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February 11, 2010

Experienced and battle-tested Hokies begin 2010 with eyes on the postseason

By: Matt Kovatch

Justin Wright enters 2010 as the Hokies' No. 1 starter, having compiled an 11-2 record over his first two seasons.

“I would be really disappointed if we didn’t make the national tournament.”

Those are the words of Virginia Tech head baseball coach Pete Hughes, and a perfect summary of the level of expectations that the 2010 Hokies have for themselves after a 32-21 campaign and heading into Hughes and his staff’s fourth season with the program.

Of course, all coaches are disappointed when their team’s season doesn’t end with a postseason berth, but for the first time since joining the ACC, the Hokies appear to have the personnel to do it.

For the first three seasons in Hughes’ tenure, the Hokies routinely had one of the youngest and most inexperienced rosters in the Atlantic Coast Conference. But now in 2010, those players who were pressed into duty before they were ready in 2008 and 2009 are suddenly some of the most battle-tested and seasoned veterans in what is considered the best baseball conference in the NCAA.

“As far as experience coming back, we’re as good as you can be in this league,” Hughes said. “We had some young guys who were wide-eyed and overmatched as freshmen, but then becoming productive, and in some cases, dominant players in year two.”

For a look at some of those experienced players, here’s a quick preview of each of the positional areas:


Redshirt senior Steve Domecus, who plays in the outfield and at catcher, returns after an All-ACC season in which he batted .406.

Two players in particular will be key to the Hokies’ defense in 2010 – juniors Tim Smalling and Austin Wates.

Smalling, now in his second year with the program – he sat out last season to meet NCAA transfer requirements after starting for two years at Arkansas – is penciled in as the Hokies’ shortstop. The 6-foot-3, 207-pounder exhibited some offensive prowess during the fall when he hit .444 with two homers in the Hokie Fall World Series, but it’s his steady hand in the field that has the coaching staff excited.

“We think he’s a special player defensively,” Hughes said. “To have him be a calming presence in our infield, where our pitchers know that a play on a routine ground ball is going to be made, is what Tim really brings to our lineup this year.”

Speaking of offensive prowess, one needs to look no farther than Wates, who has been selected as a third-team preseason All-American by Collegiate Baseball/Louisville Slugger and Baseball America. Wates finished his sophomore season ranked fourth in the ACC with a .397 batting average, seventh with 20 doubles and eighth with 16 stolen bases.

First base was manned by committee for the first half of last season, but the athletic Wates settled in for most of the second half and was making plays that his peers around the league couldn’t make.

“We saw last year how important it is to have a really good first baseman,” Hughes added. “It takes away a lot of errors and it cuts your pitchers’ pitch count down when you have a guy who can pick everything. Austin was unbelievable. If our best defensive team features Austin at first base, that’s what we’ll do.”

Second base and third base look to be occupied by Michael Seaborn and Ronnie Shaban, respectively. Seaborn, now a redshirt junior, made the switch from third last year and wound up starting 33 games at second, hitting .300 with seven homers and eight doubles. Shaban started a combined 45 games (10 at third) as a true freshman and delivered, hitting .326 with 19 doubles and 38 RBI.


Much like last year, the Hokies will have a deep and competitive outfield situation. Though the starting center fielder does not return, the Hokies have the benefit of welcoming back their starter from 2008, redshirt senior Sean Ryan.

“Sean is someone we really missed last year at the top of our order and as a defender,” Hughes said. “To be able to have his leadership and experience in our program as a fifth-year senior is a luxury that we missed out on for the entirety of last season.”

Ryan was voted a team captain and began last season on a tear, hitting .450 with four doubles over the first five games, but he broke a bone in his hand and surgery left him out for the year. He was granted a medical hardship waiver and returns as a valuable asset for the Hokies both in the field and at the plate, having batted .305 in 50 starts as a junior.

Senior Mike Kaminski will have the first shot at the right field job, as he returns after batting .340 a year ago with six homers, 11 doubles and 38 RBI. He was one of two Hokies to have played in all 53 games last season, with 37 starts coming in right. It was a seamless transition to the ACC for the junior-college transfer, and much will be expected of him after he proved he belonged at this level in 2009.

Departed senior Klint Reed (.358) started 26 games in left field last season, but current redshirt senior Steve Domecus (who also catches) made 19 starts there as well and looks to be the first option at that spot in 2010. Also a junior-college transfer who made his Hokie debut last year, he won the ACC’s regular-season batting title after hitting .406. That made him the first Tech player to hit over .400 since 1997, as well as the first Tech player to earn All-ACC honors since the Hokies joined the league prior to the 2005 campaign.

“Steve returns as one of the top hitters and offensive performers in the ACC,” Hughes said. “When you look at on-base percentage (.477), strikeout numbers (only 13), average and the way he runs the bases, I think he’s one of the top three or four guys in the league.”


Senior Anthony Sosnoskie (.314, 18 doubles, seven homers, team-high 51 RBI) has been the Hokies’ everyday catcher for most of his career, and he will once again be behind the plate more often than not. But with a healthy Domecus, a proven backup in junior Chris Kay and a talented rookie in Chad Morgan, Hughes has depth at the position like never before.

“I think Anthony is really going to benefit from having such a solid core of guys at the position to rest him so he can be a better offensive player,” Hughes said. “We’re not going to ask him to catch 56 games for us. We are so deep at that position that I think he’ll be able to really benefit, especially toward the end of the year. I think he’s gotten tired in the past and it’s hurt him offensively.”


Though all of Tech’s pitchers, mid-week or weekend, will compete all season to move up in the rotation, the Hokies’ top four projected starters look to be juniors Justin Wright, Sean McDermott and Jesse Hahn, in addition to sophomore Mathew Price.

The left-handed Wright is locked in as Tech’s No. 1 starter after proving himself as the most reliable pitcher over his first two seasons, accumulating career totals of an 11-2 record, a 4.06 ERA and two complete games.

“I think he’s our top guy and we’re going to rely on him a lot over the course of the year,” Hughes said of Wright. “We have to keep him healthy because I think he matches up great against some of these lineups in the league that are lefty dominant. He’s a winner, we think he can handle a lot, and we’re going to give him a lot of responsibility.”

The pecking order after Wright will be settled depending on who steps in and performs, but McDermott, Hahn and Price will all surely have their numbers called regularly. The left-handed McDermott went 3-1 with a save and a 3.31 ERA last year, but arm troubles limited him to just 32.2 innings. Righties Hahn and Price have taken their lumps, but both possess next-level talent if they are able to harness it. Hahn has spent time as starter, a reliever and closer, but the hope for this season is to have him reach his potential (which earned him a preseason All-America nod from both Baseball America and scouting service PG Crosschecker) and become a weekend starter. Price started nine games as a rookie last year and showed that he has as good of stuff as anyone, but he needs to show it more consistently and learn from his mistakes.


With experience comes close games, and with close games come save opportunities, so it’s no surprise that the 2009 Hokies recorded more saves than any Tech team since 2003. If things keep progressing, there should be even more to come in 2010, and Ben Rowen and Brandon Fisher will be there to slam the door shut.

“Ben and Brandon are the most reliable guys coming out of our bullpen,” Hughes said. “Look for those two to be there at the end of the game for us. I don’t really know what’s going to happen with the closer role, but that usually sorts itself out. I don’t like to back myself into a corner with the closer role because match-ups really matter in this league, so I go with the best match-up that’s available according to the team we’re playing against.”

Rowen, who saved four games last year and earned four wins in a team-high 30 appearances, has a submarine delivery that baffles hitters the first time they see it. Fisher saved three games in 19 appearances and has earned the coaches’ trust after taking advantage of every opportunity he’s been given.

Both will be ready to go when called upon, but two others who could also factor in late into games could be sophomores Clark Labitan and Ronnie Shaban. Labitan served many roles as a rookie, appearing in 22 games and picking up four wins, while Shaban only pitched 6.2 innings last year as he made the transition to college ball and filled many roles in the field.


The Hokies could very well have the toughest road schedule in the nation, as all five of their conference road trips come at schools ranked among the top 15 in the USA Today/ESPN Coaches’ preseason poll: No. 4 Virginia, No. 5 Florida State, No. 10 Georgia Tech, No. 11 North Carolina and No. 15 Clemson.

Because of that, the Hokies cannot afford to get off to the 3-10 start in ACC play that they did last year. Tech went 9-7 the rest of the way, and that’s what will need to happen from the outset if a postseason berth is desired.

“The last half of last year, I thought we were a national tournament-level team,” Hughes said. “But you’re judged on your whole body of work, so we need to come out from game one and play like the experienced team that we are.”

Visit for a complete 2010 baseball schedule.