2021 Hokies Baseball Preview
The Hokies will tee-off on Feb. 19th vs the Kent State Golden Flashes
It's been too long since anyone heard the pinging sound of a fastball exploding off an aluminum bat in Blacksburg. In fact, it'll have been 345 days since the Hokies took the field against the Golden Flashes at Atlantic Union Bank Park, which seems like forever for a blossoming program that is finally looking to step out of the cloudy ACC basement and into the sunny competition of one of the nation's premier baseball conferences.
The reality is, it's been a minute since the Hokies competed in the top half of the ACC.
Coach John Szefc took over a floundering program in 2017 but has finally built it back up to a level where the 'Road to Omaha' may not seem like such a long trip for the Hokies. But before Virginia Tech fans get ahead of themselves, there's a lot of work left to do in Blacksburg, even with the most talented roster of Szefc's short tenure.
That's because and an astoundingly young Hokies baseball club will face the gauntlet that is a full ACC schedule, which currently boasts seven teams in D1 Baseball's Top 25.
At least the Hokies are lucky enough to avoid a weekend series with No. 5, and perennial national title contender, Louisville.
In baseball, the foundation for any burgeoning program is built on the ability to consistently win three-game series versus teams you're trying to jump, and that is something the Hokies have struggled to do over the years. In fact, the Hokies haven't won even a third of their total matchups against ACC opponents over the past half-decade.
The annual gauntlet of ACC games the Hokies trudge through every spring has been the primary factor in the baseball program being relegated to the bottom of the standings. And the Hokies aren't alone. While some programs like Duke and Notre Dame have been able to put together magical seasons and enter the Top 5 of the ACC, the barrier of entry has proved too much for other solid programs such as Boston College, Pittsburgh, and of course, the Hokies. But that may soon change.
There's more than just hype surrounding the Hokies. The foundation has been set and the program is being built... literally.
“Build it in Blacksburg” has been the mantra of the Hokies baseball team since Head Coach John Szefc took over. His main goal when he came to Virginia Tech was to rebuild the program and turn it into a powerhouse ever since he was hired from the University of Maryland, where he wasn’t a stranger to winning.
Throughout his tenure at Maryland, Szefc went 179-120 with appearances in the NCAA super regional tournament in 2015 and an appearance in the NCAA regional tournament in 2017. So when Athletic Director Whit Babcock and the Hokies went looking for the best leader with a winning pedigree for the baseball team, they found their man in John Szefc.
And since 2018, Szefc has had the program under major construction, which is emblematic of the field they play on considering English Field at Union Bank Park was also finally renovated the same season and has transformed into one of the best stadium experiences in the ACC, to help match the energy of the Hokie baseball team.
So why is there finally buzz surrounding the baseball program?
Because the Hokies are finally sending players to 'The Show', which does absolute wonders for recruiting.
In 2020, for the first time in the program’s history, two Hokies were chosen in the top four rounds of the MLB Draft, with Pitcher Ian Seymour selected in the second round as the 57th overall pick by the Tampa Bay Rays, and Catcher Carson Taylor drafted in the fourth round with the 130th pick by the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Both players earned their chance at the big time by posting eye-opening numbers during their time in Blacksburg.
Seymour, who finished his career with a 2.21 ERA, was closing in on 200 career strikeouts and on-track to challenge the school record for the most strikeouts before the season was abruptly ended due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and ended up as a third-team all-American as well as being named a 2x Collegiate Baseball National Player of the Week.
Not to be outdone, Catcher Carson Taylor was also named a third-team all-American and led the Hokies in most hitting categories to include Batting Average (.431) where he had 25 hits, 7 doubles, 1 triple, and 2 Home runs in 2020.
And as this program continues to progress on the field and the recruiting trail, every season is starting to feel eerily similar to the 2nd and 3rd seasons of the Buzz Williams era, as head coach of Virginia Tech Basketball - where the Hokies are right on the verge of breaking out but not quite there yet.
The 2021 season could be the year and it will be interesting to see how they have progressed during the offseason, but one thing is for certain, something special is brewing in Blacksburg and it’s the best-kept secret in town.
For 2021, the Hokies are looking to build on an impressive 11-5 record in 2020.
And that wasn't against some small-school, non-conference schedule. The Hokies won their series at Louisiana and posted a dominant sweep of Bryant at home - who are both consistent conference title contenders in their own right. Then came a trip down to Atlanta where the Hokies played a tough top-ranked Georgia Tech team. The good news is, although the Hokies only won 1 of 3 in the series, they held an 8th-inning lead in all three games.
This season, the Hokies will look to capitalize on an athletic infield as well as a strong weekend pitching rotation that will rival even the best of the ACC, with Chris Gerard, Anthony Simonelli, and Peyton Alford anchoring the staff.
Gerard, who is garnering comparisons to the aforementioned Seymour, is a pitcher who has continued to develop in his first two seasons in Blacksburg, commands a solid fastball that touches up to 92-93, a consistent changeup, and a nasty "yellow-hammer' type curveball as a late in the count out-pitch, all of which helped him yield a 29-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio in just 23 innings last season. Look out for Gerard to put it together this season with an all-ACC campaign, which he seemed to be heading towards during 2020.
Simonelli offers a bit more power in his fastball, and the fourth-year junior has plenty of experience and is a natural strike-thrower, who may very well lead the team in strikeouts.
Alford, a fifth-year senior who brings moxie and fearlessness to the rotation, has a knack for getting out of sticky situations. Watch for Alford to make the jump from the bullpen to the starting rotation, that combined, provides the Hokies with a fierce 1-2-3 man punch that will be tough for any team to beat on a consistent basis.
In the bullpen, Nic Rismas (who may very well get starts himself), Jaison Heard, and Stephen Restuccio will look to add a finishing touch to the Hokies late-inning rotation that has been missing in recent years.
The Hokies have their share of young guns, as well.
Freshman right-handers Griffin Green and Brady Kirtner will look to get some experience during the weekday games. Both have great stuff well beyond their years, and for a program looking to build for the future, having some young talent in the bullpen will go a long way.
— Virginia Tech Baseball (@HokiesBaseball) January 23, 2021
91 mph in Slow-Mo
On the dirt (well, it's actually turf on English Field), the Hokies have a top-notch duo on the left-side with returning starters Kevin Madden and Fritz Genther at Third and Shortstop, respectively. Both can be productive on the offensive end but in different ways. Madden is an old-fashioned 'just get on base' hitter, while Genther has added a bit more strength to an already powerful swing.
The right-side is a bit more of a question mark, but not for a lack of talent. Redshirt Freshman Gavin Cross is one of the most gifted players in the clubhouse, and he and TJ Rumfield, a transfer from Texas Tech, will be the options at First. More than likely, both will be in the lineup with the other hitting at DH and have exceptional power to help serve as RBI machines. They'll be the difference between Tech's ability to consistently put runs on the board or Tech playing in pitching duals.
True Freshman Tanner Schobel is one of the building blocks that the Hokies program hopes can become something really special. The 5'10" second baseman is a dynamite athlete who can cover a lot of ground and looks to start at second but can be moved around all over the field if needed.
The Hokies outfield is as fast and athletic as they come in college baseball. Redshirt Sophomore star Nick Biddison will most likely make the move from Second to Leftfield, while the speedy Brennan Reback will hold things down in Center.
The aforementioned Cross is a guy who can step back to Rightfield, which may be the move at points in the season. Rightfield may be occupied by senior Tanner Thomas, who is the only true Senior position player on the roster and mostly played Left in 2019 and 2020. However, the Senior leader had a perfect fielding percentage last season and hits like a classic college baseball player. Sacrifice bunts, drawing walks, stolen bases, basically, Thomas can do it all.
Behind the plate, Redshirt Freshman Cade Hunter is another promising youngster who has turned heads in preseason practices and is solid defensively with great power to the backend of the lineup.
“Right fielder Gavin Cross looks primed to do big things as a second-year freshman. He brings intriguing left-handed power potential as well as the ability to hit for average, run, defend and throw.”— Virginia Tech Baseball (@HokiesBaseball) February 9, 2021
In all, the Hokies have the talent as well as the right guy in charge to be one of the most improved programs in the country, but it will take consistency and execution from a very young team against some of the best competition in the country; however, this is something that's not lost on Szefc. He realizes the challenges facing the 2021 Hammerin' Hokies but also relishes the fulfillment that stems from building a program from the ground up.