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April 12, 2010

Hokie on the move - A cross-country relocation in the middle of high school tested Austin Wates' cool, but he's all the better for it now

By: Matt Kovatch

Austin Wates

Looking back on it now, it wasn’t exactly the greatest bargaining chip, but Tawnya Pettiford-Wates was doing everything – anything at all – to get her 16-year-old son, Austin, to accept a move across the country smack dab in the middle of his sophomore year of high school.

“I’ll tell you what,” she offered at the time. “You can paint your room any color you want to.”

“Black,” Austin replied, somberly. “I want it to be black.”

It wasn’t the answer Tawnya was looking for, but it was a fitting response for a kid who had grown up in Seattle, a city famous for the brooding and angst-ridden grunge music era of the 1990s.

Fast forward five years, and that woe-is-me teenager has blossomed into a 21-year-old young man who is the face of a Virginia Tech baseball program that, on April 5, found itself ranked among the nation’s top 25 for the first time since 1992.

But the story of how Austin Wates became one of the most unstoppable hitters in the Atlantic Coast Conference began long before that fateful move from Seattle to Richmond, Va.

Austin Wates (left), with his mother, Tawnya and his father, Luther.

Long before Austin Wates was ever a gleam in his loving parents’ eyes, Tawnya Pettiford was enjoying a very successful theatre career. She had earned a bachelor of fine arts from Carnegie-Mellon University, studied at the Central School of Drama, Speech and Film in London, England, and received a graduate degree from The Union Institute in Cincinnati. In addition to doing commercial work in television and film in New York City, Pettiford co-starred in the award-winning Broadway play, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf, a work that is currently being developed into a film to be directed by Tyler Perry and starred in by an all-star cast including Janet Jackson, Mariah Carey and Whoopi Goldberg, among others.

Pettiford toured nationally and internationally with the show for several years and eventually agreed to direct a local production of the play in Seattle in 1980. It was there that she met her future husband, Luther Wates, and a permanent move to the Pacific Northwest was not far behind.

“I moved to Seattle when we got married,” Tawnya said. “I had decided that if I was going to raise a family, I didn’t want to do it in New York City, so there was never a question about who was moving where.

“When I went to Seattle, I thought I was just going to raise a family and dibble and dabble with the theatre stuff. But when I got there, I discovered a very active arts scene. You could do anything – movies, television, all of it. So I started doing that, and just as a supplement, I started teaching.”

Tawnya became the head of the theatre department at Seattle Central Community College (SCCC), and eventually earned a Ph.D., all while taking time off to give birth to and care for a pair of daughters, now ages 27 and 24. But according to Tawnya and Luther, Austin was, jokingly, a bit of a surprise.

“When Austin came along, I hadn’t planned on being pregnant, so he basically had to come to school with me because I hadn’t arranged to take off,” Tawnya said. “He was always in the mix of stuff. I was probably mid-career when he came along, but it was only a little hiccup and I just kept going. He became a very adaptable guy.”

When Austin wasn’t tagging along with his mom, he was becoming very active in sports. He insisted on riding a two-wheel bike when he was 3 years old – crash landings be damned – and soon took up soccer, a sport in which he later received a scholarship offer from UCLA.

“Austin was very rambunctious and active as a child,” Luther remembered. “My goal was to observe him and not to push him into any one particular sport until he was ready to do it himself. But I could see early on that he was fearless.”

Austin later tried baseball because of that fearlessness. His best friend’s father was trying get his son into the sport, but his son was afraid of the ball. Austin, well-seasoned from all of his bicycle wrecks, wasn’t scared of the ball at all, so he joined the team as a way to coax his friend into doing the same. It wasn’t long before Austin fell in love with the game.

“At that point, he started watching baseball on television a little bit,” Luther said. “He would much rather be playing himself, but he would emulate what he saw on television.”

Luther would coach Austin’s teams for the next nine years, finally stopping when the increasingly rebellious young teen became “uncoachable for me.”

“He stopped at the right time,” Austin admitted, with a laugh.

Austin had a unique talent for baseball, for sure, but the private school he was attending in Seattle did not have a team, so he was forced to play for a nearby public school once he got to high school. As a result, he didn’t get a lot of recognition for his skills on the field, but he had huge group of friends and he was having a blast as a sophomore. However, that’s when his parents dropped the bomb on Austin and his sisters.

Although his future in the pros is likely as an outfielder, Austin Wates volunteers to play first base whenever it best suits the team’s defensive needs.

In 2004, Following 17 years at SCCC and 23 years in Seattle, Tawnya’s career took another step forward, as she was suddenly offered a great job at a much bigger university to become the head of performance in the theatre department and an associate professor of acting and directing. The only problem was that the job was nearly 3,000 miles away at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. That was also nearly 3,000 miles away from Austin’s friends.

“My parents took my two sisters and I out to dinner and they brought up the potential idea of moving,” Austin said. “We were all shocked at first because Seattle is such a great place and we didn’t think that they’d ever want to move. But my dad’s side of the family is all on the West Coast and my mom’s side of the family is all on the East Coast. I think one of the biggest deciding factors was that we’d spent our whole lives seeing my dad’s family a lot, while having to wait until every other Christmas to see my mom’s side of the family.”

That wasn’t good enough reasoning for Austin, who fought the move tooth and nail.

“Not very well,” Luther said, shaking his head, when asked how Austin reacted to the decision. “He hated it.”

Rather than move the whole family in the middle of the school year, Tawnya headed to Richmond by herself, while Austin finished his sophomore year in Seattle with Luther. At the end of the summer, though, it was time to make the change.

“There was definitely fighting and a lot of tension because I didn’t want to move at all,” Austin described. “It’s so hard to move right in the middle of your high school career because you already have your group of friends established. Then once you move, you have to see if you can fit in with another group of friends who have already established themselves.

“I’d probably say that I fought with my mom a little bit more because she was the one who was the cause of the move. I guess I kind of resented that a little bit more. But my dad helped out a lot, even though he kind of gave me some false hope and said that if I really didn’t like it, I could move back to Seattle. I thought that was true at the time, but it definitely wasn’t. He just wanted to try to comfort me.”

Austin finally made the move to Richmond with his mom, but his dad stayed in Seattle for a while to help plan his daughter’s wedding and to finish the one year he had left to retire from his job at Pepsi-Cola. With the start of his junior year at St. Christopher’s School still a few weeks away, Austin was still upset with his mother. He said there was a point when he didn’t come out of his room – which, by the way, ended up being painted baby blue after he was talked out of black – for nearly two weeks.

“I wouldn’t say it was depression,” Austin said. “I just didn’t want to be there. I wanted to move back to Seattle. It was hard. I didn’t want to make new friends. It’s not that I have trouble making friends – I just liked my friends in Seattle and I didn’t want to leave.”

Luckily for Austin, soccer season was right around the corner. He was immediately welcomed to the team and actually helped St. Christopher’s to a state title in his first season.

“I think that if he had not been an athlete, it would have been a disaster,” Tawnya said. “The soccer and baseball teams were happy to get him, and those guys became his friends. He was never home – he was always with them. I think sports and athletics and being on those teams was a saving grace.”

Soon enough, Austin began dominating on the baseball field. It was also about time to choose a college, so he began playing in summer showcases to get his name out there since the move from Seattle left Austin coming out of nowhere and on very few schools’ radars. It was at one of those showcases where Tawnya met Virginia Tech associate head coach Dave Turgeon. She was immediately impressed by his down-to-earth and family-man personality, as well as what she eventually learned about head coach Pete Hughes. Having made a career out of education, Tawnya also liked what Virginia Tech had to offer in that regard, but Austin chose the Hokies for other reasons.

“I felt like it would be great to be a part of rebuilding a program,” Austin said of Tech baseball, which had stumbled in recent years. “I went back and looked at Coach Hughes’ track record and saw that he’s turned every program around that he’s been with, so I thought that would be something really special to be a part of. Also, I wanted to play right away if I could, so it definitely worked out.”

Austin did play right away, starting 51 games as a freshman, while hitting .324, with a team-high 15 stolen bases and an ACC-high six triples. His sophomore season (.397, 16 steals, 50 runs, 42 RBI) and subsequent all-star performance in the prestigious Cape Cod summer league in 2009 earned him preseason All-America honors, and he was recently named the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association’s National Hitter of the Week for his efforts in the Hokies’ stunning series win over No. 4 Florida State in early April.

His all-around tools have professional baseball scouts drooling, and he has the potential to become a first-round pick in this June’s Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft. That’s something that’s hard not to think about when it’s been a lifelong dream, but according to Austin and his mother, he’s done a good job with tuning it out and focusing on winning at Virginia Tech.

“Austin has matured into a really savvy young man,” Tawnya said. “He has his priorities straight. He doesn’t allow all the hype around all of this draft prospect stuff to affect him – he doesn’t pay any attention to it at all. He’s focused on the job that he’s doing right now. We talk about how you can only do what you’re doing – you can’t do what you’re going to do.”

“I thought it would be a little different for me coming into this year as far as what I would be thinking, but I want to win so bad that it kind of rules out any thoughts creeping into my head,” Austin continued. “As far as the draft goes, it’s going to take care of itself. I can’t do anything out of the ordinary to change whatever people already think of me, so as far as I’m concerned, I just have to keep playing the way that I play and things will take care of themselves.”

The Hokies still have a long way to go this season toward their goal of making the NCAA Tournament, and in Austin’s mind, that’s infinitely more important than what happens next year. But who knows?

Maybe he’ll stay in Blacksburg and finish the education that his mom has long been a strong advocate of.

Maybe he’ll get drafted by his hometown Seattle Mariners and get to return to the city he never wanted to leave.

At the very least, here’s hoping he gets that black bedroom he’s always wanted.