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April 9, 2010
By Bill Hass
GREENSBORO, N.C. – Accolades are beginning to come Virginia Tech’s way and that can mean only one thing.
The Hokies are winning in baseball.
Last weekend they took two of three from fourth-ranked Florida State – in Tallahassee, no less. If people hadn’t been paying attention before, they did after that series. This week Baseball America ranked Virginia Tech No. 25, its first national ranking since 1992.
In addition, Austin Wates was named the ACC’s player of the week and starting pitcher Justin Wright the pitcher of the week. Wates also received a national honor as hitter of the week and Wright won his honor for the second straight week.
“I think (last) weekend was a big turning point in our program as far as really believing – not only putting forth the effort but really believing – we had a chance to win,” said Wates, a junior.” I think we showed a lot of people that we’re going to be a force to be reckoned with down the road in the ACC Tournament.”
That’s an ambitious goal, but one for which the Hokies feel they are ready. Their long-range goal is to make the NCAA tournament, but to do that they need to be one of the eight teams that qualify for the ACC tournament in Greensboro.
The qualifiers are the top two teams in each division plus the next four with the best league records. Virginia Tech currently sits 6-6 in the Coastal Division and has the sixth-best record. That would put the Hokies in today, but there are still 18 conference games remaining, starting with a series against Miami this weekend in Blacksburg. There’s no room for a letdown.
“It’s a grind, isn’t it?” mused Virginia Tech coach Pete Hughes. “There’s never any time to breathe or even to feel good about yourselves because you’re always refocusing for your next opponent, who is going to be really, really good.
“Our goal – we talk about it every day – is to get to Omaha and one step to get to Omaha is to get to the ACC Tournament. So we’ll take one goal at a time here.”
That the Hokies would even be talking about such goals indicates how far they’ve come since 2006, when they went 4-25 in their first year in the ACC. Hughes, who had rebuilt the Boston College program, took over the next season.
After his first Hokies club went 7-23 in the league, Hughes decided an infusion of young blood was needed. He recruited 21 new players and tossed them into the cauldron of ACC baseball. They went 6-24.
“I will say I underestimated the learning curve for freshmen in the ACC,” Hughes said. “We really took our lumps early, two years ago. But you believe in the kids you’re doing this with. They’ve got to have some confidence and some resiliency to be able to lose and to fail and learn at the same time.
“If you go about it that way, you can be really good two years (later) and that’s where we’re at right now. It can also go the other way, where they get beaten down so much that (they) can’t learn from it and they’ll never grow. We’ve got some outstanding kids who have failed and lost and learned from it and gotten better.”
Hughes recruited to fill all kinds of needs in that big class, and the centerpiece was Wates, from St. Christopher’s High School in Richmond. The Hokies were short on athleticism and speed, staples needed to compete in the ACC. That’s what Wates could give them.
Wates immediately became a player that Hughes could put almost anywhere on the field. As a freshman he played 32 games at second base and also some at third, left field and designated hitter. Wates responded with a .334 average, driving in 33 runs.
In his sophomore year, Wates improved to a .397 average with 42 RBIs while playing first, second, left, right and DH. The Hokies got better as a team, rising to 12-17 in the ACC and taking the series from Clemson and Virginia. Wates was red-hot in the final 13 games, hitting .556 and driving in 19 runs.
But the Hokies still weren’t where they wanted to be because they missed the ACC Tournament. So during the off-season, the team received a simple instruction.
“Coach Hughes made a big emphasis that we go about our business like champions do.” Wates said. “So we worked really hard in the weight room in the fall and everybody got stronger, bigger, faster, and it has finally started to translate.”
Virginia Tech began the ACC season well enough, winning two of three from Maryland. Then the Hokies were swept by Clemson, dropping them to 2-4. It was especially disappointing because Tech was the more experienced team and fully expected to win that series.
Instead of falling back into old habits, the Hokies rebounded with series wins over Wake Forest and Florida State to even their league record.
“We had a rough couple of games,” Wates said, “but those were pretty much just a couple of speed bumps for us and I think now it’s looking like we’re making progress and everything is starting to fall into place.
“It’s tough to keep talking about it and talking about it and not seeing any results. That’s jut the way it is sometimes. It feels real good to finally see some results with all the hard work we’ve put in.”
Wates has been the offensive catalyst, hitting .436 with four home runs and 30 RBIs as the Hokies have compiled a 21-10 overall record. He has given them the athleticism and speed (41 career stolen bases in 48 attempts) they needed, but even Hughes is surprised with his progress as a hitter.
“I knew he’d be good because he’s an athlete and athletes make adjustments along the way,” Hughe said. “I did not project him to be one of the top hitters in the country. That tells you about his work ethic to get him in this position. He continues to make adjustments because he’s an athlete.”
Wates was born and raised in Seattle and moved to Richmond his junior year in high school. He was an excellent soccer player and could have played that sport in college but preferred baseball.
“I really enjoy the mental aspect of baseball,” he said. “The preparation, the work you have to put in to trust yourself and really believe that you’re going to be a good performer in the game. Baseball sifts out the people who aren’t mentally tough. That’s one of the biggest excitements for me because I’m a pretty tough person. I think that’s where I shine.
“I think preparation is huge. People think if you take a lot of batting practice, you can just go out in a game and perform well. In my opinion, that’s not how it works – for me, at least. I go out there with a plan. Every pitcher that I face I pretty much know what kind of pitches he throws, what his strikeout pitch is, and what that team likes to do to get people out. That’s mainly what it takes to be a good hitter in this league.”
While Wates leads the way, he’s getting plenty of support. Buddy Sosnoskie is hitting .382, Ronnie Shaban .354, Steve Domecus .341 and Sean Ryan .339. Leading the pitchers are Wright (4-3, 3.95), Jesse Hahn (4-2, 2.23) and Matthew Price (4-1, 4.26).
Wates continues to show his versatility, having played 18 games at first, two in left and one in right this season. Hughes moves Wates around depending on how others are playing and believes he projects as an outfielder in the professional ranks.
Hughes believes coaches, players and fans re ready for the Hokies to be consistent winners in the ACC baseball hierarchy.
“We’re starting to hit the goals that we set four years ago when we took the program over,” he said, “but we’re striving for more and we want more and we’re good enough for more. So let’s stay focused and continue to work.
“Talent wins out and I think we’re as talented as any team in the country. We have three arms I’d go into a series against anybody and feel good about it, and I like our lineup one through nine.”
Wates came to Virginia Tech wanting to be part of turning something around.
“I think I have, for sure, because we’re doing things that this team couldn’t have done three or four years ago,” he said. “I’m having a lot of fun now that we’re knocking No. 4 teams off the board.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do and still a ton of stuff to prove, especially as far as nationally. We’ve got a rough road ahead of us but I think we’re ready for it.”
Bill Hass is a long-time observer of ACC sports. His career at the Greensboro News & Record spanned 36 years, from 1969 until his retirement in March, 2006. He is now writing "Bill Hass on the ACC" for theACC.com. His weekly columns will keep fans plugged in to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
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