Virginia Tech baseball is less than a week away from opening day. The Hokies begin their season on Friday by traveling to DeLand, Florida where they will face Stetson University. They’ll stay in the Sunshine State and face Manhattan on Saturday, and Sam Houston State on Sunday to complete the mini-tournament.
Results aside, more than anything coach John Szefc wants to see his team in action to get his first glance at how all the preseason preparation has paid off.
“I think our guys are pretty much ready to play against somebody else and see what it’s going to look like when you’re playing someone that doesn’t have maroon and orange on for a lot of different reasons,” Szefc said at last week’s preseason press conference. “In baseball you play a whole fall, you have a full month of preseason, which will end this next week, so you’re talking about a good three to four months of work before you actually go out there and play someone else in a game that matters.”
The first weekend will be used to establish and cement a lot of different roles for the team, such as who will fill the void as weekend starting pitchers, who will be the first guy to go to in from the bullpen, how the lineup going to be completed from top to bottom, etc. Szefc and the coaching staff have spent long hours thinking through the different scenarios, so now it’s time to put it into action.
“I think our staff is kind of looking to see, are all these conversations we have, and the roles we put guys in, and all the preparation, how right are we here with this?” Szefc said. “When you’re dealing with so many new guys, and you’re playing a challenging schedule like we are, you try to forecast your near future and your distant future, but you really don’t know for 100 percent sure.”
Up and down the roster there are plenty of new faces for Virginia Tech. The Hokies’ current roster is filled with 21 newcomers of the 36 players on the team. It’s an odd makeup for a college baseball team, and one that could potentially offer some concerns looking into how a completely new group gels together, but as Szefc mentioned, there have been three to four months of work to iron out those details. Still, the key word that’s been offered up at this time is patience.
“You really have to be patient with it. As much as you want to just have things go 100-percent the way you have them on paper go, it doesn’t always work that way,” Szefc said. “A lot of it’s a little bit of trial and error early, as far as developing guys in those roles, specifically pitchers. You just have to be patient with guys. There’s a lot of things in this game that you can’t rush.”
It’s all put a little more emphasis on the returning players leading the way in a sense. The five seniors – Luke Horanski, Luke Scherzer, Nick Owens, Jack Owens, and Nick Menken – have been charged with setting the example for the younger players.
“All good programs have some good older guys that can [provide leadership],” Szefc said. “I’d say that we’re probably leaning on that maybe a little bit more than usual just because we have a lot of new guys.
“Vocally a guy like Luke [Horanski] would be, but I think all of those guys have done a very good job in their own right of providing good guidance for guys, whether it’s loud or whether it’s quiet, whether it’s behind closed doors. I know Nick Owens is very good at that, but he’s not this loud guy that’s going to jump around and scream and yell at people or be positive with a loud voice with people. That’s just not his thing, so everybody’s got a different way of doing things, you just have to respect it and let it work.”
The area where the Hokies feel the best right now is in terms of their depth. Of the 21 newcomers, nine are pitchers who should provide Szefc and Co. with plenty of options to turn to during the season.
“It’s good having depth,” Szefc said. “We really didn’t have that on the mound last year. Certainly not as starting roles, so we just feel pretty good about having a lot of different guys that can pitch, as I would always say, when it matters.”
One player who’s been around the block for Virginia Tech, but hasn’t really gotten his chance to shine, is redshirt sophomore pitcher Connor Yoder. The 6-foot-7, 250-pound hurler missed 2017 with Tommy John surgery and spent much of 2018 sidelined with injuries. The Hokies are optimistic that this is the year that the power arm could finally break out.
“He just needs to pitch as much as possible,” Szefc said. “I can tell you that he’ll get every opportunity in the world to go out and do this thing as he has. We feel pretty good about him being healthy and having just as much talent as anybody that we have on the mound.”
Soon enough Virginia Tech will be lacing up the cleats, flashing the leather, and donning the maroon and orange for live game action. It’s the beginning of the year, when every team in the country is just ready to play ball.
“Every coach is going to optimistic this time of the year unless you have major injuries or major subtractions by academics or something like that,” Szefc said. “We were lucky enough not to have any of that stuff.
“Right now we feel pretty good about it, so let’s tee it up and see what it looks like.”