Virginia Tech made a pretty big, as well as expensive, statement on Monday, when the school announced plans to completely renovate English Field at Union Park, as well as Rector Field House.
The $36 million project includes adding 32,000 square feet to Rector, as well as building one of nicest college baseball stadiums in the ACC.
Virginia Tech baseball Head Coach Pat Mason says that the investment shows that Virginia Tech means business when it comes to elevating the non-revenue sports.
“It helps sell our vision a little bit more,” Mason said. “You now have a tangible facility, it’s no longer, ‘This is what we want to do and this is how we want to accomplish it,’ but it shows a direct commitment from our department that we want to be great in our sport. From a recruit’s perspective, who wouldn’t want to see that type of facility? You don’t even have to answer the question or talk about if we’re committed to the sport of baseball. You see this facility and it’s just assumed. They mean business and they’re in it to win it.”
The new ballpark will have a seating capacity of 1,500, not including the terraced seating along the left field line. A new press box tower will include room for print, web, television and radio media, as well as four luxury suites that will be available for purchase. The team is also getting a brand new locker room on the ground floor of the Jim Weaver Baseball Hitting Facility, which is something that former Virginia Tech baseball player Andrew Rash says was desperately needed.
Rash, who played at Virginia Tech from 2010-2013, was named the ACC Player of the Week twice and was named to an all-regional team in 2013. Rash started 181 games at Virginia Tech and hit at least .315 in three of his four seasons.
Rash believes the new investments in Virginia Tech baseball will help the program take the next step.
“I think it will be night and day,” Rash said. “During my time there, I can’t tell you the countless recruits that coaches lost out on because we didn’t have a locker room at the field, we didn’t have a trainer in there or an equipment room there, or we didn’t have a stadium compared to other ACC and SEC schools. Kids went to other places to play in a stadium like the one we’re getting. I think it’s going to give Coach Mason the opportunity to not only recruit at a high level, but also go to a different level of recruit.”
“You can compete for the recruits that are going to the Virginias, the Carolinas, to the Clemsons, the Georgia Techs now, with a facility like that. Virginia Tech doesn’t have the history that those programs have, but we can recruit with those kids and you can tell them ‘You can come here and we can win and we can get that history. We can win conference championships, we can get to Omaha.’ It just opens up recruiting to a whole new level.”
The plans to renovate English Field and Rector have been in the works for quite some time, and Virginia Tech softball Head Coach Scot Thomas has already seen the planned improvements pay off on the recruiting trail.
“We’ve had drawings, renderings of the possibilities, the tentative stuff, nothing official, for quite some time now,” Thomas said. “We could go to a recruit and say, ‘This is what we’re going to have,’ and the kids get excited about that. We can’t recruit here and tell a kid it’s going to be 80 degrees every day, 365 days. They know it snows here and they know it snows when we’re trying to train.”
Thomas and Mason said they were heavily involved in the brainstorming and planning process, which was led by Senior Associate Athletics Directors Tom Gabbard and Chris Helms, and that their opinions were always listened to in meetings.
“We put together a list, me and John Ballein, our sport administrator, we put together a list of things that were real important and started from there,” Mason said. “You’ve got to give the companies that are bidding on it, they need to have some sort of thoughts as to what we’re looking for. We composed all that and sent it to them as, ‘This is what we want, these are the things that we want in it and this is what we’re looking to spend.’ Then they came back with their presentations in May.”
Thomas said that he tried to mold the softball portion of what Rector will become after Florida State, Kentucky and Alabama’s indoor softball facilities.
“We met with the architects over the last couple years, and I said, ‘This is what I want, this is what it looks like at certain schools, we’d like to mimic some of the things at this place and mimic some of the things here, this is what we like and don’t like.’ We had an opportunity to go in there and really self-design it, so to speak, and try to get the space we needed to, within reason.”
The new Rector Field House will benefit softball, track and field, soccer and lacrosse, which Head Coach John Sung is very excited about.
“There’s still a lot of unknowns, just because we haven’t seen what the inside is going to be,” Sung said. “From what I know, having a training room close, our locker rooms being close, having those things, it will just make us so much more accessible in our gameday experience for our athletes.”
The new Rector Field House will include a large throws area for track practices and events, training and video rooms, as well as halftime locker rooms for soccer and lacrosse. The softball portion will include four hitting cages and an infield where the team can practice during bad weather, which is something that has been an issue in the past for Thomas and his team.
“There’s been years where we’ve had bad weather, couldn’t get outside at all, we’d travel somewhere just to get onto an open infield where we could run some first and third plays, or whatever, the day before we’re playing our first game,” Thomas said. “We couldn’t even do it at all and that’s happened several years. Now, we don’t have to worry about that. That will become second-nature to us.”
All of these sports will have access to the facilities year-round, which Thomas sees as a tremendous benefit, especially in softball.
“The ability to train anytime we want to, where we’re not having to work with other teams, being in their way or whatever, is going to be great,” Thomas said. “It’s going to change our way of being able to train. It gives the girls the freedom to have their own place, feel like it’s their own and they can get their own work in. Let’s face it, there’s a lot of repetition to what we do and some of that happens outside of practice on their own.”
The new facilities at English Field and Rector Field House will put Virginia Tech on par with other elite-level programs in the country. Thomas said that as of now, Virginia Tech is one of four softball programs without an indoor facility.
“This one, when it’s built, will probably be the best in the league,” Thomas said. “That says something I think on our vision of getting it done right, instead of just propping something up and just kind of making do.”
Rash said that having state of the art facilities is more important in today’s recruiting landscape than it was during his recruitment.
“Kids nowadays, it’s not, ‘Hey, let me come to a program and let me help build it.’ They want to go to a program and play in a first-class facility and that’s now what Virginia Tech is going to have,” Rash said. “It’s not going to be, ‘Come to Virginia Tech and help build this program so that we can get a first-class facility,’ and that’s kind of how I came in. When I came in, it was ‘Hey, let’s build this program,’ and get it to where it is now.”
While a nice stadium or facility can’t make players better directly, it can bring in higher level talent, which is what Rush is expecting will happen.
“One thing I think you’re going to see is, you’re not going to see the player that comes there and takes two or three years to develop,” Rash said. “I think you’re going to see a player that comes in and contributes a lot as a freshman and be really good as a sophomore and junior. I think that’s going to be where it pays the biggest dividends.”
“The mound is still 60 feet and six inches from the plate. Our hitting facility is already there where we train a lot, our weight room and all that stuff, but the impact that it has recruiting-wise, it’s like going to your house every day,” Mason said. “If you have a beautiful home, you probably feel a little bit better about going to work, so this is where our players go to work every day. If they like where they’re going to work, you’re probably going to get a little more out of them in practice. It should boost morale a little bit.”
The worst part about the new facilities is that they won’t be ready until 2018.
“They just wish it was here now,” Sung said. “It’s something that’s needed. As it gets built, I think more excitement will happen. Right now it’s just a vision, but when it breaks ground this fall, it will be an exciting time for everyone.”