Virginia Tech baseball announced earlier this month that it would begin allowing ticketed fans to English Field at Atlantic Union Bank Park for the opening ACC series against North Carolina. Included in the 1,000-seat capacity would be an allocation of student tickets.
This quickly caught the attention of Joe Matthews, Justin Dever, and Chris Chiuchiolo. Over the past year, Virginia Tech students hadn’t been able to jump inside of Lane Stadium or Cassell Coliseum. The three of them all played baseball growing up and figured this was finally a chance to watch the Hokies live in person.
Little did they know the movement that would be born.
Chiuchiolo grabbed a beer from the concession stand and intended to sit down the left field line in the grass terrace area. However, all alcoholic beverages have to be consumed in the stands. As a result, Chiuchiolo and his buddies settled down in the lower section right beside the Hokies’ dugout.
“We go down and sit right next to the dugout,” Chiuchiolo said. “There’s like four or five of us. I don’t know how it started, but I decided to start chirping one of the batters. I didn’t know how both of the teams were going to react to it, but the guys in the dugout reacted positively to it, so I thought, ‘You know, why not? Let’s keep rolling with it.’ I had my two boys here that started rolling with it as well.
“I’m from New York so some people like to say I don’t have a filter. When one of the first batters came up for UNC, we had a couple drinks in us, nothing crazy. I believe I started giving him hitting tips. I said, ‘Hey bud, might want to keep your hands back a little bit more. Might want to move back in the box, you’re a little late on that one.’ It started tumbling from there.”
In that first game of the series against the Tar Heels, Virginia Tech was down 6-1 before scoring nine unanswered runs in the fifth and sixth innings, bringing it to the final score of 10-6. The constant heckling and chirping from those down in the stands brought a new energy to English Field that hadn’t been seen before. It was officially the birth of the Dugout Degenerates.
“We were on the way back from the UNC game and we were like, ‘Well, this definitely might take off. We need to come up with something clever,’” Dever said. “We’re right next to the dugout. We’re a little loud. We’re a little rowdy, so we figured the degens was the fitting word for us to start.”
What initially began as this group of friends from Beta Theta Pi has transformed into a full-fledged student section. The entire set of seats down by the dugout is now filled at all the baseball games.
“The fact that we’ve gone from one game where we thought we might as well enter the lottery to go to a baseball game and now we have a following,” Matthews said. “We’re known as the Dugout Degens, we have a logo. The fact that we got to this point and we have guys who are messaging us on Instagram and want to be a part of this, it’s just an awesome thing to see.”
The crew jeers the opposing team with spontaneous jokes that come up from being involved in baseball over the years. They’ll make fun of a pitcher’s ERA or a hitter’s batting average. The Dugout Degens have brought a few staples to the forefront, though.
Whenever Virginia Tech strikes out a batter, the crowd chants ‘left-right-left-right’ in unison with the player’s walk back to the dugout. When a plane flies overhead, the group makes sure to let the opposing pitcher know by all shouting ‘Plane!’ at the same time. And when a Virginia Tech pitcher has an 0-2 count on a batter, the group begins a slow build clap all the way until the pitch is released, amplified with the beating of customized Dugout Degens drumsticks.
“The people that were at the ballgame were great,” said Virginia Tech head coach John Szefc after the UNC series. “They kind of provided us with energy. It’s by far the best crowds I have seen since I’ve been working here in parts of four seasons. I know our guys appreciate it, our coaching staff appreciates it. It made it feel like a baseball place, really.”
It’s clear the Dugout Degens and the rest of the fans in the stadium are having a profound impact on Virginia Tech’s performance so far. The Hokies will enter this weekend’s series versus Clemson with a 9-6 record and a 6-5 record in the ACC. The Hokies became ranked for the first time since 2013 this year and currently sit at No. 25 in D1 Baseball’s Top 25 poll.
“The energy that our fans are bringing has absolutely leaked into our team, and our guys just feed off of that,” assistant coach Tyler Hanson said. “I’m on my third season and I have not seen anything like that here.
“Coach Szefc says it all the time, ‘We need to make our park the most challenging place to play when teams come in.’ At first it started off with our players doing that, but now that the fans are showing up and bringing that electricity.”
The best part is when the Dugout Degens can actively see their heckles rattling the opposing team. You can see the dejected look on a hitter as he walks back to the dugout after striking out or a pitcher after he’s thrown four straight balls. The student section makes sure they hear it early and often.
“When they’re behind us, it gives us more of a spark,” right fielder Gavin Cross said. “It makes the game more fun to play. You want them to be chirping, you want them to have fun, you want to play well. When we go to opposing parks, the same thing happens to us…typically when we came home, we didn’t have that for other teams. For us to have that now, it’s cool and I hope they continue to come.”
“We felt comfortable playing out there, and they definitely made the other team feel uncomfortable,” center fielder Jack Hurley added after the UNC series. “A lot of heckling, it’s fun to play in front of that whenever you know they’re on your side. They definitely made a difference.”
For years, Szefc has spoken about ‘Building it in Blacksburg.’ It’s where the #BIIB hashtag associated with the team comes from. It wasn’t just about building a new baseball stadium, but building a culture in Blacksburg where baseball could be appreciated because of a high quality of play on the field.
Now in year four of his tenure, the Hokies have just that.
“Mainly we just want to bring the amount of people that come to the games larger,” Dever said. “That’s the biggest goal. In years past, players have told us you can hear a pin drop. That’s the most exciting thing about all of this. We’re getting reached out [to] by people who have never been to a baseball game before and they’re like, ‘Hey, how can we get tickets to come to the game this weekend?’ That’s the coolest thing to see.”
“This team is scrappy as hell,” Chiuchiolo said. “Us three, we’ve been watching baseball our whole lives, and you look at some of the other teams in the ACC, it’s like maybe they have more size or more power, but these guys can play. We feed off their energy too. If it wasn’t for them, we wouldn’t be here.”
“We’re going to be known as a baseball school,” Matthews added. I can make one promise, we will be a baseball school. We’re going to do our best to do our part and help out with that.”
Matthews says the goal is to continue finding more props and more chants that the group can use. He wants to bring the SEC baseball environment right to Southwest Virginia.
In the meantime, the Dugout Degens continue to expand day-by-day. The Instagram account that was started a little over a week ago already has over 750 followers. The logo created for the group even served as a tattoo inspiration for Chiuchiolo.
“I’ve been known to get random tattoos,” Chiuchiolo said. “I already have two Virginia Tech tattoos on my body in areas that you can’t really see them.
“Once we got the logo made up, it’s actually kind of cool. We’ve all been into baseball, and I don’t have a baseball-related tattoo on my body which was something I always wanted to get. So I thought, ‘Might as well combine my love for Virginia Tech and my love for baseball in a tattoo to get it done.’ That just kind of came out of nowhere [last Thursday].”
More than anything, it’s established some sense of normalcy again for the students. Much of the college experience is about gathering together with your friends and classmates to cheer on all the sporting teams. That’s been taken away over the course of the last year, but there’s a renewed hope of the Hokie Nation now inside the confines of English Field.
“We’ve had a blast with it so far,” Matthews said. “The past year has been very hard at Tech if we’re being real. Hokie spirit hasn’t been there for the most part because you haven’t been able to go to football games, you haven’t been able to go to basketball games. We’ve kind of found a light in baseball games right now.
“Let it be known, if we make it to Omaha, you will see the Dugout Degens in Omaha.”