A year after Virginia Tech stunned the softball world with a 47-11 record and an ACC Coastal championship, the Hokies were out to prove that last season wasn’t a fluke. After a 21-4 start to the 2020 season, it looked as if the Hokies were one of the top teams once again in the ACC, and maybe, in the country. Just as the team was getting into conference play, it’s season came to an unexpected end due to the Coronavirus.
How Did the Team Handle the News?
The Hokies were playing some of their best softball of the season three weeks ago, riding a six-game winning streak into its Northern Virginia trip.
Fresh off of a series shutout sweep of UVA in Charlottesville, the team stayed hot with a 9-0 win against George Washington and a 12-1 victory against George Mason. In their last 10 games, the Hokies had combined to outscore their opponents 58-5.
“There was a lot of good things that I saw in those two games,” head coach Pete D’Amour said. “Seeing what we needed to work on after the UVA series, there was a couple kids that made a lot of good adjustments, especially [in] the GW game.”
Just two days later, the team was slated to play its first home game in a pivotal series against North Carolina State. D’Amour noted that on the bus back to Blacksburg, there were news and rumors going around about other conferences and suspending games, but that didn’t stop the preparation for the Wolfpack.
“We actually came out on Thursday and practiced at noon. We came out here and had a good practice,” D’Amour said.
That would be the last time he and his coaching staff saw the team in person before the announcement. Following practice, the squad went to the weight room together. That’s when they got the text that said: “season’s cancelled.”
D’Amour said that it was tough not being the one to break the news to his team.
“Some people got to speak to their teams prior to that information being out. That was the one thing I wish we could do over again,” D’Amour said.
This prompted a meeting on Friday, where everyone was able to say their final goodbyes. He acknowledged that there were no magic words to say in front of his team.
“I think my players know that I just try to be a steady hand for them. Don’t freak out, just take this thing logically. I think they’ve been doing that,” D’Amour said.
While recognizing that the situation is heartbreaking, he also alluded to the fact that a lot of teams are in the same position as his Hokies.
“What are you going to do? There’s a lot of teams in our position. You sit there and you can cry over it or you just [say], [this] is the hand we’re dealt and just move on. It was tough, especially how we were playing,” D’Amour said.
Another Stellar Season on the Field
Coming into the season, the Hokies were receiving votes in two of the major softball polls. They quickly found the rankings after competing in one of the biggest softball tournaments in the country, the St. Pete/Clearwater Elite Invitational.
Virginia Tech went up against some of the best talent in the country, and came away with a winning record. The team knocked off South Carolina, Minnesota and Northwestern, who were all ranked inside of the top 25.
Arguably the biggest win of the season for the 21-4 Hokies came against #14/#13 Minnesota, who had one of the best pitchers in the country in Amber Fiser.
An All-American a season ago who helped guide the Golden Gophers to a Women’s College World Series appearance, Virginia Tech managed to manufacture eight hits off of Fiser. The team came out 2-1 victors after solo home runs from Olivia Lattin and Maddi Banks. Kaylee Hewitt, a talented freshman pitcher, tossed her best game of the season after surrendering one run over six innings in the circle.
A few weeks later, the Hokies gained a point in the Commonwealth Clash following a series shutout sweep of UVA on the road. Junior pitcher Keely Rochard didn’t allow a run all weekend in the circle and hurled a no-hitter on Sunday.
In Pete D’Amour’s first two seasons as the coach of Virginia Tech, his team is 6-0 against the Cavaliers and has yet to allow them to score a run or allow a runner to third base.
All of those significant wins helped the Hokies finish with the 9th best RPI in the country. D’Amour quickly noted that at the end of the softball season, it’s RPI that matters most and not rankings.
“Halfway through the season, when you’re top 10 in RPI, it’s saying something,” D’Amour said. “I think we quieted some critics. You can say we padded the stats or whatever, [but] we played all of our games on the road. We went to Clearwater and had a winning record. We did what we needed to do up until [that] point in the season.”
He also described his team as “road warriors” for the way they competed and got wins away from Tech Softball Park this season.
“I don’t think the average NCAA sports fan realizes how hard it is,” D’Amour said. “You have to be mentally tough to go through our season.”
Keely Rochard Dominates in the Circle
Virginia Tech Softball has had two players win ACC Pitcher of the Year. Angela Tincher received it from 2006-2008, and last season Carrie Eberle won the honor. In 2020, Keely Rochard was likely going to be a top selection come May for the prestigious award.
She finished the 2020 season with a 15-3 record in 120 innings pitched, carried a 1.52 ERA and led the nation with 183 strikeouts. She had 34 more punchouts than UCLA’s Megan Faraimo, who was in second.
“Those are big numbers. I don’t care who you’re playing against, I don’t care what you’re doing, those are big numbers. She was on pace to have a pretty special year,” D’Amour said. “When you put her name on the lineup card, you know you [have] a chance to win.”
The Bats and Offense Stayed Hot in 2020
A year after the Hokies hit 97 home runs as a team in 2019, the team continued to find ways to score runs. In their combined 25 games, Virginia Tech outscored its total opponents 173-55. Nine players had over a .300 batting average and the team slugged a total of 32 home runs.
“I think 1 through 9 we were potent. You couldn’t take any at-bats off in our lineup, and that’s a similar aspect to last year as well,” D’Amour said.
One addition to the team in 2020 that provided a spark on offense was JMU transfer Kelsey Brown.
“You can’t overlook her. She brought a new element to our team this year we didn’t have last year which is just pure speed,” D’Amour said. “She puts the ball on the ground, she’s safe.”
Over the last month of the season, the Hokies saw sophomore first baseman Meredith Slaw make significant contributions to the lineup. She led primary starters in batting average, hitting .409.
“[She] came in and started hitting the crap out of it. [She] played some really good first base. That was a really big positive that we saw,” D’Amour said.
A Special Season Could be on the Horizon
While many fans will wonder what could have been this year for Virginia Tech Softball given all of its success early in the season, the attention shifts to 2021, which could be a very special season for the Hokies.
On Monday, the NCAA announced that they are allowing any spring sport athlete to essentially take a redshirt from this season.
That means that every Hokie could return next year if they wish to do so. The lone senior on roster is starting second baseman Olivia Lattin, who has been with the program for five seasons.
If all players decide to take this redshirt, it means that the majority of Tech’s lineup would be back for another 2-3 years. Rochard would remain a junior.
Given the amount of talent that would potentially return to Blacksburg, and the recruiting class that is coming in this fall, 2021 could be a very special season for Virginia Tech Softball on a national level.