Cory Van Dyke is a graduate of Manchester High School in Midlothian, VA. He worked for RVAGameBreak.com and the Village News covering local high school sports in the area. His work earned him the Rich Murray Journalism Scholarship which honors the top high school sports journalist in Virginia. A huge San Francisco Giants fan, Cory worked for their AA affiliate, the Richmond Flying Squirrels, this past summer as the primary datacaster. Cory is a freshman at Virginia Tech, majoring in multimedia journalism.
Sometimes in life ‘Plan A’ isn’t always going to happen as anticipated. It’s during those times when the true character of an athlete is tested.
For junior Connor Coward and redshirt junior Andrew McDonald, the 2016 campaign left a bitter taste for both, as each had their struggles on the bump. However, instead of dwelling in the past, both pitchers found refuge in the Prospect League over the summer to work on their craft.
As a member of the Butler BlueSox, Coward excelled, posting a 3-1 record in nine starts along with a 2.22 earned run average and 68 strikeouts in 56.2 innings pitched. McDonald found similar success with the Champion City Kings, holding a record of 2-5 in 11 starts despite a paltry 2.80 earned run average.
“It’s my second year playing there,” said Coward. “I absolutely love the organization. It’s one of the best run organizations I’ve ever played for. They fill the seats every night and the fans are great. Overall, I wanted to go back to the basics pretty much and just get my footing in a place where I know that I can succeed.”
“I had never met anyone from the area, but I showed up there and after going through the summer I have nothing but good things to say about the league,” McDonald added. “They treated us very well, there was very good competition especially amongst the pitchers. I thought it was a really good pitching league. The fan bases at every game were incredible. You were just hometown heroes to everyone who lived in the area.”
The Kings were located in Springfield, Ohio, about an hour away from McDonald’s home. This left the 6-6, 240-lb workhorse with a busy schedule, having to spend many hours throughout the summer just driving between home and the stadium, but he was committed to the cause.
“I stayed in my actual house which was about an hour south [of the stadium],” McDonald explained. “My mom was just really excited for me to come home and we just made it work. There were some times where I didn’t get home until 3:30 in the morning from road trips and I was tired, but it was fun and it became a part of my daily routine.”
After a strong start to the season in 2016 where he didn’t give up any runs in his first five appearances, Coward ran into some trouble down the stretch. The 6-0, 185-lb hurler was able to identify that his control faltered over the last half of the season and caused him the difficulties.
“I never ever, even in high school, had control issues as far as throwing too many balls,” Coward said. “I was really strong in the beginning and middle, but at the end of the year I started to struggle with my control. I would get behind then have to throw a 2-0 fastball down the middle that would get hit. I wanted to be able to throw consistent strikes. Not just consistent strikes, but locate all three of my pitches.”
As evidenced by his staggering numbers in the summer league, Coward fixed the control issues and intends to bring the same success into the spring season.
“I would just saying getting ahead, I know that is huge,” said Coward when asked about what he would apply from the summer league to Virginia Tech. “I don’t know the exact numbers, but I threw a majority of first pitch strikes in every one of my starts. Also, not trying to be too fine. I think what led to some of my struggles last year was that I was trying to be too fine. I was trying to hit that little spot in the bottom left of the zone rather than just putting it in there.”
Meanwhile, McDonald found his own motivation for the summer league, stemming from the Tommy John surgery that ended his 2015 season before it started and led to a disappointing 2016 season.
“It [Tommy John] was a very long process,” said McDonald “Not being able to play baseball when that’s all I’ve ever played, it was tough. Looking back on it I think it’s made me a better person and pitcher.
“I was coming off of Tommy John surgery last season and I wasn’t happy with how the season went. I felt like I wasn’t pitching up to my own personal abilities and I felt like I was just lacking and needed to really focus on developing as a pitcher. Getting my innings in, working myself out of jams, and stuff like that. I think my motivation this summer was honestly just fixing issues from the past season. I know I came back early from Tommy John and that might have been part of it or it might not have, no one really knows, but I just definitely feel like that was the driving force for this summer.”
Now with the entire team back on campus, it’s time for the Hokies to band together and fix the woes from last year. Upon their return to Blacksburg, Coward and McDonald have each had to shift their focus to balancing their academics (Coward is a Business Marketing major and McDonald a Mechanical Engineer) along with the off-season pitching workouts.
“We had a lot of different stuff this year,” explained Coward. “Coach Pinzino, our new pitching coach, came in and brought a lot of new stuff to the pitchers. We’re throwing 5-6 days a week with pitcher workouts, we’re lifting 3 days a week, so we’re doing stuff basically every single day of the week.”
While their roles on the staff aren’t determined until later on into fall ball, both Coward and McDonald are aiming to become weekend starters. After owning a 6.49 earned run average as a staff last year, the duo’s addition to the rotation could represent a major step in the right direction if they hold the form that they demonstrated in summer league.
“I know everyone looks at the numbers and we had a seven ERA which we know isn’t good, but it wasn’t because of a lack of talent,” McDonald said. “Our pitching staff works hard and takes pride being on the mound. The best way to describe it is that it was just one of those years where the ball didn’t roll our way.
“I think ultimately in the long run, last year will help us because no one wants to go back to that season. We can look at it and it can be a fire for us, saying we’re going to change it and get better. We all had our hardships and struggles, but we’re going to learn from them, get better as an individual, get better as a staff and get better as a team. That’s not Virginia Tech pitching, that’s not Virginia Tech baseball. We’re going to go out there and prove that was a fluke.”
With a fresh start and new expectations awaiting them, Coward and McDonald are ready for action and look to improve upon the tremendous strides they made in the summer.