy from their players. Owens has become the metaphorical Energizer bunny for the Hokies in 2017.
“I try to bring a fire every day,” Owens said. “I’m sure many of my old coaches and coaches now would say that sometimes it can be a negative if things aren’t right, but I really work on trying to keep that positive and have everyone be fired up. Sometimes it might rub people the wrong way, but it’s all meant in good health. It’s meant to be a good thing. I try to fly around and make things happen. Show opponents that Tech is not a place you want to come play.”
Mason sees Owens as the source where the other guys in the lineup draw their motivation. When they see him fight off a couple tough pitches before lining a hit up the middle, it inspires the team a little more.
“It’s more of a performance energy than anything else,” said Mason. “He can get fiery. He plays with a little bit of a chip. He definitely has that element for sure. You can look at him and draw a little bit of energy, but most of his energy is a performance energy. You see him succeed, maybe it’s against a great pitcher, maybe it’s on a day where we’re a little sluggish, and he just sets the tone for the rest of the lineup. It’s two-fold. He does it with his personality, but more so in doing it with his performance. We say where he goes we go, and guys definitely draw from both of those sides.”
So how does Owens keep up his success in the batter’s box? While he’s been consistent all year long, Mason wants to continue seeing him have a locked in mentality that isn’t focused on any accolades or accomplishments, but just the pitch at hand.
“Just pitch by pitch, keeping it simple,” Mason said. “He can’t look at the end of the year. He can’t try to say, ‘Okay I have this many hits, I want to get to 90 or 100 hits.’ He needs to focus in the moment and try to get the next hit or get on base however he can. If he can stay in the moment and he can focus his goals to be short term, then that’s how he’ll succeed in trying to maintain this long term.”
Tried and tested through adversity, Owens carries an unwavering energy and fight with him as he leads the Hokies into battle throughout the rest of the season.