Virginia Tech Pitcher Drue Hackenberg Shines in Collegiate Debut

The future of Virginia Tech’s rotation — a freshman who has lived in his older brothers’ shadow for the majority of his life — trekked from the dugout into the mound at English Field Sunday afternoon, followed by a scattered applause from a small crowd. 

Drue Hackenberg was ready for his moment, finally out of the shadow of his siblings — one that was almost 20 years in the making.

“Yeah, I was nervous, amped up, ready to go,” Hackenberg said. “But once I got that first strike out, they settled a little bit.”

Drue is carving his own path. As the freshman right-hander circled the mound before his collegiate debut against UNC Asheville on Sunday afternoon, he stopped, pausing to take it in before the Hokies’ 104 win over the Bulldogs. The nerves calmed, then it was go time.

It was his turn in the spotlight.

You might have heard of his eldest brother, Christian, who was a quarterback at Penn State and was a second-round NFL Draft pick in 2016. His other siblings, Brandon and Adam, are pretty athletic, too. 

Brandon was a successful soccer player at Penn State before he was selected by Orlando City SC with the No. 22 overall pick in the 2021 MLS SuperDraft. Adam, meanwhile, played in the infield for Clemson and was picked in the 18th round by the Chicago White Sox in the 2021 MLB Draft.

“That’s one big thing for me, I love my brothers but at the end of the day I want to be known for Drue,” Hackenberg said.

But Drue, too, is a legitimate prospect, according to Perfect Game. The outlet projected him as a potential draft pick in three years and rated him a top-500 prospect in the class of 2021. For now, though, the Hokies have him in their rotation.

From the first pitch to his last, Drue shoved. His collegiate tenure began with a low 90’s fastball to Ty Kaufman that missed the zone by a few inches, then a strikeout three pitches later. 

After that, he toyed with the next two hitters. He showcased his change-up and curveball to keep UNC Asheville off balance. He fired a few more fastballs, forcing Dominic Freeberger and Corbin Lanowitz to induce weak contact that found the gloves of third baseman Carson DeMartini and first baseman Lucas Donlon.

Hackenberg’s imposing 6-foot-2 frame, though he looks a few inches taller on the mound, obscures his affable demeanor. His talent for throwing balls over the plate mirrors exactly what the Hokies preached in the offseason — throwing strikes and avoiding the free pass. 

Before he went out to start, Hackenberg was clearly ready to go — maybe even too ready. He chucked two warm up pitches to the backstop, but the anxiety eventually calmed.

An hour later, Hackenberg had a 1-0 lead in the third inning after setting down the first nine hitters down in a row — three of which were on strikes. To accompany the stellar pitching, Donlon singled and DeMartini drove him home with a single of his own.

He worked through the fourth after surrendering a lead-off walk and a one-out single. Hackenberg didn’t let that phase him as he induced another groundball to DeMartini, who stepped on third for the second out of the inning. Then he got Robbie Burnett to lift a fly ball to right field to end the inning.

He pitched a flawless fifth, forcing two ground outs, and struck out MJ Lucas to end his afternoon. He exited to a round of applause from those in attendance and was greeted with a fist bump from Noah Johnson and Marcus Dux before he shook head coach John Szefc’s hand. 

“It was his first outing, first start, so you’re not always too sure what you’re going to get from someone like that,” Szefc said. “He’s clearly good enough, but it was important for a young guy to have success like that to build some confidence.”

Perhaps he’ll start a few more times this season, though Szefc doesn’t like putting labels on any of his players. Maybe he won’t this year, especially when tougher competition in the ACC rolls around in March.

Either way, Virginia Tech (3-0) caught a glimpse of the future at English Field on Sunday afternoon. He left with five scoreless innings, seemingly with plenty to give.


Virginia Tech Freshman Carson DeMartini Hits Two Homers in Two Days

If you told Carson DeMartini at the end of last summer that he’d hit two home runs in his first two collegiate games, he probably wouldn’t have believed you. 

Virginia Tech’s third baseman had just come off a monster high school season. However, he only hit .177 with the Peninsula Pilots in the Coastal Plain League last summer.

The true freshman called his summer-long slump an “ego check.” But after hitting his first homer on the first pitch he saw — a deep drive into left field — in the Hokies’ 17-3 win on Friday afternoon, his confidence returned. 

And after DeMartini pulled a homer to right field after the pitcher hung a change-up in the sixth inning of Virginia Tech’s 8-1 victory on Saturday, he was on top of the world. 

Before the homer, Tech wasn’t hitting well with runners in scoring position, only having scored two runs. The swing capped off a four-run sixth inning on Saturday, one that injected the Hokies with momentum before they scored three more runs in the eighth. 

“It’s just another step in the right direction,” DeMartini said. “We were struggling to get it going on offense, but two guys got on in front of me, and they didn’t have a choice but pitch to me.”

When he began playing in one of the toughest summer collegiate leagues in America, DiMartini had just graduated high school. It’s tough enough for a collegiate player to see some of the best arms in the country day-in-day-out. But as a high schooler, that’s a much, much tougher challenger. 

He called it important for his development as he begins his career as an everyday player. 

Coming in as a freshman, it didn’t get any easier. He had a tough void to fill at third. Fan favorite Kevin Madden, who transferred to South Carolina over the summer, was Tech’s third baseman from 2019-21 and hit .306 with 10 home runs and 75 RBIs in 118 games. 

Through two games, he’s exceeded those national expectations. Perfect Game ranked him as the No. 437 overall freshman across Division I baseball and the No. 83 overall freshman in the ACC. Before that, he led his high school to the Virginia 6A regional championship and was the 6A Region Player of the Year in 2019. 

But DeMartini’s head coach, John Szefc, said he expected his third baseman’s success all along. Before the season, he raved about DeMartini’s bat and his glove.

“He’s one of the rare guys as a true freshman that should be an immediate impact player,” Szefc said on Tuesday. “He’s a pretty advanced guy for his age, defensively, offensively, kind of the way he thinks and how he plays. He had that experience in the [Coastal Plain League]. I think it will really help him to be an immediate impact player.”

The glove, too, was on full display on Saturday. In the third inning, he dove to his left to rob a hit, throwing the runner out at first all in one motion as he preserved Ryan Okuda’s third of five shutout innings.

DeMartini was bumped up to the two-hole after Gavin Cross got the day off. But it seems like wherever he hits, he produces.

“Hopefully I hit another,” DeMartini said with a laugh.

Griffin Green Strikes Out Five, Doesn’t Allow A Run in Opening Day Start

Griffin Green could see his own breath as he stepped up to the mound to open the season for Virginia Tech.

Six months removed from starting the first game of the Cape Cod championship series for the Brewster White Caps, the sophomore, tabbed with his first-ever Opening Day start, shoved.

“Them giving me the ball [in that series], gave me so much confidence,” Green said of his start for the White Caps. “It let me know I could pitch with some of the best players in the entire country.”

Starting opening day on the bump for an ACC team is tough enough, sure. But following up a rotation that watched two Major League teams draft three of its starters — while a fourth signed with another — is an even tougher one. But before the season, head coach John Szefc knew Green would be ready for it. 

“[Green is] very dependable — you know what you’re getting from him,” Szefc said.

On Tuesday, Szefc talked about how fewer and fewer pitchers in the ACC were making “efficient starts,” meaning a pitcher throws six or more innings. 

Green’s outing, though, almost mirrored one. He pitched five shutout innings, setting up the Hokies’ 17-3 win over UNC Asheville on Friday afternoon at English Field. He struck out five batters, only allowed two hits and didn’t walk a batter on 64 pitches (42 strikes) in his second career start. 

“It’s awesome,” Green said on being named the Opening Day starter. “But I just see it as a label. I don’t really care if I’m the first guy out or just the last guy in the bullpen. I just wanna help the team out as much as possible, and I was glad I was able to do so today.”

And it was quite evident from the get-go. He caught the Bulldogs’ lead-off hitter looking with two straight strikes before Ty Kaufman grounded out to begin the afternoon. 

Seven pitches after that, Green struck out Dominic Freeberber and Dylan Bacot on swings and misses. He used his two-seam fastball effectively, keeping it low in the zone to force opposing hitters to hit into ground balls, while also keeping them off-balanced as he mixed in his off-speed pitches.

That strategy certainly helped Green get out of a jam in the third inning. After setting down the first six batters in order, UNC Asheville’s Fermin Osio reached on a single. A sacrifice bunt moved him to second, which rattled Green’s confidence a little.

Green lost control of a fastball and hit Grayson Preslar, putting runners on first and second base with one out. Three pitches later, though, he got Kaufman to ground to Carson DeMartini at third base for a 5-3 double play to end the inning.

“I tried to attack the zone as best as I could and just relied on my stuff,” Green said. “I just used two pitches the whole day and got easy ground ball outs and trusted the guys behind me.”

It was plays like that over the summer — ones that taught him not to panic if he was in a jam — during Green’s time in Cape Cod that boosted his confidence and changed him from the pitcher he was last year into a “brand new” one, as he described.

“Last season, I was probably half the pitcher than I [am now],” Green said. “Maturity-wise, pitching-wise, really nailing down my mechanics leading into this [season].”

Replacing the professional talent that left last season won’t happen overnight. Tech lost four solid pitchers — Anthony Simonelli, Chris Gerard, Shane Connolly and Peyton Alford — to the pros. But Green’s start is certainly a step in the right direction.

“It was cold, a very tough day to pitch,” Szefc said. “He got it done.”

Virginia Tech Baseball Hopeful Ahead Of 2022 Season

Virginia Tech head coach John Szefc sits by himself at a plastic table near the press box above English Field. As he collects his thoughts, he doesn’t dwell on the disappointing 2-15 finish over the Hokies’ final 17 conference games last spring. 

In mid-April, Tech was atop the Coastal Division standings, only to sputter down the stretch and qualify as the last team in the ACC Baseball Championship a month later. 

Szefc leans back against the white plastic chair with his left leg crossed over his right as he thinks of a comparison to his 2022 team. It’s one that, even with the roster turnover from last season, he believes can still improve on last year’s finish, one that had an ever-so-slim chance to play for an ACC title for the first time since 2013.

He pauses for a moment. He looks up, then back down. And smiles softly.

“If you went out and watched Notre Dame this time last year, you’d be saying the same thing,” Szefc said in a recent interview with Tech Sideline.

To Szefc, this spring is a clean slate.

His roster is full of more unknowns than knowns. Though, it’ll be one with more experience than last season’s after recruiting graduate transfers, seven of which will suit up for VT this spring. 

Szefc expects the fans to say, “who’s this?” and, “why is this guy here?” when some of the newest additions are announced in the opening day lineup.

He’s right. This Virginia Tech team is projected to finish sixth in the ACC Coastal, one point head of Pitt. All four of the Hokies’ weekend starters from a season ago and a key member on offense are off playing professional baseball.

But when looking at Notre Dame last season, who was projected to finish at the bottom of the Atlantic Division, the Irish defied the odds. They rounded out the season as the ACC’s best team and were one win away from making it to the College World Series.

Though his team might not become the complete surprise that Notre Dame was a season ago, Szefc carries himself with a self-assuredness, believing his roster has a chance to improve on its 27-25 (16-20 ACC) record in 2021 – the first full-season winning record he’s posted since arriving from Maryland in 2017.

Now in his fifth season at Virginia Tech, Szefc’s program struggled in his first two years during the initial stages of the rebuild, limping to a 21-33 and 26-27 record, respectively. However, the tables began to turn in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season where the Hokies went 11-5 with Ian Seymour, Carson Taylor and Zach Brzycky, who all signed with professional clubs in 2020. 

It left Tech to question “what if?” as Szefc’s progress suddenly came to a stop.

“I mean, [that] 2020 fall was broken for so many players,” Szefc said. “The guys would be here, and then they’re gone for a week, and then they’re back for two [weeks], then they’re gone again.”

But in year four, Szefc’s rebuild together began to come to fruition — in the first half at least. As Georgia Tech came to Blacksburg, VT held a one-game lead over the Yellow Jackets in the Coastal standings, only to drop two-of-three in the April weekend series. It started a spiral as the Hokies won just one of their final 14 ACC games.

The first half of the 2021 season, however, might be a sign of what’s to come in the near future.

“I think talent-wise, it’s a talented group,” Szefc said. “It’s just just a matter of them going out and playing against other people.”

Here’s a breakdown of what Virginia Tech’s 2022 roster looks like:

Pitching Staff

Along with Szefc, pitching coach Ryan Fecteau returns for a fifth season in Blacksburg.

In July, he watched two MLB teams draft three of his starters — the Kansas City Royals picked Shane Connolly (10th round) and Anthony Simonelli (16th round), while Chris Gerard was taken by the St. Louis Cardinals in the 12th round. Peyton Alford, meanwhile, signed with the Seattle Mariners as an undrafted free agent. 

And, to add to it, Mason Albright — a high schooler from IMG Academy and the No. 42 overall college recruit according to Perfect Game — was drafted by the Los Angeles Angels in the 12th round, signing for $1.25 million.

Fecteau used a “traditional” starting rotation in 2021, meaning that the starting pitcher would take the mound for their designated day and pitch at least six innings. Szefc is unsure if the Hokies roll with that same plan in 2022. 

“[Fecteau] may end up running guys out there for one time through the lineup,” Szefc said. “When you actually look at the amount of efficient starts that a true starter an ACC makes — as of last year it was less than 40% — meaning that the starter goes out there and gives you six innings. Obviously, if a guy’s a traditional starter and he proves he can do that, then great. 

“But if he doesn’t, I think the one thing we do have on this staff which is better than the past probably is our depth. We have more depth with more guys we feel like they can operate in this league.”

Take Ryan Kennedy for example. He’s one of the four graduate transfers that have starting pitching experience (4.33 ERA in 10 starts in 2021 at Kennesaw State), but Szefc isn’t sure how his stuff will transfer over from a mid-major school to ACC play. 

The other three graduate transfers are Sean Fisher (Maryland), Kiernan Higgins (Shippensburg), and Jordan Geber (Mount St. Mary’s).

Fisher started four games in 12 appearances in 2021 and then was used solely as a reliever in the MLB Draft League over the summer. Higgins is a 6-foot-4 right hander that had 10 starts in 2021 (4.73 ERA), though he was much more effective as a reliever in the Draft League (0.36 ERA, 15 app.). Geber recorded a 3.88 ERA in 10 starts a season ago.

“Unfortunately, in traditional baseball, it’s all about stamps,” Szefc said. “I play short, I play third, I’m a left-handed DH against a right-handed pitcher, like that’s my stamp. What we’ve tried to do is water down the stamps, like don’t feel like you got to be labeled as a guy. Like, let’s just go ahead and give your best effort on that day for what you’ve been asked to do.”

The Hokies return most of their main bullpen arms from a season ago: Jonah Hurney, Graham Firoved, Matthew Silverling, Ryan Okuda, Noah Johnson, Peter Sakellaris, Ryan Metz and Grant Umberger.

The eight combined to pitch about 35% of VT’s innings last year. The only oft-used arm that left the program was Jaison Heard, who used his COVID blanket to return for an extra year in 2021.

In addition, Szefc said Griffin Green is a player to keep an eye on throughout the season. Szefc named Green and Okuda starters for the season-opening series on Thursday. The right-hander threw five-plus innings in Tech’s intersquad game last Friday.

“I think we have a couple marquee names like Gavin Cross, like a [Tanner] Schobel,” Szefc said. “I would actually throw Griffin Green in that pot because he played for Brewster’s team that won the Cape Cod League Championship. He was the starting pitcher in the first game in a best of three series, but he was behind some of the guys we had last year.”

Adding to the mix of veteran arms, the Hokies recruited a top-30 class for the first time in Szefc’s tenure at Tech.

Freshman Tyler Dean is a national top-100 prospect and Virginia’s top right-handed arm. Drue Hackenburg, the brother of former Penn State and New York Jets quarterback Christian, was the Commonwealth’s fourth-best right-hander in his class.

Position players

After averaging nearly six runs per game last season, Virginia Tech’s offense will have some major holes to fill after first baseman TJ Rumfield (.880 OPS) departed for professional baseball and third baseman Kevin Madden (.779 OPS) transferred to South Carolina.

Szefc, however, is optimistic that his newest additions will fill the holes that Rumfield and Madden left.

The Hokies return Preseason All-American Gavin Cross (1.035 OPS), who will shift from right to center field, and Preseason All-ACC Second Team shortstop Tanner Schobel (.800 OPS) to their lineup from last season. 

Cross is projected as a top-10 pick in this year’s draft, while Szefc compares Schobel to former NC State shortstop Will Wilson, who was picked 15th overall by the Angels in 2019.

“Similar kind of guys, you know,” Szefc said in Schobel’s comparison to Wilson. “Right-handed, sub 6-foot player? He was really good then for NC State. He played when I first got here, maybe in ‘18 or ‘19. But he was really good.”

After he was projected as a mid-round pick in last July’s draft, Nick Biddison’s shoulder injury tanked his draft stock as the senior opted to return to Tech for a fourth year. Szefc says that Biddison, who recorded a combined .966 OPS in 2019 and 2020, is “100%” heading into Friday’s opener.

“Last year was a tough one for him, Szefc said. “Going through that surgery and trying to get back and be you know, Superman, like, overnight. You can’t be Superman overnight in this league, no matter who you are, how good you are. So I think it’ll be fine.”

He projects Biddison to be all over the field this season, just as he was in his freshman and sophomore seasons, when he played every position except pitcher. Though he could end up seeing a lot of time at first base, where the team had him all fall and during the inter-squad scrimmages this spring. 

Meanwhile, Szefc expects freshman third baseman Carson DeMartini to start right away as an impact bat at the hot corner. 

“He’s a pretty advanced guy for his age, defensively, offensively, kind of ways he thinks and how he plays,” Szefc said. “He had that experience in the [Coastal Plain League]. I think it will really help him to be an immediate impact player.”

Veteran depth returns at first base with Nick Holesa (.855 OPS in 16 games), who entered the transfer portal and later took his name out once Rumfield signed his pro contract. Speedy outfielder Brennan Reback is back after a leg injury ended his season in mid-March. He’s expected to split time with sophomore Jack Hurley in the outfield.

“[Reback] plays a really, really good outfield, like, he can outrun the ball,” Szefc said. “He’s the kind of guy that can take runs off the board with his defense, which is kind of a rare thing. You don’t normally see that since a lot of guys are so worried about putting runs on the board. So he has a real intangible tool there that’s hard to measure.”

A 35th round pick by the Colorado Rockies out of high school, Cade Hunter will return for a third year behind the plate. Sophomore Gherig Ebel and freshman Dylan Hatfield back him up, and Ebel saw time last season when Hunter broke his right hamate bone in late March. Ebel picked up 12 starts in his place before Hunter returned in early May.

Needing to replace left fielder Tanner Thomas, who graduated in the spring, Szefc turned to the transfer portal to recruit Simonelli’s and Kennedy’s high school teammate, Conor Hartigan from James Madison. As a senior at JMU, Hartigan slashed .364/.414/.576 in 28 games and projects as a corner outfielder for Tech.

“Solid defense and corner outfield spot and fall throws well,” Szefc said. “[Hartigan is] a pretty good athlete for a guy that size. And he should be right in the mix as a former outfielder and DH. [He’s] a guy that had a lot of success in four years of JMU.”

Tech also added infielder Eduardo Malinowski from Penn, where he hit .353 with a .917 OPS in four years (95 games). He’s one of the players the fans will ask, “who’s this?” once he’s introduced in the starting lineup on Friday before he becomes one of the team’s impact bats, Szefc said. 

What’s Next?

With a good beginning, middle and end, Virginia Tech could put itself in the running for a mid-tier seed once the ACC Baseball Championships rolls around in May as the Hokies begin their season at English Field against UNC Asheville on Friday at 2 p.m. 

For Szefc, he expects his team to improve on its 12th-place finish in last year’s standings.

“I think we expect to go back and do way better.”

The Hokies open their season on Friday in the first of three games in a weekend series vs. UNC Asheville. First pitch is at 2 p.m., and the game will be televised on ACC Network.