Sometimes it’s best to keep things simple. After the Virginia Tech baseball head coaching position opened up, Whit Babcock knew this was the best approach to take. There were a number of qualities to look for in the new head coach, but being a winner was at the top. Babcock set his aim on Maryland coach John Szefc and delivered when Szefc signed on to become the 25th head coach in Virginia Tech history.
“It really wasn’t some mind-shaking interview or big pitch or anything like that,” Szefc said. “I had read an awful lot about Virginia Tech and about him [Babcock], and I would think he probably learned a lot about what we were doing in Maryland. It wasn’t like some big complicated thing from my perspective.”
One thing that has been apparent is the way that the Virginia Tech coaches in other sports back one another. Babcock has made a litany of hires since he took over as the Hokies’ Director of Athletics, and each coach has received an outpouring of support from the Virginia Tech community, including Szefc.
“When I met with Whit that Thursday morning, I drove back to Maryland and I was watching my 10 year old,” Szefc said. “He had a baseball game, and I was just standing by the fence watching. My phone just started ringing, and one of the first calls I got was from Frank Beamer. I was like, ‘Really? This is really Frank?’ It was him, and then it was Buzz Williams. It was really nice.”
Szefc was the perfect candidate to take over a Virginia Tech program that has struggled in the past. In fact, the Middletown, N.Y. native has been instrumental in turning around a couple of programs. Before Szefc’s arrival at Marist College, the Red Foxes had never made the NCAA Tournament. In his seven years as head coach, Marist made four NCAA Tournament appearances. Similarly, the Terrapins hadn’t made the NCAA Tournament in 43 seasons. However, in Szefc’s five seasons, he led Maryland to three NCAA appearances, including two Super Regionals.
Now in Blacksburg, Szefc’s hire has created positive momentum for a program that has been lacking some since the last NCAA appearance in 2013. Szefc is also aided by the new stadium renovations set to be completed before the start of the 2018 season. English Field at Union Park will now be fully upgraded and hold the luster of an ACC ballpark that it was once lacking. The question still remains, how does Szefc keep this positive momentum rolling?
“Just by having success,” Szefc said. “You have to take the players you have here and develop them, which we’re definitely doing. You have to have successful recruiting classes, which is pretty important moving forward. If you put the right product on the field in that venue, then that’s how you create momentum. It’s easy to support a winner. People want to support a winner. They don’t want to support a loser. It’s all about the product you put on the field.”
One of the main concerns for any new coach is the way he’s able to connect with and evaluate his players. Szefc has only been around the players for a couple of weeks now, seeing them in the weight room and training sessions. It can be tough to earn the trust of the team and put guys in the best position to win after only being around them for several months, but that is the duty that Szefc will be tasked with.
“This fall will be a little dicey as far as evaluating guys because we’re not super deep,” Szefc said. “It’s not that much different than if we were there [Maryland]. Still kind of learning guys and evaluating them a little bit more initially than if you were at another place and already knew what guys looked like.
“You can go off of video and what people say and what numbers are, but until you really watch them play and watch them operate, there’s still usually a lot of ‘What exactly are we looking at here? What do we have?’ So just being able to watch them operate on the field and in the weight room has been the best part of it.”
When one takes a look at the Hokies’ roster, the turnover with all of the 16 newcomers might immediately catch the eye. However, Szefc sees the roster in a different light. He’s excited about the opportunity to coach seven seniors and send them off on the right note.
“The one unique thing about this group is that there are a lot of older guys in the group who have been around a little bit,” Szefc said. “A guy like Sam Fragale. He’s a pretty mature guy who’s been around a lot, one of the better returning players. I think the blessing of this group is there are quite a few seniors in this group, which is pretty rare for college baseball. You usually don’t see that. I’d say he’s got some serious potential to direct a lot of traffic. I think several of those older guys do. Him, Tom Stoffel…Connor Coward has been one of those guys I talked to initially quite a few times.”
So how do you change the culture of a program and set them back on a course for success? There’s not one definitive answer, but Szefc has already started the process. On any of the Virginia Tech baseball social media accounts, the motto #BIIB has made its mark. #BIIB, or “Build it in Blacksburg”, has become the calling card for Szefc and the Hokies. It’s an adage to describe the cultivation process that Szefc expects to see in his players on all levels.
“A big part of that [#BIIB] is building a player personally,” Szefc said. “Why are you in this program? What do you expect to happen when you come here? Everybody wants to play at a major college program in a major college conference. But it’s not just about playing; it’s about the end product. How are you going to get to the end product that you want to get to? It’s not just about developing your swing, going from a 7.0 to a 6.6 runner, or having a good slider. It’s how can you deal with all the ups and downs you’re going to deal with? People aren’t usually patient in sports in general. They want to have immediate gratification or success. In this situation, it’s really not that way. You’re not just building the physical player, you’re also building the mental player in addition to building that whole ballpark. So there’s a lot of building going on here. Physical, mental, facilities, players, when you wrap that all into one, that’s where that phrase came from.”
A baseball player can have all the physical tools in the world, but if they don’t have the mental framework to put those tools into action, then they’ll never flourish. Therefore, Szefc puts an emphasis on developing the mental side of a player. In fact, he’ll bring in Brian Cain, a sports psychologist, for a few days to mentally train his players. Szefc brought in Cain while he was at Maryland, and he could quickly see the newfound confidence in his players following the sessions.
“So much is about the mental side of it, and if you’re trying to implement a certain system, a lot of that system is not about the physicals,” Szefc said. “It’s about the leadership stuff, about the mental side of things, dealing with failure, strengthening guys’ personalities. What is the expectation level? I can tell you what mine is, but what do you think as a player is going to happen? Normally what you think is going to happen usually does happen. That’s the part of it that we’ll start digging into in late September. The mental side of it, the mental preparation, what do guys expect is going to happen here in the short term. I’m not really worried about the long term, I’m worried about right now.”