When it was official that a year projected to be another lost year in the John Szefc rebuild turned into an ACC Coastal Division title, a projected Super Regional host and the ACC regular season title for the first time in program history, No. 3 Virginia Tech jumped, hugged and high-fived.
The Hokies, though they knew they had the talent to compete with the best in the conference throughout the year, weren’t supposed to be here.
Coming into Saturday, Virginia Tech controlled its own destiny after overtaking Miami as the Coastal Division and conference leader. The math was simple for the Hokies: win and the regular season crown was yours. Lose and put all your chips in on No. 14 Notre Dame beating No. 6 Miami.
But once Miami’s game began an hour earlier than Tech’s and the Hurricanes jumped out to a 5-0 lead over the Irish in the first inning, the only option at that point was to take care of business against Duke.
Virginia Tech did just that with a 7-2 victory over the Blue Devils. It marked Tech’s 40th win – the first 40-win season since 2013 – and the first time a school’s baseball team and softball team won the conference’s regular season crown since Georgia Tech did it in 2005.
“It feels really sweet, I think it’s some justification for all the work that our staff and our players put in,” Szefc said after clinching the Coastal Division. “To be able to do it at home is a very unique thing. … To win a regular season championship in this league – which is arguably maybe one of the best in the country – it’s extra gratifying.”
There was a short point earlier this season when the celebrations didn’t seem possible. Not clinching the ACC’s No. 1 seed. Not potentially hosting an NCAA Super Regional. Really anything but jockeying for position as a middle of the pack team in the conference.
When Virginia Tech left Georgia Tech on March 13 after it was walked off twice and dropped all three games of the regular season, the Hokies traveled to Harrisonburg for a non-conference game against James Madison two days later. They lost that game as well. The following weekend, Tech hosted Pitt and dropped the series opener on March 18.
“We had to learn to lose before we had to win,” left fielder Jack Hurley said on Saturday. “Learning to lose is really important, especially in this conference. We went down [to Georgia Tech] and we didn’t get too deflated. We used that as fuel.”
If you peeked onto social media then or had a conversation with a friend, the season seemed dead in the water. And it was almost fair to think after Tech rose as high as the No. 17 team in the country in 2021 then collapsed, losing 15 of its last 17 ACC games, and qualified as the last team to make the ACC Tournament.
“No, I didn’t expect this,” Graham Firoved, who recorded the final out on Saturday, said about his team coming into the year. “I knew we were going to have a good year and that we’d make a regional. This has by far exceeded my expectations.”
But something changed during that Pitt series. Tech stayed healthy, for one, and its confidence never wavered. Griffin Green and Drue Hackenberg emerged as two of the ACC’s more reliable pitchers. The bullpen, which coughed up two leads to Georgia Tech, was stones the rest of the way.
That combination, however twisted, was enough to make the Hokies the most dangerous team in the ACC. From the second Pitt game on March 19 to Saturday, May 21, Tech ripped off 19 wins over its final last 24 conference games.
The Hokies won the next nine ACC series with six against ranked foes – No. 12 Notre Dame, No. 18 North Carolina, No. 21 NC State, No. 2 Miami, No. 11 Virginia and No. 7 Louisville – and two sweeps over Boston College and Duke. And it ultimately led them to a No. 1 seed and an opportunity to host a NCAA Tournament Regional.
But to Szefc, the expectations have been met, even if it took a few more years than he wanted the rebuild to take.
That project began in 2018 in Szefc’s first season. And through freshman recruiting, player development and the transfer portal, it’s all accumulated into a product that’s become can’t-miss-television.
Szefc got production from everywhere on Saturday.
His recruits: Nick Biddison, Tanner Schobel and Hurley went deep with solo shots in the bottom of the first inning to sport Tech a 3-0 lead. Then Carson Jones, who was recruited with Gavin Cross and Cade Hunter, went deep with a three-run homer in the seventh to put the game out of reach, 7-3.
Szefc’s transfers: Jordan Geber, Eduardo Malinowski and Firoved all gave Tech big contributions in its division-clinching win. Malinowski smoked his second home run of the weekend in between homers from Hurley and Jones in the third. Geber, meanwhile, threw 4 ⅓ two-run innings before the lightning delay ended his start early.
Then Firoved recorded the final 15 outs once the delay came to an end.
And once the ball settled into the glove of Jones out in right field for the final out, the Hokies made a mad dash to greet each other at the mound.
Firoved and Cade Hunter hugged. Szefc was drenched in a Gatorade bath. Noah Johnson gave Kiernan Higgins a piggy back ride around third base and to home plate.
“We did it, we did it!” one player yelled. “We won, baby!”
That’s how it went until the players dispersed a half-hour later. They celebrated with their parents and their friends on the concourse. They hugged some more.
And that’s when Szefc walked back down to the field to meet with a few local reporters. His voice was a little hoarse, perhaps from the yelling he did once his team’s score was final. If baseball wasn’t back in Blacksburg quite yet in this exponential season, then it certainly was on Saturday afternoon.
“This is one of the best days of my life,” Firoved said.