Coming into the 2022 season, head coach Pete D’Amour harped on Virginia Tech softball needing to take that next step as a program in order to sustain such high levels of success.
Meanwhile, head coach John Szefc emphasized the need for Virginia Tech baseball to take that next step as a program to earn some respect on a national scale.
Both steps may have been a little bit different, yet both were still equally as important.
For the softball team, it was about finding a way to earn that coveted trip out to Oklahoma City to participate in the Women’s College World Series.
For the baseball team, it was about reaching the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2013 - when the Hokies hosted a regional in Pete Hughes’ final season at the helm.
Taking that next step felt oh so close for some, while for others, it felt oh so distant after some recent on-field results.
A season ago, Tech softball finished just one win away from punching its ticket out to Oklahoma City. And while a Game 3 loss to UCLA in the Los Angeles Super Regional was an eye-opener for a variety of reasons, the signs were there that the program was destined for greener pastures in the very near future.
Tech baseball, meanwhile, had just utterly collapsed down the stretch in 2021 after spending the majority of the season hovering around the top-15. And after losing 15 of their last 17 in ACC play during the final month of the season, plenty of question marks surrounded the maroon and orange heading into 2022.
Being picked to finish sixth in the ACC Coastal certainly signified just that. A team that could hit the ball, highlighted by likely future first-round draft pick Gavin Cross, and a team that would be scrambling for pitching. That’s how the Hokies were perceived throughout the preseason.
Turns out, Virginia Tech baseball now stands at No. 5 in the country. And have come out of nowhere as a team that can seriously contend for a national championship at the College World Series in Omaha come late June.
Softball, meanwhile, was expected to make the jump into the top-10 on a consistent basis. But after an ACC regular season title that saw the Hokies finish 40-6 overall with a program-best 21-2 record in conference play, Tech’s vaulted up to No. 2 in the nation, and will be seen as one of the favorites to win it all at the Women’s College World Series should it qualify in just a few short weeks.
So let’s talk about taking that next step.
For softball, all it took was the plucking of a star-studded pitcher out of Jefferson Forest High School to really elevate the program to the next level. That true No. 2 pitcher that Virginia Tech had been searching for was just about an hour and a half up the road the entire time. And Pete D’Amour knew it, too.
When Emma Lemley arrived on campus just a little under a year ago, her presence was almost instantly felt by a staff that knew they had found the missing piece that could push the Hokies over the top towards that prized Women’s College World Series berth. Slotting right behind ace Keely Rochard, Lemley put together a phenomenal freshman campaign.
A 15-4 record with a 1.64 ERA will certainly suffice. And without the Lynchburg native’s impact throughout the 2022 season, Tech could’ve been destined for a similar fate that it suffered a season ago without a true No. 2 starter behind the dominant Rochard.
It’s no secret that the softball program has experienced unprecedented heights over the past few months. But without Lemley suiting up in a Virginia Tech uniform, those aforementioned heights that are so difficult to reach, would’ve been that much more difficult to achieve.
So how did baseball take that next step so remarkably quickly?
Well, it’s no secret that Tech baseball is experiencing success never before seen in program history, too. And it isn’t just Cross who’s responsible.
Both Tanner Schobel (.376, 14 HRs, 60 RBIs) and Cade Hunter (.340, 14 HRs, 56 RBIs) have emerged as two more potential high-level draft picks for the upcoming first-year player draft. While Cross (.335, 11 HRs, 32 RBIs), Jack Hurley (.390, 11 HRs, 44 RBIs), Nick Biddison (.337, 6 HRs, 29 RBIs) and true freshman Carson DeMartini (.331, 11 HRs, 32 RBIs) have each contributed to one of the most high-powered offenses in all of college baseball.
Then, there’s pitching.
Everyone knew the Hokies would hit. But after the losses of Chris Gerard, Anthony Simonelli, Shane Connolly and Peyton Alford from a season ago, Szefc was tasked with completely rebuilding his entire weekend rotation. And to his credit, he’s done so quite nicely.
Right-handed hurler Griffin Green (7-1, 3.82 ERA) has quickly turned into one of the league’s best Friday night starters, while freshman Drue Hackenberg has had an All-ACC caliber rookie season in Blacksburg after posting an outstanding 8-1 record with a 2.51 ERA.
Again, the simple picking of a talented prospect from Charlottesville has led to an immediate boost of the program’s positioning. Oh, and it just so happens that he’s the brother of three professional athletes, including former star Penn State quarterback, Christian Hackenberg.
Yes, there are plenty of reasons why Tech baseball is in the position it’s in. But regardless, the turnaround from a season ago, in addition to the Hokies being one of the biggest surprises in the country, makes the fact that Virginia Tech baseball is seeing success it's never seen before, all that much sweeter.
In the grand scheme of things, though, this type of historical success happening at the same time in both diamond sports just doesn’t happen around the country.
With softball poised to host the program’s first-ever NCAA Regional and be in control of their own destiny to host their NCAA Super Regional, the road to Oklahoma City runs right through Blacksburg.
As it could for baseball.
Szefc’s team is on track to host an NCAA Regional of their own - which would be the first time the program has done so since 2013.
And don’t look now. But if the Hokies keep winning, an NCAA Super Regional could take place at English Field at Atlantic Union Bank Park as well - which would be a program first.
The road to Omaha would also run right through Southwest Virginia.
A feat very rarely done coming to fruition right in front of our eyes.
It’s a story that itself would be well worth writing. Now it’s just up to the Hokies to tell it.
Tech softball is two wins away from an ACC Championship. Tech baseball hosts No. 7 Louisville this weekend in college baseball’s premier matchup of the week.
It’s a perfect time for the next chapter to be written.
Whether or not it’ll be the ending that Virginia Tech fans want, remains to be seen.