The Virginia Tech baseball season is just about a month away from opening day on February 14. I talked with head coach John Szefc and assistant coaches Ryan Fecteau and Kurt Elbin at length to discuss a variety of topics about the Hokies. It will come in the form of a three-part article series in the leadup to the start of the season.
Culture, culture, culture. It’s the buzzword that flies around in college athletics anytime a new coaching regime begins its tenure.
Now entering his third season at the helm, Virginia Tech baseball head coach John Szefc emphasized the importance of culture from the very beginning. When Szefc was hired in June 2017, the Middletown, N.Y. native adopted the mantra “Build it in Blacksburg.”
It made sense with the improvements to all the new baseball facilities that were being built at English Field, but it didn’t end there. It’s a building process from the culture to the player personnel and ultimately to a winning baseball team in Blacksburg.
“I don’t really think it’s changed that much because we’re still in the building process,” Szefc said. “I don’t know that that theory will ever really go away because you’re always going to be building something. The culture building thing is an ongoing process and I think we’re certainly better and we have a lot more guys now that the players are much better at policing that culture where it’s not just the coaches anymore. I think the players are directing that just as much as the coaches are. That’s really how it has to be. It’s an ongoing process.”
Like Szefc points out, the culture isn’t just something that the coaches pass down. It starts with the coaches, but ultimately it’s built within the players and spread by these same players. Now, there’s players on the 2020 roster who have become acquainted with the way Szefc operates having been with him since he arrived. They are able to spread his message better than those in the past.
Assistant coach and pitching coach Ryan Fecteau has seen it pay huge dividends in his pitching staff.
“The best part about it, our older returning guys, mainly that junior class that has been here since we first got here, they’ve been so great with getting everybody else acclimated and providing really good leadership for the younger guys,” Fecteau said. “It’s just a really good group of high character kids. Like Nolan Wilson, Ryan Metz, Ryan Okuda, [Zach] Brzykcy and [Ian] Seymour. Just guys that I work with every day, those five guys, they’ve been such a big help with coming to work every day with a great attitude that’s really rubbing off on the young guys.”
Remember when freshman starter Chris Gerard developed a cutter last year that became his best pitch? Gerard had never thrown that pitch before the season and it came under the suggestion of the staff’s ace Ian Seymour. That’s exactly how Szefc, Fecteau, and hitting coach Kurt Elbin want things to work out.
They’re each just one person who can provide limited coaching at any certain moment. However, the players who are around each other constantly can pitch in and provide their own coaching to one another.
“That junior group I talked about, they were a big part of it, where they just got better from the year before,” Fecteau said. “That was a big credit to them. They worked really hard. I tell the guys, it’s more about the culture we build with our staff making sure everybody is on the same page and helping each other. It’s like they’re all their own pitching coaches in a way. They’re just really aware of what’s going on and they can make their own adjustments and they’re willing to try some new things.”
Every year so far under Szefc there’s been a culture of new faces in the form of true freshmen and JUCO transfers. That won’t change in 2020. The official roster online now features 16 freshmen and 4 new JUCO transfers, with 17 returners. Those numbers can change as turnover is always expected, but that’s how it stands right now.
“Last year was more JUCO,” Fecteau said. “This year was probably our first true freshman recruiting class I felt like. Just because last year’s class was all our recruits, but it was so late when we got started with that whole cycle. We were just all over the place trying to find guys. It felt like this was a little different. Guys we had been on for a long time. We actually got to know them a little more through the whole recruiting process.”
As a result, it’s gotten to the point where it’s nearly all Szefc-guys in the program, meaning players he and his staff recruited or brought in. In fact, senior reliever Graham Seitz is the only player remaining on the roster who played for former head coach Pat Mason.
Like Fecteau alluded to, the freshmen on the team are guys that they’ve been able to establish longer relationships with, and the returners have been around the block with Szefc and Co. It’s shaping up to be the group with the biggest expectations since Szefc took over.
“The biggest challenges are getting these guys to be a good team,” Elbin said. “I think it’s the most talented group we’ve had here by far from 1 to 35. That’s easy to say, but it doesn’t matter if they don’t play well together as a team. That’s the challenge when you have a couple new faces and you’re trying to get them to buy into the culture and trying to get them to mesh well with some of the returners all the while competing for positions. That’s always the challenge, is getting them to play well as a team, and I think at the end of the fall we started to see that.
“Our older guys came back ready to take the next step. Our younger guys came in ready to be impact guys for us.”
Szefc has always preached and placed an emphasis on the tried and true method of solid pitching and defense to win games. Last year, the team took a major step in the right direction from that standpoint.
Pitching has long been optional in Blacksburg, but that wasn’t the case in 2019. Virginia Tech’s pitching staff compiled a 3.98 ERA which was good for third in the ACC. The Hokies also had a fielding percentage of 0.975, which was good for fourth in the ACC. If not for the rash of injuries down the stretch that vastly diminished the lineup, the team would have fared far better than the ending 26-27 record.
“My want when I came in here two and a half years ago was to make sure we create an awful large stress on pitching and defense,” Szefc said. “It didn’t appear as if that was the case when we got here based on the numbers and personnel. A lot of recruiting efforts went that way to improve in those areas. I wish you could do it overnight, but you just can’t. It takes time. It takes time to get the right arms in. It takes time to get the good arms in that you have to develop a little bit to where they can handle it against the people that we play. It’s been an ongoing process.”
In a similar interview last year, Szefc discussed at length the need for the team to make the shift from going 1-2 on the weekend to 2-1. Instead, the 2019 version of the Hokies were pretty much a 1-2 team on the weekends, going 9-21 in ACC play. That ACC record included seven one-run losses and six more by two-runs.
“We’re 16-6 and 4-3 at one point after beating Carolina on a Friday,” Szefc said. “If you jump ahead three weeks after that we’re struggling to score runs because we have four regular position players out of the lineup for different reasons. I really think in my heart if you go back and lose one guy instead of four, or maybe even two instead of four, your results are going to be pretty different. Not totally, but if we lost 18 games by one run, maybe it becomes 10 or 12, and that’s a big difference. A six-game swing is a big difference.”
So how does that swing from 1-2 to 2-1 come around this year? First, good health would be the top priority. Szefc also pointed back to his 2014 team at Maryland as the example of a team who built a winning pedigree in seemingly an instant.
That year the Terrapins got swept by Boston College in the middle of the ACC schedule. Things appeared bleak before Maryland flipped that switch and went on a run, winning the last nine games of the regular season before going all the way to a Super Regional against UVa.
“It just didn’t happen as early as you might have wanted it to happen,” Szefc said. “If you go back to the Boston College series that weekend, you’re thinking certainly that’s not going to happen.
“It comes with better players, which we have. Experienced players, which we now have. And the whole culture thing as well with guys understanding – some guys in the junior class like Seymour and Wilson and Okuda and Brzykcy – who have been through some down times here. I would like them to feel like it’s time to get payback for all the preparation and all they’ve put into it. They have good enough players around them where they should be able to take that next step and go 2-1 vs. 1-2.”
So where does the 2020 Virginia Tech team currently stand? Is the culture now firmly planted for a shift to take place? Only time will tell, but the pieces are in place.
“After trying to put something together for two and a half years, you look forward to what’s on the other side of the curtain when it gets pulled back in February,” Szefc said. “You kind of think you know what you have on paper, but you don’t really know. I can tell you what I think will happen, but you don’t really know until you pull the curtain back. You’ve got to win the battles on paper before you can win them in person, and I feel like we’ve prepared enough to bring the right guys in and prepared them enough to get to this point.”