Crowd Lifts Hokies to Series Win Over Tar Heels
Virginia Tech won on Friday and Saturday to take the series against #25 UNC
It was the first time since early last spring that Hokie fans could get tickets to a sporting event. And Hokie Nation showed up.
With the help of what was maybe the most raucous crowd in the history of English Field, the Hokies were able to come from behind on Friday and Saturday to win their second consecutive ACC series against a top 25 opponent. After Sunday's 9-6 loss to the Tar Heels, the Hokies sit at 4-2 in the ACC and are tied for second early in the season.
The weekend was a validation of what the Hokies did in Coral Gables last weekend when they beat Miami on Friday and Sunday to take that series against top 10 Miami. That was a mono a mono series played in front of mostly MLB scouts. The series at home against the Tar Heels gave the Hokies a distinct advantage that has been gone from sports for all too long.
The limited number of students, who have been dubbed the 'Dugout Degenerates', were loud all weekend and made the environment a really fun place to watch some baseball if you're a Hokie, and a really intimidating venue for a visiting team.
"I can tell you we felt comfortable playing out there, and they definitely made the other team feel uncomfortable," said freshman CF Jack Hurley. "There's a lot of heckling and I mean it's fun to play in front of that."
Head coach John Szefc said the crowds on a chilly, yet sunny, March weekend were "the best [he's] seen since [he'd] been working here."
For Texas Tech transfer 1B/DH T.J. Rumfield, the packed house at English Field was a return to normalcy.
"I haven't known any better ever since I've been in college," said Rumfield. "Where I came from there was always been a lot of fans but when I came here they were telling me they didn't get as much. But then you know we show up for this series and I have a bunch of people there which is pretty nice. So it's always nice to play in front of people because I feel like that elevates guys and gets the people going."
Hokies beat the Tar Heels for the second night in a row and will have back to back series wins against top 25 ACC teams.— Sam Jessee (@SamOfSaturday) March 6, 2021
English Field. Electric. pic.twitter.com/pC7TXjl2Pc
Rumfield has emerged as a star power-hitter for this team. Over the weekend, Rumfield had 9 quality at-bats (an easy guide to that stat by USA Baseball can be found here: https://cpe-prod.usabaseball.c...) and is leading the team in batting average, extra base hits, total bases, homeruns, and is second in on-base percentage. (Only Mr. On-Base LF Jonah Seagears has a better OB% with a whopping 0.545.)
"I feel like it's been a pretty smooth transition," said Rumfield on transferring from Texas Tech. "Guys welcomed me with open arms. I’ve made lifelong friends already here, so I think the team loves it and is pretty welcoming for the most part. I love it here in Blacksburg."
Rumfield has done an excellent job of adapting to what he calls better and different pitching in the ACC.
"I feel like there's more definitely more speed, more control in the ACC," said Rumfield. "It’s just a little bit better pitching wise. [ACC pitchers] do different things. It’s not typical because in the Big 12 it's kind of a lot of fastballs see if you can hit it type things, but I feel like over here it's there's a lot of spin, there's a lot of changeups and off-speed stuff getting hitters off timing and stuff."
Rumfield may be the breakout star of the early season, but Hurley was the guy that really emerged this weekend. Over the course of the three games, Hurley knocked in 7 runs and hit two dingers out of the park to give the Hokies an added dose of offensive power.
"I think he's kind of scratching the surface," said Szefc. "Over the years I've had a lot of good guys but I mean from a tools perspective he's going to be very, very good. I think when he can kind of relax and slow things down a little bit and we can just relax and operate, which he does a good job of that most of the time, but I think if he gets better at doing that I think that then the true freshmen tandem of Hurley and Schobel will be very fun to watch as time goes on, if they aren't already."
Hurley was unable to play his senior season in high school due to Covid. Where many young athletes are struggling with that jump, Hurley has found success by capitalizing on the time he has had in practices, especially inner-squad scrimmages.
"We were able to face really good competition before the season, so that helped transition into it," said Hurley. "But I mean, the guys that we're facing are still really really good and you know it's it just comes down to being on time getting things ready, but we've had all the preparation we need really to have success."
And boy oh boy did they have success...
In what was a sign of things to come, senior Peyton Alford struck out 10 Tar Heels in just 4 1/3 innings in what was one of his best outings as a Hokie. The Hokies would go on to strike out forty (40!) more batters for the most strikeouts by the team in an ACC series. Alford, who started in the win against Miami last Friday, has shown considerable improvement in his command this season seems to be comfortable as a weekend starter.
The Hokies were down 6-1 in the bottom of the 5th after a big home run from UNC's Caleb Roberts, his second of the day. After a single from SS Fritz Genther and a walk from Hurley, 1B/DH Gavin Cross punched a double down the right field line to score Genther and the rally was on. Rumfield and 3B Kevin Madden hit back to back singles to put two more across home before freshman 2B Tanner Schobel continued his timely hitting and tripled off the center field wall to tie the game at 6. After that, it was hammer time for the power-hitting catcher Cade Hunter, whose 2 run blast put the Hokies up for good.
Jack Hurley would hit his first homerun as a Hokie, a solo shot to right-center, in the 6th inning and a Madden single up the middle would score another to put the home team up 10-6. Hurley, Cross, and Rumfield were dynamite at the top of the order all weekend, but especially on Friday night. The three combined for 9 quality at-bats, 7 H, 5R, and 4 RBI. All of those players are in their first or second year of college baseball and have 3+ years remaining in Blacksburg.
Jaison Heard and Shane Connolly continued their solid seasons in relief and combined for 10 K's and 0 ER in the final 3 1/3 innings to seal the deal for the Hokies.
For the second straight night, the Hokies would come from behind and use a big middle inning to come back in win an exciting game on the back of an electric crowd at English Field.
After a Tanner Schobel home run to left was answered by a 468 foot bomb from UNC CF Justice Thompson, Madden doubled and scored Cross and Hurley to give the Hokies the lead at the end of the third. It didn't last long, however, as UNC star Angel Zarate knocked home a Tar Heel run to tie things up.
The Hokies needed a big inning and got it in the 6th. The two Tanners, LF/RF Tanner Thomas and Schobel, got on base and a sac fly from Cade Hunter broke the tie. Hurley would single and score two runs to end the inning and give the Hokies a 6-3 lead. (Note: Below video is from Sunday, but the homerun call from Evan Hughes is too good not to include in here.)
"If he hits this one out, you get the home run call..."— Bryant Johnson (@BryantJohnson1) March 9, 2021
And then it actually happened.@EvanKHughes filled-in for me on Friday & Saturday's @HokiesBaseball broadcast before delivering an unforgettable call Sunday afternoon!
What are the odds...
(No, seriously @vthokie????) pic.twitter.com/mbsNztAHrh
Sophomore Graham Firoved was throwing gas in his two innings of relief. The Virginia Beach native retired the side with all swinging strike outs in the top of the 6th and then wrung up three more Tar Heels in the 7th. He and Matthew Siverling, who got his first save of the season, were solid in their four innings of relief to bury the Tar Heels and win the series for the Hokies.
This game could be summed up pretty well by Szefc's post game comments:
"Not going to beat many good teams by making 3 errors and walking 8 guys."
The Hokies had a rough top of the 7th inning after a couple errors from the usually defensively stout Madden at 3B. After breaking the 5-5 tie in the top of the 6th with a solo shot, UNC SS Danny Serretti hit a single to right which sparked a 3 run inning that the Hokies just couldn't overcome.
In the 7th and 8th innings, the Hokies had the tying run at the plate with two men on with two outs, but were unable to make the magic happen.
Even with a bit of a sour ending to the weekend, Szefc is taking things in stride and understands how incredible the start to the season has been for this young Hokies club.
"I try to step back and look at the bright side of things," said Szefc.
"We've established ourselves as a legitimate contender. People are going to have their hands full when they play us, regardless of where and when."
Up Next: Two Game Series vs VCU
The Hokies will host the Rams on Tuesday and Wednesday evenings this week in a Commonwealth clash. The Rams are 5-5 on the season with wins against Elon (1), VMI (3), and Central Michigan (1). Freshman 3B Tyler Locklear has been a breakout star, earning a-10 Freshman of the Week last week. Locklear was8-1 from the plate with 4 HR in a week where the Rams went 4-0.