For the first time in school history, No. 4 Virginia Tech baseball hosts an NCAA Super Regional against Oklahoma, which starts on Friday.
The event is unprecedented for the program, which has appeared in 10 previous NCAA Regionals. But taking a step back reveals how rare it is that a postseason event of such magnitude featuring a Hokies squad with such promise finds its way to Blacksburg.
Across a multitude of sports, Virginia Tech has hosted many significant sporting events in its history. But on such a large scale like baseball, and with a team carrying legit national championship aspirations? Very few times has that combination found its way to the New River Valley.
This year’s softball team, the No. 3 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament, is the first to come to mind. The Hokies hosted a regional and knocked off Kentucky the hard way, winning three games in 24 hours, though they fell at home to Florida in the super regional.
The few others, however, require some digging.
In 2013, Virginia Tech women’s soccer was the fourth No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and hosted through the Elite Eight. Blacksburg saw Chugger Adair’s squad win in penalties against No. 4 seed Santa Clara in the Sweet 16 before punching a College Cup trip with a 3-0 win over Duke.
The 2007 men’s soccer team, led by Oliver Weiss, was No. 11 and hosted the second round and Sweet 16. That helped Tech propel itself Elite Eight, where it beat UConn 1-0 in Storrs on the way to the College Cup.
Softball could’ve made the list again, but despite Scot Thomas & Co. being the No. 1 seed in 2008, they could not host any NCAA Tournament games due to Tech Softball Park not having NCAA-level facilities. Outside of that, the football program has had a few moments.
The matchup between No. 3 VT and No. 5 Miami in 2005 was immense, as was the battle between those two in 2003 (No. 10 vs. No. 2). And who could forget November 1999 vs. Boston College, a 24-point win that sent Tech to the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans?
The moment doesn’t venture near southwest Virginia very often, and for Hokie baseball, it’s a first.
“I think it really hit everyone last week as they were putting up banners on the wall like the 2022 that was highlighted in yellow because we’re hosting,” Tech catcher Cade Hunter told the media on Thursday. “We all kind of took a second, we were like, ‘wow, that’s kind of cool.’ This is a team and this is a time of our lives that we’re never going to forget no matter what happens.”
Oklahoma (40-21, 15-9 Big 12) comes to Blacksburg fresh off winning the Gainesville Regional, and it’s a battle-tested team. Virginia Tech only has to win two games to reach the College World Series in Omaha, but it’s a difficult path.
The Big 12 Tournament Champions, the Sooners are very similar to the Hokies in many ways: a good hitting team, solid starting pitching, a gem at shortstop and a group forged together by love for one another. VT’s home run hitting is special, while OU is speedy on the base paths.
“They run well [and] they’re pretty aggressive on the bases,” Hokies head coach John Szefc said. “Their pitching is probably similar to ours. … Outside of the fact that they’ve got a lot of guys that can run, I can’t really say there’s anything that we really haven’t seen throughout the whole year in the ACC.”
The Sooners had eight All-Big 12 players, one more than the Hokies had on their All-ACC teams. VT’s ERA and batting average are better — 4.21 and .313 to OU’s 5.45 and .296 — but most other team statistics are similar.
Peyton Graham is a name of note for Oklahoma, similar to Virginia Tech’s Tanner Schobel. Both play shortstop, were named finalists for the Brooks Wallace Award (given to the nation’s top SS) and the Golden Spikes Award, lead their team in RBIs and home runs and are second in batting average.
On the mound, Oklahoma head coach Skip Johnson said normal Friday starter Jake Bennett (3.69 ERA) will get the nod in game one. A 6-6 redshirt sophomore from Bixby, Okla., the lefty is 8-3 this season with 112 strikeouts, 86 hits and 45 runs in 97 2/3 innings. Regular Saturday starter David Sandlin (5.25 ERA) will likely get the nod in game two.
And this is a team with a close bond, just like VT. Johnson and Szefc have both mentioned how much their players love being around each other, and that translates to the diamond.
As far as Tech’s pitching is concerned, the Hokies stuck to a routine throughout the regular season: Griffin Green on Friday and Drue Hackenberg on Saturday followed by Jordan Geber on Sunday. Szefc told the media he was undecided on what the weekend rotation would look like on Thursday.
Green and Hackenberg weren’t fabulous in their last few starts — Hackenberg gave up 14 hits and nine runs in his last five innings while Green only lasted two innings vs. Columbia on Saturday (five hits, two runs). However, they’re the guys that got VT to its first-ever super regional.
Keep in mind that the Hokies have already run a gauntlet this season within the ACC. They’ve won ranked series against Notre Dame, North Carolina, NC State, Miami, Virginia and Louisville. All of those challenges have prepared Szefc & Co. for this moment, which is on the largest stage the program has ever seen.
“At this stage of the game, Coach Szefc says it all the time, there’s nothing we haven’t seen yet, there’s not going to be any surprises this weekend,” Tech right fielder Nick Biddison said. “It’s the same game we’ve been playing for the last however many weeks. So, what we’ve taken from the ACC schedule is just that we’re good enough to play with the best, and this is just another weekend to do that.”
Virginia Tech has an opportunity to do the unthinkable. It’s already taken home the ACC regular season crown, a first in school history, after finishing dead last in the Coastal Division in 2021. Two wins and a trip to Omaha? Unfathomable for many.
But Szefc? Well, he’s got an interesting perspective. His first career win in Blacksburg in 2018 came against Oklahoma in a 14-6 win in Myrtle Beach. That Virginia Tech team finished 21-33 (8-22). If he was told then that VT would be hosting a NCAA Super Regional in five years, what would he have said?
“I don’t know what I would have said,” Szefc responded when asked on Thursday. “When I first went to Maryland, we went to a Super Regional in the second year and you don’t expect it to happen, but when it happens, you start to expect it to happen again. … It has everything to do with how good the players are and how well the coaching staff prepares them, and that’s all we do.
“We have really good players. They’re tough, and our assistants prepare them daily on a very high level. I don’t really have a—like, if we won the national championship in two weeks, it wouldn’t be overly surprising to me. I can’t say it would be really.”
Friday: 3 p.m. ET, ESPN2
Saturday: 12 p.m. ET, ESPNU