Often times in sports, the most successful teams are the ones that can reach a certain level of consistency time and time again. That’s been the case this year for No. 2 Virginia Tech (40-11, 19-9 ACC), who is 30-5 in its last 35 games.
The program has faced adversity many times in the five years under head coach John Szefc. It finished below .500 in his first two seasons but was 11-5 in 2020 before COVID struck. And after starting 19-9 and leading the ACC Coastal Division in 2021, the team finished 27-25.
But 2022 has been a different story; Virginia Tech has been the model of consistency. Nine straight ACC series wins, six against ranked opponents. Four players earned First Team All-ACC honors, seven total among the three teams, and Szefc was named ACC Coach of the Year. To top it off, the team was ACC regular season champions.
Various elements have played a role in the team’s success. The lack of absences due to injury is the headliner, but the team has also matured.
“The maturity level is definitely a lot different,” shortstop Tanner Schobel told reporters on Tuesday. “Last year, we had a lot of younger guys, which is fine, but this year with everybody having an extra year under their belt, just the mindset of not letting it happen again and having that bad taste in our mouth from last year.
“I think just the maturity level of getting through rough patches and not roller-coastering through the season –– we’re trying to stay level –– is the biggest thing we made an adjustment on this year.”
What’s more, the preparation is better. Confidence and chemistry are at all-time highs in the Szefc era. That’s led to stability across the board, from the pitcher’s mound and the catcher behind the plate to an improved defense and electric bats.
Take the pitching, for example. Griffin Green and Drue Hackenberg have been the guys on Friday and Saturday since mid-March. The former is a Third Team All-ACC honoree while the latter earned First Team and All-Freshman Team accolades.
Rarely has Green thrown fewer than four innings in a series opener, and he won all five games in April that he started. Four of those five outings were against top-25 teams: at then-No. 18 North Carolina, vs. then-No. 21 NC State, vs. then-No. 2 Miami and at then-No. 11 Virginia.
His statistics for that month: 2.31 ERA, 31 ⅔ IP, 8 ER, 24 K, 135 BF. Not to mention that seven of the eight runs he gave up came in two games, which Virginia Tech proceeded to win by a combined 18 runs.
As for Hackenberg, he led the ACC in ERA (2.44). The true freshman also finished third in innings pitched (85), only walked 15 batters in 13 starts and became Tech’s first 10-win starter since 2013.
The only blemish on his 10-1 record is a 6-3 loss at UVa in which he yielded a season-high six runs, though Sunday starter Jordan Geber told Tech Sideline he and Hackenberg overcame food poisoning that weekend. In Hackenberg’s ten wins: 1.90 ERA – 17 earned runs in 80 ⅓ innings.
“I’m super proud of him,” Schobel said of Hackenberg. “It’s not easy to come in as a true freshman, especially in the ACC, and do what he’s done. … The thing that I love about him is a lot of pitchers, historically, kind of think too much and try and get too specific with their pitches, but he just gets up there and does it. He’s one of those guys that has a lot of confidence.
“It doesn’t matter if we play the worst team in the country [or] the best team in the country, he’s going to go up there and do his all and do his best for us. I think the maturity and the confidence he goes up there with is super special.”
Those two have paved the way on the first two days of the weekend and hold a combined 17-3 record. Then there’s Sunday. That’s been Geber’s time to shine since April 16 vs. Miami, an outing that solidified the Mount St. Mary’s transfer as the Hokies’ third starter.
He’s started the last five Sunday’s, four of which Virginia Tech has won, and a mid-week game vs. Liberty. In his last three appearances: 11 ⅓ IP, 4 H, 2 ER and 15 K for an ERA of 1.58. And to consider the circumstances in which he’s done that, on the back of a January concussion, makes the feat even more impressive.
It’s been a complete 180 from last season. Thanks to the injury bug, there was rarely a weekend when Chris Gerard, Anthony Simonelli and Payton Alford threw Friday-Sunday. Tech’s been able to stick to a routine this year, and even when the bullpen has entered in relief – Graham Firoved, Jonah Hurney, Henry Weycker and Kiernan Higgins have been the go-to options – there hasn’t been a drop-off.
“It’s been a lot of the same old stuff, but that’s what the game is, though,” Szefc said about his pitchers. “You don’t practice five times and play on Saturday and try to beat somebody’s brains in. You’re trying to just… you’re hoping that as a coaching staff and players that you can be the same guys every day, so your preparation, it might change a little bit, but in general, it’s probably going to be the same kind of thing.
“In general, you’re trying to be consistent with things. The players want consistency from the coaches, the coaches want consistency from the players and fortunately with this team, it’s been that way. It’s been very much the same thing.”
An improved defense has gone a long way, too. In 2021, Virginia Tech ranked 77th in the country in fielding percentage (0.973) and 95th in errors (50). This season, the fielding numbers are up to 17th (0.979) and 19th (39).
The improvement starts in the infield.
Nick Biddison, Lucas Donlon and Nick Holesa are all solid options at first base. Eduardo Malinowski and Christian Martin have handled second all year, while First Team All-ACC performer Tanner Schobel is a glue guy at short. And Carson DeMartini, a natural shortstop, has filled the void at third.
All have a fielding percentage of 0.949 or better.
Biddison’s also seen time in right field, while Gavin Cross and Jack Hurley have been locks in center and left. That starting trio is 343-for-365 (0.939) in putouts this year.
“Really all year, what me, [Kurt] Elbin, [Tyler] Hanson – really the whole group – kind of said we have the best outfield in the country,” Cross said. “All of us are center fielders. We can kind of mix, match, play wherever we want. And then at the plate, Jack’s obviously had one of the better years of anyone in the country. And then Biddi, after getting injured last year, has come back and played really well. And I’ve just tried to go out there and be myself and play.
“We all have good numbers, but I think we all kind of play hard and make each other better –– in the outfield and at the plate.”
And how could one forget the Hokies’ bats? Headlined by Hurley’s .383 batting average, the Hokies have seven starters hitting .319 or better at the moment. That includes Carson Jones, who burst onto the scene against Kansas State and Duke and homered five times in four games.
Anyone can step up at any moment, and Jones is a great example. DeMartini has a few clutch at-bats to his name, including two late-inning game-winning hits vs. Louisville and a walk-off RBI double vs. Villanova. Cross hit a go-ahead homer vs. UVa to give Virginia Tech the lead back for the final time. Donlon walked it off against Liberty two days after DeMartini did.
It’s been a team effort across the board in that category. Anyone can step up and make a play at any moment, and it happens on a consistent basis.
“It’s nice knowing you don’t have to be the guy that does it all,” Cross said. “I mean, I struggled last weekend [vs. Duke]. Took some good at-bats. But knowing that if I don’t go, if Scoob [Schobel] doesn’t go, you got guys like Cade [Hunter], CJ [Carson Jones].
“To see our teammates have success, that’s what we’re all here for –– to continue to win. And any guy can do it on any given day.”
To tie it altogether is arguably the most valuable player for Virginia Tech this season: catcher Cade Hunter.
In his third season in Blacksburg, Hunter has started 49 of Tech’s 51 games this season, appearing in 50. That kind of steadiness behind home plate is often undervalued, especially after he played in just 18 games last season due to a broken hamate bone.
Process this: in game two of the Duke series, pitching coach Ryan Fecteau was at home sick. Hackenberg was on the mound, and Hunter essentially called the whole game himself. And in the same contest, he was 1-for-3 with a walk and a run.
He’s hitting .335 on the year with 15 home runs and 59 RBIs, and he had a 26-game on-base streak in the first half of the season, too.
“That’s not like some big surprise, he could probably do that most of the time,” Szefc said of Hunter calling his own game. “He’s smart enough, he gets the game. In a lot of cases, it’s him and Fecteau working together anyway. But I think that was a good example. Our pitching coach is out that day, he’s home in bed sick, we’re good, alright, let the guy behind the plate do it. He’s experienced enough, he’s mature enough, he’s smart enough. And he did a really good job with it.
“His value has been tremendous. If you just sit and watch him handle pitches, the ball rarely gets to the backstop, he throws guys out … I think he’s shown different ways of his value, not to mention what he’s done offensively.”
As the No. 1 seed Hokies gear up for the ACC Tournament in Charlotte, the goal is to maintain the same routine and consistency. After all, that’s what brought Virginia Tech this far.
Clemson awaits on Thursday. North Carolina on Friday. Both games are under the lights at 7 p.m. at Truist Field. And after Carolina’s 9-2 drubbing of the Tigers on Tuesday, the winner of the Hokies and Tar Heels will take the Pool A crown and advance to the tournament semifinals.
Szefc told the media on Tuesday that he wouldn’t be sure how Tech would line up the pitching until the Clemson-UNC game was over. But the main points of emphasis are to try to keep the same rotation, if possible, and without looking very far ahead, make sure the staff is healthy heading into next weekend’s NCAA Tournament.
A likely solution is for the Hokies to approach Thursday like a midweek game and go by committee, saving the normal weekend starters for Friday, Saturday and Sunday. But to start Green, Hackenberg or even Geber in the win-or-go-home game vs. UNC?
It’s not an obvious answer – anyone could come up with their own reasoning. But what Szefc & Co. understand is that whoever they throw out there, no matter the scenario, they’re going to be productive. And that’s a theme across the board, not just on the mound.
“The good part about our staff is that we’ve got a lot of guys that can be productive,” Szefc said. “I’m not worried about doing something like that because every guy we’ve thrown out there has been very effective and they’ve done whatever job we’ve asked them to do, whether it’s been longer or it’s been, ‘hey, give us what you’ve got here for five outs.’ They’ve embraced it and done a good job with it.”
At some point, players just have to step up and make plays, and Virginia Tech has plenty of those guys. That kind of culture and consistency has put the Hokies in a great position heading into Charlotte, a potential Blacksburg Regional and beyond.