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May 3, 2013
By Bill Hass
GREENSBORO, N.C. – Once you get a taste of success in sports, nothing else will do.
That’s why Andrew Rash of Virginia Tech feels so driven about the final few weeks of this baseball season. He’s a senior, and this is his last opportunity to help get the Hokies into the ACC and NCAA tournaments, which they achieved when Rash was a redshirt freshman but missed the last two years.
“It means a lot to me,” Rash said. “I’ve put a lot of sweat and tears into this program, tried to turn it around and lead it into better standing than when I came here.
“One way of doing that is going out and making the ACC tournament and the NCAA tournament. I’m trying to do everything possible to keep this program heading in the right direction.”
The first step is to qualify for one of the eight berths in the ACC tournament. The top two teams in each division make it, along with the next four teams with the best conference records.
The Hokies are 11-13 in league play with two series left, including this weekend at Boston College. They helped their cause by beating Virginia two out of three last weekend.
“It’s always good to beat your in-state rival, not only for bragging rights but also beating a quality opponent,” Rash said. “Virginia in the last (several) years has been a really good program and they’ve gone to Omaha (for the College World Series) multiple times.
“That’s where we’re trying to get as a program, to be a constant NCAA tournament team and get to where they are. With us beating them two out of three it kind of showed everybody that we’re headed in the right direction.”
As of now, the Hokies are tied for the seventh spot and they could finish as high as sixth. But there’s no room to slip. They will be on the road this weekend against a BC team that lost its first 20 ACC games, then beat Miami two out of three last weekend. And the Eagles are coached by former Tech assistant Mike Gambino.
“He actually recruited me,” Rash said, “and I know what type of team he’s going to put on the field – a lot of competitive guys who won’t just go through the motions, nine guys who want to win. We’ve got to go in there with our A game because they’re going to take it to us.”
It was Gambino and Hokies coach Pete Hughes who saw the promise in Rash. The native of Anderson, S.C., was steadily recruited by Coastal Carolina, but little or not at all by other big in-state schools. . But Virginia Tech pushed hard to get him.
“I wanted to go somewhere they really wanted me,” Rash said. “It has been a lot of ups and downs. When I came here I was a project and was redshirted.”
Hughes agreed with that assessment. He said Rash was strong and athletic but had problems with his “swing plane,” which is the route the bat travels through the hitting zone. But despite the learning curve that necessitated the redshirt season, Hughes saw some ingredients that made Rash a prospect.
“We liked him because he played really hard with a lot of energy,” Hughes said. “We were trying to turn this program around and we liked his attitude and intensity. He had bat speed and raw power. We saw a kid with raw power potential, a kid who played with energy and enthusiasm for the game.”
Hughes said it wasn’t until the latter part his redshirt freshman year that things began to click for Rash. He cracked a home run off of Virginia’s Danny Hultzen, who would be the second pick in the draft that summer.
In the final series of the season Rash had a pinch-hit home run against North Carolina. He stayed hot in the ACC tournament in Greensboro, going 5-for-12 with two homers. For the season, Rash started 20 games, hit .344 with six homers and drove in 16 runs.
He followed that with an excellent sophomore campaign, making first team All-ACC by hitting .335 with 18 homers and 53 RBIs, although the Hokies missed the ACC Tournament. After three years in the program Rash was eligible for the major league draft but was disappointed when he wasn’t picked until the 36th round, by San Diego. He decided his best option was returning to Virginia Tech.
“I went into the draft wanting a certain amount of money and figured I had a pretty good chance of somebody taking me,” he said. “But I didn’t get taken until late and the injury bug hit me a little bit. I look back at it (not signing) and I don’t have any regrets.”
Rash slumped in his junior season, posting a .273 average with seven homers and 34 RBIs, and went undrafted last summer. The Hokies missed the tournament again and he had to decide whether to return for his fifth season. After talking things over with Hughes he decided to come back. Rash earned his degree in Human Development in December, then declared a second major in Sociology to keep taking courses.
His career has had its share of ups and downs, but Rash is finishing on a high note. The most important thing about this season for him is to return to that taste of success he enjoyed in 2010 in the ACC and NCAA tournaments. His goal from the start of the season was to make the ACC tournament in Durham.
“I told the team that with the talent that we have and the veterans that we have back, that being in the ACC tournament is where we need to be,” Rash said. “If we’re not in Durham, then this year has been a bust. If we can get in there, we’re going to get into a regional.”
The Hokies have responded by going 28-18 overall and they’re ranked No. 25 by Baseball America. They have hit well all season, with Sean Keselica at .333, Rash .331 (with eight homers and 51 RBIs), Chad Pinder .330, Gary Schneider .329, Tyler Horan .325 and Mark Zagurnis .305.
Four teammates remain from the 2010 season, all pitchers – Clark Labitan (seven saves), Jake Joyce (6-1, 3.19), Joe Mantiply (4-0, 3.64), and Tanner McIntyre (3-0, 3.91).
“Younger guys always ask what’s it like to make an ACC tournament, what’s it like to make a regional,” Rash said. “I tell them if you make the ACC, you’ve got a chance to win a championship. There’s nothing better in this world than winning a championship and those guys are eager to see what it feels like.”
As his college career winds down, Rash said the last few weekends are going to be meaningful and emotional.
“These will be the last games I get to play for coach Hughes, who been like a father to me,” Rash said. “And I’ve got the best teammates you could ever have. I’m thankful for the opportunity I’ve had here and I’ve enjoyed it.”
And Hughes has enjoyed seeing his one-time project develop into a splendid player whose energy, worth ethic and approach to the game have inspired his teammates. He said Rash is playing relaxed and he couldn’t be happier for him.
“He’s an unselfish, dedicated, first-class human being, and a real leader,” Hughes said.
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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