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May 10, 2010

Riding the tide - Steve Domecus' energetic personality and hard work have turned his baseball career (and the Hokies' season) into a huge success

By: Matt Kovatch

Steve Domecus can’t surf as much as he used to when he was in California, so longboarding around campus (top image) is how he gets his fix.

Already a little bit frustrated, Steve Domecus walked into his coach’s office for his end-of-the-fall meeting during his freshman year at UC Santa Barbara in 2005. He had signed with the Gauchos’ baseball program after being told he would have a chance to start at catcher and be an everyday player, but he had just spent the whole semester battling it out at the bottom of an eight-man depth chart at the position.

“I came in thinking, ‘OK, there are going to be three catchers and I’ll have to beat out two of them,’” he said. “But there were eight of us. After I signed, they actively sought out three more people to catch.”

He had done everything he could to impress the staff, coming in on his days off to catch a bullpen session or a batting practice. But it went unnoticed.

“I could see you being a guy who hits .250 – maybe – in your lifetime as a college baseball player,” the coach said, as Domecus’ jaw dropped to the floor. “I just don’t think you have it in you.”

Maybe it was a motivational tactic. Maybe it was, in the coach’s mind, the truth. But Domecus took it as a slap in the face, one that he still feels to this day every time he steps to the plate.

Fast-forward five years, and Domecus is a long way from his days as a glorified bullpen catcher in California. He’s one of the top players in the elite Atlantic Coast Conference, hitting .349 at press time – nearly 100 points better than his coach told him he would – for an upstart Virginia Tech team that has surprised the nation.

It’s been a roundabout career, but the fifth-year senior is on the cusp of leading the No. 16 Hokies to their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2000. And he’s done it with a lot of hard work, a little bit of fate, and just the right amount of fun tossed in.

Domecus was born with a baseball in his hands, almost literally, as his father and grandfather gave him a bat and a glove the day he arrived in a San Francisco hospital. He grew up in nearby Novato, Calif., where he was a three-sport star at Marin Catholic High School. Not wanting to leave the state at that point, he narrowed his college choices down to UCSB, UC Davis and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, eventually settling on the Gauchos.

Domecus’ freshman year – the spring of 2006 – was technically a redshirt year, but he said he was basically cut from the team.

“I got to practice with the team, but I wasn’t on the roster,” he said. “It was miserable, but I knew that I could play baseball and succeed at it. That wasn’t something I was going to let them hammer out of me.”

Domecus went out and had a good season in the California summer league before coming back to UCSB motivated and mature, but there were still seven catchers working with the team. He decided to stick it out with a new outlook.

“I didn’t really hang out with the baseball guys my first year,” Domecus remembered. “I kept myself secluded because I wasn’t happy. But I came back my second year with a different mindset and decided that I was going to try things I’d never done before. I was going to be outgoing and friendly with all my teammates. I was going to make the most of it.”

He only got 37 at-bats and caught a grand total of six innings behind the plate all season, but his new mentality – which led to a new love – kept him going.

“One day, my friend asked if I wanted to go surfing,” Domecus described. “I was like, ‘Dude, I’ve never done that before.’ So I went out and I was terrible at it. But after I almost got up on my first wave, I was like, ‘Oh my god, that was so fun!’”

Domecus’ dorm room was a home run’s distance from the Pacific Ocean, and he woke up every morning looking at the beach. While his baseball season was floundering, the high tide kept him afloat.

“I’d go surfing almost every day,” he said. “Once you get the surfing bug, it never goes away. I saved all my per diem from every road trip and bought a surfboard and a wet suit, courtesy of the Gauchos. It’s something I’ve rolled with ever since. I love it. I’m never as calm as I am when I’m surfing.”

Following his redshirt freshman season, Domecus said that one of UCSB’s coaches suggested he spend the summer working as an outfielder so that he’d have a better chance of getting in the lineup the next year. He did just that, leading the Cal Ripken Collegiate Baseball League in homers and runs batted in while playing for the Rockville Express in Maryland. His hot streak continued into the fall for the Gauchos, but another meeting with the coaching staff resulted in more disappointing news.

“Coach said, ‘I see you as the designated hitter against left-handed pitchers for this season,’” Domecus recalled. “That’s when I decided I needed to leave. They didn’t seem to care about me.”

As luck would have it, Domecus’ hitting coach from Rockville just happened to be the head coach at Moorpark, a junior college about an hour down the road from Santa Barbara.

“He’d joke with me all summer about how he knew the head coach at Moorpark and that he could put in a good word for me if I decided to transfer,” Domecus said.

Though he loved the school and he loved his friends, Domecus knew that leaving Santa Barbara was the only way to reach his potential as a baseball player. He joined coach Mario Porto at Moorpark for the 2008 campaign and thrived, hitting .370 with 10 home runs and 42 RBI. Furthermore, the move also fueled his surfing addiction – “Everyone on the team surfed,” he said. “I probably went six days a week.”

Soon enough, big-time Division I schools, and several Major League Baseball teams, were knocking on Domecus’ door. His season at Moorpark had put him on the map.

The list of schools that targeted Domecus included Texas, UC Irvine, San Diego, Oregon and Fresno State, but also a dark horse candidate in Virginia Tech.

“I knew almost nothing about Virginia Tech,” Domecus said. “I knew they had a good football team and I knew Michael Vick went there.”

But Tech head coach Pete Hughes and his staff set out to change that.

“A priority to that recruiting class was to add depth to our catching situation, but also to get the ideal kid who could play other positions on his day off to make our lineup more versatile,” Hughes said. “He was exactly what we profiled in our wants and needs.”

Domecus admitted he was a little skeptical to pick a school that had just a .418 winning percentage since joining the ACC, but he realized he had a chance to help them turn it around.

Steve Domecus blocks home plate in one of Tech’s many upset wins this season, tagging out a runner in the Hokies’ 9-7 win over No. 9 Miami earlier this year.

“The coaches put it into my head that I would be a part of something bigger than a team that’s supposed to go to a regional every year or a team that’s supposed to go to the College World Series,” Domecus said. “They said I was going to be a part of a team that changes the mentality of how people view the school. I’m a person who likes to prove people wrong, so being able to do what our team is doing now was a big selling point for me.”

The big stadiums, the fancy clubhouses and the winning tradition of schools like Texas were certainly alluring, but it’s a trick Domecus wasn’t falling for again.

“When you go through the same thing twice, you’re a little more to the wise the second time around,” Domecus explained. “You know what you’re looking for. I knew I needed to go to a school where I was going to get a chance to play, but mostly, a school where the coaching staff was going to treat me right. I knew Tech’s coaches weren’t going to sell me out. They called me every week. Coach Hughes even picked me up from the airport. He’s the only head coach to ever pick me up from the airport on a recruiting trip. I didn’t even need to see the school.”

“That’s one of the advantages of recruiting a junior college kid,” Tech assistant coach Mike Gambino said. “Especially one who has failed and who has gained the maturity that comes along with saying ‘I got beat the first time around by things that don’t really matter.’ Steve was a kid who had been through that and who got beat by all the fluff. He was looking more at substance and what was a good fit for him. It’s worked out for him, and it’s obviously worked out well for us.”

Though the Hokies had won over Domecus, there was one last hurdle to clear – the appeal of a professional contract. According to Domecus, he received calls the night of the first day of the 2008 MLB draft, with teams offering to select him in the seventh round the next day with a contract worth $150,000.

“I didn’t sleep one minute that night,” Domecus said. “I called Coach Gambino at 3 in the morning on the East Coast, and he talked to me for two hours. Being a former pro scout, he gave it to me straightforward. He told me it wouldn’t be a bad thing to sign for that amount of money. He was willing to let me go if that’s what I wanted to do. He didn’t lie to me.

“If someone is willing to do that for a player who isn’t even on campus yet, you know they’re a good person and you know they will treat you right and make sure they do everything possible to help you succeed. That was really the pivotal point in deciding whether to go pro or not. I knew I wanted to go to Tech after that.”

So Domecus packed up and moved to Blacksburg – without his surfboard, unfortunately – and enjoyed immediate success. The Hokies put together their best winning percentage in 10 years in 2009, and Domecus won the ACC regular-season batting title by hitting .406 – quite a bit higher than the mark of .250 he was never supposed to exceed. He even got a bit of sweet revenge against the coach who slighted him as a freshman, according to his old friends at UCSB, whom he keeps in touch with.

“They were watching our Wake Forest game last year on TV in their locker room,” Domecus said, unable to contain a smile. “As the head coach walked into the room, he asked who they were watching. Right then, I hit a home run. They said he just looked at the TV and walked out.”

Domecus earned second-team All-ACC honors in his first year as a Hokie, and he did so despite playing a month with a broken hand before he was forced to shut it down for the season’s final three weeks. It’s an injury that cost him an opportunity to go surfing on last year’s road trip to Miami – “That was my comeuppance for punching my helmet after a strikeout. I couldn’t go surfing in South Beach.” – but it’s also an injury that enabled him to return for the Hokies’ magical 2010 season in which they have won seven games over top-10 teams.

“If Steve doesn’t break his hand last year, he probably gets drafted in the second round after the start he had and the way he was playing,” Gambino said. “I’m a big believer that everything happens for a reason. At the time, it made him miserable and it made us miserable – nobody was happy that he broke his hand. But obviously, we’re ecstatic that he’s here this year for us. He makes our offense go, he’s unbelievable defensively, and he’s a worker.”

The working hasn’t stopped since his days catching bullpens in California. He’ll hit in the batting cage until his hands bleed. He’ll run stadium steps for extra conditioning until he gets shin splints. He’ll take six classes in one semester like he did last fall, holding down a part-time job at the same time and never missing a 6 a.m. workout.

And he does it all with the same SoCal attitude that kept him going during those tough times as a freshman. Though he can’t surf in the mountains of Southwest Virginia, he bides his time by cruising around campus on his longboard, a wider-styled skateboard that simulates surfing on concrete. He also spends time fishing and golfing.

“My theory is, if I’m not at practice or a game, I can’t be thinking about baseball,” Domecus said. “That’s the best way for me to succeed. The less you think, the better you’ll do. That’s what I’ve found.”

“He’s his own man and his own personality,” Hughes said. “I love that because you have to have a lot of confidence in yourself. He’s not a cookie-cutter teammate. Steve is borderline eccentric, but that’s what makes him special to me, because he’s so comfortable in his own skin. When I look at my kids and how I want them to grow up, I just want them to be comfortable in their own skin and not to be led around by their peers with how they should act. To me, that’s a leader.”