User ID: Password:

February 18, 2014

New coach expecting same successful results

By: Marc Mullen

New skipper Patrick Mason takes over for Pete Hughes, and despite many new faces on the mound and in the lineup, he expects the 2014 Hokies to produce similar results to that of the 2013 squad that advanced to the ACC title game and qualified for an NCAA regional

Patrick Mason became just the fifth head baseball coach at Tech in the past 66 years, and he hopes to continue the winning tradition established by his predecessors.

A lot has happened in the eight months since the Virginia Tech baseball team walked off the turf at English Field having just succumbed to Oklahoma in the first NCAA baseball regional championship in Blacksburg to end the 2013 season – and not just with its program.

Campus news included the announcement of a new president at the university, Dr. Timothy Sands, who will start June 1. Then in late January, the university announced the hiring of a new athletics director, Whit Babcock, who started Feb. 17, and both men expect to lead at Tech for many years to come.

Program-wise, six Tech players were selected in the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft, a group that included four Hokies with eligibility remaining. But the big news came when coach Pete Hughes elected to take the head job at Oklahoma, and then-AD Jim Weaver promoted Hughes’ top assistant, Patrick Mason, to the head coaching position at Tech.

The major principals surrounding the school and the program may have changed in the offseason, but what haven’t changed are the program’s goals.

“My expectations are that we are going to compete and get back to the ACC Tournament,” Mason said. “We’re going to have to figure out early what the right lineup is, what the right mix is, but with that being said, we should still be competing like crazy early and still be able to be successful in terms of wins and losses.

“I know we have enough horses in the stable and enough bats in the lineup to get back to where we were last year, and then start to play an elite level of baseball when the last third of the season approaches, like we did last year. My goals are to get to the ACC Tournament and get hot and make a run – just like every team that wins it does at that time of year – and then roll that into a regional.”

After being named the head guy on June 27, Mason quickly went to work on completing his staff. He promoted Mike Kunigonis to associate head coach. Kunigonis has helped the offense compile some lofty numbers since his tenure as hitting instructor.

Tech is just one of six teams in the country to hit at least 44 home runs each of the past three seasons and is fifth in home runs per game in that span (0.924). Also since 2011, the Hokies, as a team in the three years combined, are fifth in the nation in slugging percentage (0.4524) and total bases per game (15.791).

Joining Mason’s staff is pitching coach Robert Woodard, a man very familiar with the ACC, as he won a program-best 34 games as a starting pitcher at North Carolina and had spent last season at UNC Wilmington. Former Tech player Gabe Ortiz rounded out the additions, as he came in as a volunteer assistant.

“Woody has come in and has established an immediate connection with the pitching staff,” Mason said. “For the most part, our mindset and our goals are the same as what I was trying to do last year [as the pitching coach]. He has a little bit different of a way about going about that, but his communication with those guys has been outstanding. He established instant credibility with them, and they’re really comfortable working with him now.

“Then having Gabe back, he was a perfect player here in the sense that you never had to worry about anything he was ever doing, so that’s tremendous. He was self-accountable on and off the field, and to bring him back with the large amount of newcomers in our program – someone who is familiar with campus, familiar with the workload that they have academically, familiar with both myself and Coach K [Kunigonis] – has been a great addition.”

Four of the Hokies drafted last year, and six total who signed pro contracts, were pitchers, but the cupboard certainly isn’t bare. There actually may have been more question marks surrounding the 2013 starting staff than this year’s.

Entering last season, only Joe Mantiply was a proven starter, while Devin Burke and Brad Markey, the two pitchers who emerged as the other two weekend starters, had combined for just six starts at the Division I level in their careers.

This year, Markey (5-4, 4.94 ERA in 15 starts last year) and Tanner McIntyre (3-0, 3.81 ERA in four starts) both return for their final seasons.

“There are question marks,” Mason said. “But I do know that we have a lot of depth, which is important. We have a lot of untested guys. Brad’s obviously proven and the cornerstone of our staff.

“Tanner is coming back from his injury [shoulder], and where he’s at right now is really a testament to how hard he’s worked. Tanner was 10-0 the last two years for us, and he is a 22-year-old presence on the mound, a proven winner. So with those two guys, that’s a good starting point.”

Behind Markey and McIntyre are juniors Sean Keselica and Brendon Hayden, with four career starts each in their two years on the mound. Then come the question marks, but Mason believes there are younger guys who are ready to take that next step.

Brad Markey made 15 starts last season and is expected to be one of the Hokies’ workhorses again in 2014.

“Sean looks great, and Brendon’s coming back and looking pretty good as well,” Mason said. “So with those four and their leadership, and then when you start sprinkling in some of the younger guys, like an Aaron McGarity, Luke Scherzer, Kit Scheetz, Mack Krupp and Andrew McDonald, we are in good shape.

“I think that upperclassmen and veteran experience can help those other guys’ progress. Hopefully those older guys do what they’re supposed to do and we don’t have to rely on our younger guys or put them in difficult situations too early. But I think those guys I mentioned are ready, and that makes us about nine deep. I think we’ve got another six or seven, too, and I’m hoping that one or two of those guys are going to step up.”

Surprisingly, Mason is very optimistic about his lineup and the defense that he will put out there in 2014. The draft took away two big offensive weapons [Chad Pinder and Tyler Horan, who combined for 19 homers and 100 RBIs], but because of some injuries last year, a number of Hokies got valuable playing time and worked themselves into the starting lineup by year’s end.

“I love where our offense is right now,” Mason said. “On opening day, we will probably start six guys in our lineup who started last year in multiple games in the ACC Tournament or in the regional. It’s sneaky because we lost Pinder, Horan and [Andrew] Rash [who had 11 homers and a team-leading 62 RBIs], but we are still returning six guys who contributed a lot last year.

“So that’s a lot for any team to be returning. Obviously, it kind of centers around [Mark] Zagunis, Keselica and Hayden, and we need for Hayden to return to what he was as a freshman [when he hit .336] – and I think he’s going to. There’s a big difference in how he’s swung the bat in the fall, and I feel really confident he’s going to have a big year.”

Those three juniors have all produced seasons in which they hit at least .300 or better. Zagunis, a junior, has done so in both years, and Keselica raised his average 30 points to .307 last year, while Hayden hit .336 as a freshman.

The Hokies, who have just two seniors on the team (Markey and McIntyre), also return juniors Kyle Wernicki and Alex Perez, who has started and played in 117 straight games for Tech. Mason points to sophomore Ryan Burns as another potential opening day starter.

“Kyle Wernicki was an all-regional outfielder here last year in Blacksburg, and obviously Alex Perez kind of anchors our defense,” Mason said. “Alex is a two-year starter at second base. It’s going to be his third year starting in the middle of the infield in the ACC, and that is a pretty valuable commodity.

“Ryan Burns came on real strong last year at the end of the year. He cracked that lineup in the regionals, and he can really hit. We need to figure out where the best position for him is going to be on the field. We expect to see those six guys pretty much as mainstays in our lineup, which means we need three new guys to round it out. But we have a lot of real young hitters, and I know that we’ll find our three guys.”

Looking at the schedule, no matter how it’s sliced, it will be a challenging one for the Hokies, as the team will face nine teams (22 games) that made the 2013 NCAA Baseball Championship and includes four teams (10 games) that made Super Regionals and three teams (seven games) that made the 2013 College World Series.

Adding to the challenge, of the 28 programs the Hokies are scheduled to face in 2014, 23 of them made their respective conference tournaments. Tech will play 28 games against programs that had a final 2013 RPI [Ratings Percentage Index, used to select at-large teams to the NCAAs] in the top 50, 37 games versus teams in the top 100 and 47 games against the top 150.

After a four-game opening weekend in Charlotte starting Feb. 14, the Hokies will face an early test at LSU, a team that is a preseason top-10 choice in several polls and ranked No. 2 in the USA Today coaches’ poll. The Friday night event in Baton Rouge, La., will feature a crowd of more than 10,000, and that game might have Hokie fans using it as a barometer on how the 2014 Hokies will fare.

“It will be a good test,” Mason said of the LSU game. “But we are obviously really locking in on that first weekend right now. We have four games that weekend, and we’re going to figure out who our four starters are going to be. Try to come out of that weekend with four wins, and then evaluate where we are at that Monday and figure out how to best attack the next weekend, when we only have three games.

“Right now, we have Markey penciled in to start that game against LSU, if we are projecting out through the course of the first couple of weekends, which we do. So we can plan our practices accordingly.

“Brad will start that game, and that will be a good test. LSU is a great program and they are going to present the same challenge a lot of, if not all, the teams in the ACC present to us on a Friday night. So it will be a little bit of a measuring stick, but it’s not going to be anything out of the normal for a program at this level.”

That early test for the Hokies will be the first of many as they try to get back to the ACC Tournament, which features a different format with the addition of two more teams into the conference. Ten teams will qualify, but only eight will advance to the normal pool play. Teams seeded No. 7 and No. 10 will face each other, as will No. 8 versus No. 9, on the first day, with the winners moving on to pool play.