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:
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.
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.
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.