John Szefc and his staff enter their second season in Blacksburg after collecting a record of 21-33 (8-22 ACC) in 2018.
Virginia Tech baseball saw the complete renovation of English Field at Union Park last year to bring the facilities up to par with other programs in the Atlantic Coast Conference. It’s all part of the commitment that athletics director Whit Babcock made to the baseball program.
As the fall semester came to a close, the team is gearing up for the beginning of the 2019 season when students return after break, as Szefc continues to build the culture of Hokies baseball.
“The building process doesn’t happen in 12 months. It happens in more than 12 months,” Szefc said. “The whole culture thing comes by constantly hammering in with the players how things have got to be.
“I’m not just talking about on the field, but making sure guys are in class, having a certain academic standard, and how guys dress, and act, and talk, and treat people. It’s everything rolled into one.”
Szefc knows that results aren’t just determined with what happens on the field, but the vast majority is predicated on having a solid foundation in all aspects off the field. Those players who have a solid support system around them, understand the maturation process, and never get too high or too low emotionally are typically the ones who find success between the lines.
“Understanding that it’s not just about hit, pitch, throw, catch. A lot of it is about that, but it’s about making sure guys are fitting in OK,” Szefc said. “It’s not just, ‘Hey, I’ll see you out on the field at practice at four.’ It’s everything else so that when they show up at four, they’re in the right place physically, mentally, and academically. If their life is clean and they’re in good shape before they get on the field, then the field will normally take care of itself. If their life is a zoo before they get out there, then usually that becomes a zoo too.”
Part of the culture that Szefc is trying to build is dependent upon the newcomers to the program. If they buy into what Szefc is preaching, that helps all functions of the team operate like a well-oiled machine.
“My big thing is that I want you to know as an incoming player what you’re stepping into,” Szefc said. “If you know 95 percent of it, when you get here your transition is going to be smoother. If we’re not upfront with that and don’t explain it to them, then they get a whole bunch of surprises thrown at them when they get here. That’s when you have tough transitions and problems.”
Hitting coach and recruiting coordinator Kurt Elbin echoed a similar sentiment. In his role with the recruits, he’s also attempting to build the culture before the players even step foot on campus.
“The next step, and no one can see this, to me is getting the culture right,” Elbin said. “Getting the right guys in here to buy into a culture that allows them to be successful. That’s it. Yeah, we want to make the tournament, we want to go and play in a regional, and advance and all those things. Those are goals we put forth, but none of those things get accomplished if the right guys aren’t in that locker room that set the culture. I think it was about getting new blood in here that we can mold and kind of push the culture in the direction we want.”
While the Hokies certainly have a significant amount of new blood in the program with 23 newcomers (whether freshmen or transfers) this year, there’s one key addition to the staff that’s helping the team in more ways than his title may suggest.
Strength and conditioning coach Brian Neal joins Virginia Tech after spending the last eight years at Mississippi State. While in Starkville, the Bulldogs made the NCAA Tournament seven times, the Super Regionals five times, and the College World Series twice.
“He’s helped tremendously. Not just bigger, faster, stronger, but that’s a big area where culture does get built from a guy like Brian,” Szefc said. “He has a very good talent in that he can be firm with guys, but also be fair with them. He’s got firmness, but he’s got compassion I think too for the ups and downs that a Division I athlete can have. It’s a feel thing. I think it’s an intangible thing that he has.”
No coach for Virginia Tech has had a stranger three years than pitching coach Ryan Fecteau. In 2017, Fecteau coached the pitching staff at Maryland for the first time after six years at Bryant. Fecteau followed Szefc to Blacksburg for the 2018 season, and he’s practically entering another first year at Virginia Tech with all the turnover that the team experienced. It’s given Fecteau a new perspective on how he needs to adjust his coaching.
“The last three years has been kind of weird,” Fecteau said. “It’s like I’ve been working with a new group for three years in a row. Trying to pull some things that I like and what worked, and maybe get rid of some things that didn’t work. I think the guys who returned were really hungry, too, to start over. We’re trying our best to get this thing rolling.”
Fecteau will be tasked with replacing Friday night starter Connor Coward, who tossed a team-high 78.0 innings and 76 strikeouts before being drafted in the 26th round by the St. Louis Cardinals.
“Every year you go through some additions and subtractions. That’s just a really common place to be, to be honest,” Fecteau said. “Having a guy with that kind of senior leadership on the mound is going to be missed, but you’ve also got a lot of new guys who are eager to get out there too. Maybe it’s a couple guys who get his 70 innings instead.”
However, sophomore Ian Seymour returns after a breakout freshman season to anchor the rotation. In 2018, Seymour was named to the ACC All-Freshman Team, posting a 3-3 record with a team-best 4.17 earned run average. The lefty became the first Tech freshman to strike out at least 10 batters in an ACC contest when he did so against Pittsburgh on March 10.
“He just had a couple instances last year where some stuff got away from him as far as the command, his delivery was a work in progress,” Fecteau said. “We’ve simplified the delivery a good amount from last year. From what I’ve seen so far, I think he’s already made that jump. His velocity is better, the change up was already a plus pitch, and he’s been working like crazy on his breaking ball all year long. There should be a really good three-pitch mix.”
In terms of the lineup, the Hokies will lose Sam Fragale and Tom Stoffel to graduation, a duo who were staples in the middle of the lineup over their careers. While they’re gone, Virginia Tech returns a core of Jack Owens, Nick Owens, Nick Menken, and Luke Horanski, who will provide the senior leadership.
“Those four guys, fortunately for us, play in the middle of the field defensively,” Elbin said. “Talk about two middle infielders, a center fielder, and a catcher. Bringing those guys back defensively will have much more of an impact than what they do offensively for me, to be honest with you. Virginia Tech has not caught the ball well. If we want to make a jump in this league, that’s what we have to get better at.”
So what’s the next tangible step for this team? Szefc points to the transition his team at Maryland made from 2013 to 2014. In 2013, his first year at Maryland, the Terrapins finished 30-25 with a record of 11-19 in the ACC. He called that team “one of the best teams in the country at going 1-2” on the weekends. In 2014, Maryland went 40-23 with a 15-14 record in conference play, which ended a 43-year NCAA tournament drought in College Park. Szefc credits the one-game improvement on the weekends, and he would like to see more of the same this season at Virginia Tech.
“At some point the group has got to go from 1-2 to 2-1,” Szefc said. “It doesn’t seem like a big deal. It’s a one game swing. But what happens is when guys start going 2-1, they start feeling it a little bit, and then you can go 3-0. 2-1 on the weekend versus 1-2 is the difference between playing in the NCAA Tournament, or potentially hosting an NCAA Regional, or going home before Memorial Day.
“Where the next step is is to go over that bridge a little bit where you can finish a game on Sunday or Saturday to have your second successful day of the weekend instead of one. That’s where you make the step. Hopefully we’re moving rapidly in that direction. I can’t give you an exact arrival date on that, but I can tell you that it is coming.”
The arrival date is to be determined, but the process of getting there has already begun and will continue in 2019.