Virginia Tech baseball is filled with a bevy of new faces for the 2019 season. On the current roster, there are 23 newcomers to the program – 14 freshmen and nine junior college transfers.
Since his time at Virginia Tech, head coach John Szefc and his staff made a concerted effort to bring a fair share of JUCO talent to Blacksburg. 13 players, one-third of the roster, hail from a junior college.
“When you’re competing in this league, you need a little bit of a shot in the arm of immediate talent that can help right out of the gate if you aspire to be good quickly,” Szefc said. “If you’re just going to rest on high school guys, which you can do and there’s nothing wrong with that, but it might take you a little longer to have success because asking any high school guy to step into the ACC and be very good immediately is very difficult.”
You can’t teach experience, and experience is one of the key characteristics that a JUCO transfer can provide. They have gone through the grind of a college baseball season before, and they have matured physically, unlike an incoming freshman. These players usually had their own challenges that they have overcome, and they are cut from a different cloth because of it.
“I always look at the JUCO guys as being really strong mentally,” assistant coach Ryan Fecteau said. “They’ve gone through so much more than your average high school guy who just goes to college. I think they’ve understood what it’s like to fail and how to pick themselves up. A lot of guys have moved all over the country. They’re just not afraid of the environment… I think they’ve provided a different edge.”
One look at last year exhibits how a JUCO player can provide an instant boost on the field and in the locker room. Luke Horanski came to the Hokies last season after spending one year at Cisco Junior College.
In his opening year in Blacksburg, Horanski batted in the middle of the lineup and caught 29 games, leading the Hokies with a .314 batting average. Entering his redshirt senior season, the coaching staff points him out as the player who commands respect from his teammates.
“The big one is Horanski,” assistant coach Kurt Elbin said. “He’s such a physical part to our lineup, but he’s such a vocal leader. He’s the alpha male. He makes it go.”
“Luke Horanski, he’s really made this his team,” Fecteau said.
Virginia Tech is hoping to find a similar impact from the incoming JUCO transfers. The one name that came up over and over, and who might bring the most advanced skill set, is Kerry Carpenter.
The 6-foot-2, 220-pound outfielder played the past two years at St. John’s River State College, the same school where current shortstop Nick Owens made a pit stop. In his second year, Carpenter batted .433 with a .511 on base percentage. He was named an All-American in both seasons at St. John’s.
“He has an uncanny ability to get hits,” Elbin said. “That’s the best way I can say it. He can handle a lot of different situations, whether it’s a right hander who’s firm, a lefty who’s soft. He runs better than you would think, so we’re excited about him.”
That’s not to say that the JUCO players don’t come without risk. There’s always the concern of wondering if certain credits will transfer, and the academic adjustment of attending a school like Virginia Tech. Some transfers also have trouble fitting into the team because it’s always been about them.
However, Szefc says none of that is any concern for the current unit of JUCO transfers. There’s one main area where he could see a potential issue in the future.
“The other negative is you might have some one-and-done guys,” Szefc said. “The negative is they’re good enough to be there for one year because they come, they have a great year in the ACC, they get drafted relatively high, sign, and they’re gone. That can be a negative because from a consistency standpoint you’re having immediate turnover. The positive part of it though is if a guy like Kerry Carpenter comes in and tears it up and signs in the seventh round, that means he had a pretty good year. That means we might have had a pretty good year as well.”
Above all else, JUCO transfers who come in and fill an immediate need prevent freshmen from being thrust into action out of pure necessity. It permits the freshmen to adjust to college-level talent on schedule.
“I think it also allows your young players to develop,” Elbin said. “You don’t have to force too many at bats on these young players. You can kind of allow those older transfer guys to help ease those young guys into certain situations.”
It’s created more depth for Fecteau, who says there are now 12-13 guys who he feels comfortable with pitching in an ACC game. That number is before some newcomers have really even gotten a chance to prove themselves. That’s a far cry from the 2018 squad that only had 10 players who pitched 20.0 innings or more.
Fecteau pointed to Zach Brzykcy, Connor Yoder, and Nick Vickers, who is coming back from Tommy John surgery, as returners who will have much larger roles in 2019. Freshmen Chris Gerard, Alex Havlicek, and Nathan Starliper figure to be contributors right away.
“Chris Gerard has shown a lot this fall with his ability to throw strikes with multiple pitches. He kind of reminds me of [Ian] Seymour a lot as a freshman, maybe a little more polished than Ian was,” Fecteau said. “[Havlicek] just keeps working, and keeps getting better every day. He’s got a good frame, and he has a chance to be a power type guy. Nathan Starliper, he actually was sick most of the first semester, so we’ve been trying to get his strength back a lot. It’s a really projectible left-handed arm.”
On offense, Elbin noted Carson Taylor and Nick Biddison as freshmen who made their mark in the fall. He anticipates both of them having a role in the lineup throughout the season.
[Taylor] was a kid we felt was going to be able to hit, and be pretty advanced. He seems to be a little better than advertised, which was surprising for us,” Elbin said. “Nick Biddison is another freshman who’s going to catch and play a little bit of first. He’s extremely athletic and versatile.”
Add 23 newcomers to a roster and there’s a lot more that needs to be taught than there would be with a typical group. When a team is an older group, a lot of it is just plug and play. However, when there are 14 freshmen, a coach needs to get the team to learn the language, learn how to take a batting practice like they want, and learn how to formulate at-bats in game situations.
“I think I’ve coached more this fall, just baseball,” Elbin said. “Just the ins and outs of the game and our system, and what it is, and what we want guys to do.
“You don’t get to do that nowadays too much. A lot of the things we do, they don’t involve coaching baseball. From recruiting, to compliance, to putting schedules together, etc… you miss sometimes actually being able to work with a guy’s swing, or work with them defensively. It kind of refreshes you and reminds you why you got into the business.”
When everything is taken into account, it’s given Virginia Tech a unique roster for the 2019 season. Scan the rosters across the country, and you would be hard pressed to find a team with as few seniors and as many newcomers. Still, it’s a roster that the coaching staff expects to improve leaps and bounds from last season.
“It’s a bit of a melting pot with everybody, but I’m really impressed with how they’ve jelled,” Fecteau said. “I think a lot of it is the type of character guys who we were able to bring in, and the type of personalities that they have… It’s going to be one of those teams that is going to continue to grow throughout the season. What you see on day one probably isn’t going to be what you see in June.”