The bench between the dugout and the left field bullpen sat empty with no relievers in sight as the season unraveled for No. 4 Virginia Tech.
On the mound in the middle of the diamond, Jordan Geber withered. The Hokies had surged during the regular season with the ACC’s best record and winners of nine-straight conference series. They had assembled one of the nation’s best lineups and pitching staffs before the season began – only no one outside of the team knew that they would be here back in February.
Flash forward to June. Thanks to Carson DeMartini’s two-run blast in the bottom of the third that was a no-doubter, the score in Game 3 of the Blacksburg Super Regional was tied at two.
In the dugout, however, fifth-year head coach John Szefc watched Tech’s season end like this: a graduate transfer that suffered a preseason concussion worked his way back after re-learning how to pitch. He yielded a solo home run and then another on a sacrifice fly once he was pulled with an out in the top of the fourth. And then, over the course of the final five innings, Oklahoma pushed six more runs across to stun Virginia Tech, 11-2, and punch its ticket to the College World Series in Omaha.
“I’m going to speak for all of us and say that this sucks pretty bad,” catcher Cade Hunter said. “We didn’t get it done on the offense today, and that’s pretty much the moral of the story. Not too much to be happy about, but we can still celebrate the season and what we did together.”
It was a thrilling season that melted into the agony of defeat on Sunday afternoon. A team that began the season 0-4 in the ACC ripped off 19 wins in its final 24 conference games – a run that surprised, well, just about everyone. Except the team.
They knew they were going to be good. But how good was the question they had entering the season.
Clad in all-white uniforms, the Hokies hung over the railing in the third base dugout and watched the Sooners gather by first base once Jonah Seagers’s strikeout ended their season. They’ll spend the summer wondering what could have been, especially after the first game of the series was only lost by a run, 5-4, and the weekend marked their first home series loss in 2022.
Szefc and Virginia Tech weren’t sure what the answer was. Why they lost by nine in their final game of the year or why their pitching that carried them to wins in all nine of their home series this season suddenly faltered. And they weren’t sure why they scored just two runs on Sunday after scoring 14 the day before.
“We didn’t use the pen all that much throughout the whole year so we could go to the tank when we needed to,” Szefc said. “We had to go to the pen pretty early [this weekend]. I think our guys were pretty effective in how they pitched the last couple of days, but it just didn’t happen today.”
But in the grand scheme of things, it’s just another loss. Sure, it stings now, but the 2022 Virginia Tech baseball team will forever be remembered as the best. It’ll be the standard that future teams will look up to, just as the team this season looked back on the 2013 squad, which hosted a regional for the first time in program history.
Sunday started with Geber on the bump. He was sedated in the hospital in early January, earned ACC Pitcher of the Week after throwing seven combined scoreless innings in a week against Liberty (three) and then-No. 7 Louisville, and was named Tech’s Game 3 starter in a win-or-go-home game.
He surrendered two solo homers in the first inning – the first was off the bat of Peyton Graham and the other was courtesy of Tanner Tredaway that snuck inside the left field foul pole – but buckled down to fire two shutout innings in the second and third.
After the first seven Virginia Tech bats were set down in order, Eduardo Malinowski singled to left field with one out. DeMartini followed that up with his homer to left to tie it at two apiece.
Then, Geber struggled. He yielded his third solo homer of the afternoon in the top of the fourth to Tredaway, his second of the game. That was followed by Brett Squires’s RBI single that scored another run. Szefc pulled the plug and then Henry Weycker let up a sacrifice fly that scored the third run of the inning that pushed the score to 5-2.
That’s when Oklahoma starter Cade Horton settled in. After DeMartini’s homer, he set down nine straight batters from the third inning until Nick Biddison walked to lead off the sixth. He struck out eight batters – six on his slider, one on a fastball and the other was a change-up – while the only two hits he gave up came in that third inning against Malinowski and DeMartini.
Oklahoma scored two more runs in the fifth on back-to-back RBI doubles from Blake Robertson and Tredaway that increased the lead to 7-2. Over the final four frames, the Sooners added a run an inning. By that point, it was too little, too late for Virginia Tech.
The players, ones that envisioned this type of success before the season began, were understandably bummed after the game. But those players – Gavin Cross, Nick Biddison, Tanner Schobel and Cade Hunter – were under-recruited coming out of high school. None were ranked as a top-200 prospect, and all four will most likely be taken in next month’s MLB Draft. It speaks to the development of Szefc and his staff – one that he’s very clearly fond of.
“I wouldn’t trade anyone on this staff for anyone,” Szefc said.
After the final pitch had been recorded in Jimmy Crooks’s glove, the Hokies watched the Sooners celebrate. Once Oklahoma had left the field, Virginia Tech formed its circle of trust around home plate, as it had all season after each game. Only this time, the players weren’t split between pitchers and position players. The entire team came together as one. They talked and reminisced on the squad’s historic season.
“When we first came here, Coach Szefc, Elbin and the crew recruited us, we were bad,” Cross said. “One of the things that we wanted to accomplish as early as we could was kind of turn the program around [and] take it places we haven’t been. I think everyone involved – coaches [and players] – I think we’ve all done that over the last two or three years. [We] kind of changed the way that Virginia Tech baseball is looked at and hopefully continue that in the future.”
Once the circle broke up, the fans that stayed gave the team a standing ovation.
“We love you guys!” someone yelled. “We’ll get to Omaha next year,” another screamed.
The players and Szefc nodded in acknowledgement of the crowd, thanking them for sticking around. Behind them, Oklahoma continued its celebration, while the Hokies headed towards their locker room into an offseason they believed had come too soon.
“I think [the team] probably changed me a little bit as a person, certainly as a coach, but I think definitely as a person,” Szefc said. “I don’t know a whole lot of 50-plus year old guys that can say that. Once you get to be our age, you kind of get set in your ways. These guys changed my ways in a very good way and that’s something I’m really thankful for.”