Is it February already? Time really does fly.
If the turn of the calendar to a new month means anything, it’s that college baseball is back and for the Virginia Tech Hokies - there’s only one goal.
“Everybody is working towards the same goal: we all want to go to Omaha,” Brady Kirtner, a redshirt junior right-handed pitcher, said during the Hokies' media day on February 2nd.
Following an unprecedented season in 2022, in which Tech hosted a Super Regional for the first time in program history, the Hokies went 30-23 (12-17 in ACC play), missing out on the NCAA postseason in 2023.
The 2023 season was marred by injuries, inexperience on the bump, and depth issues - which seventh year head coach John Szefc has sought to fix, adding nine players via the transfer portal - seven of which are pitchers.
For Szefc, the skipper sees a lot of the 2022 team in this ‘24 roster, with a lot of lesser known players that could have the ACC on high alert by the summer.
“So I mean, you know considering all we lost last year to injury and the draft, we feel like we’re in a pretty good place. We’re in a very similar place to where we were two years ago, where we have a lot of players that you don’t know who they are – on the mound, specifically, very similar to what that was in 2022,” Szefc said.
For Virginia Tech, similarly to 2022, the 2023 MLB draft did take a toll on the roster, with ace RHP Drue Hackenberg (Atlanta Braves - second round), slugging outfielder Jack Hurley (Arizona Diamondbacks - third round), right handed reliever Christian Worley (St Louis Cardinals - ninth round), and senior outfielder Carson Jones (Seattle Mariners - 15th round) all moving on to professional baseball.
However, Kirtner, who was drafted by the New York Mets in the 12th round, declined to sign a contract, betting on himself and this Hokies' squad instead. He returned to Tech with the goal of earning a spot in the starting rotation, differing from his 2023 role as a reliever in which he posted a 4.62 ERA across 25.1 innings, striking out 36 batters.
“Coming back, to get in a starting role…that’s kind of the way that we’ve been building up so far through the fall and early spring right now. I think I could bring a good amount. I’ve been able to add a third pitch in my changeup. I think that’s a big factor in transferring from the bullpen to a starting role," Kirtner said.
When it comes to the starting rotation, Szefc made it clear that he’s uncertain as to who will be commanding those roles outside of Kirtner, especially given the loss of RHP Griffin Green, a 2022 All-ACC selection, who the Hokies were without for most of last season due to an arm injury.
“The thing about our preseason here: it’s really short. I mean, you can’t really start playing intrasquad games until [Jan. 26]. So I mean, we’re sitting here on [Feb. 2]. Like, I have an idea of like, six to eight guys that might fit into that, but those guys still have two more outings before we even play. So, I could tell you three or four guys and it might be the other three or four guys based off what Charlotte looks like. You know, righties versus lefties. They have a lot of new players, too. You’re looking at a lot of, you know, uncharted waters here as far as preparing scouting reports for who we have to play and then seeing how our guys are going to match up with that scouting report,” said Szefc.
One name to look out for on the pitching staff is Griffin Stieg. The six-foot-three sophomore right hander made just 16 appearances a season ago, making one start, but could be posed for a big year on the bump.
Stieg believes his time spent in the Cape Cod league this summer allowed him to develop into a significant ACC pitcher.
“Playing in the Cape, it was awesome. The experience up there is really good and you're playing against the best players in the country. So it definitely prepared me physically and mentally for coming back to Tech,” Stieg said. “I want to start for this team and I want to take this team to the farthest you can go. And I think our staff this year is super experienced. But I think hopefully I can just lead them and lead the guys around me to be the best team we can possibly be.”
Of the freshman class, the name that popped at Media Day was Brett Renfrow.
Renfrow is a RHP from Manassas Virginia, and has stood out to staff and players as a guy who can make an impact from day one.
“Yeah, I mean all the transfer guys have really stood out to me. I think they've all done a tremendous job. Freshman Brett Renfrow, I mean he's, he was hurt in the fall but he came back out this spring and he's done really well. So I'm excited to see what he can do," Stieg said.
On the offensive end, the Hokies sure do have some firepower at the plate.
The ‘24 team is led by fiery preseason All-American third baseman Carson DeMartini, a pair of stellar sophomores in first baseman Garrett Michel and shortstop Clay Grady, contact hitting second baseman Christian “Chick” Martin, as well as power outfielders Chris Cannizzaro and Eddie Eisert.
The Tech infield is set to be one of the best the nation has to offer, with DeMartini (no. 3), Michel (no. 14), Martin (no. 17), and Grady (no. 42) all ranked in the top 50 at their respective positions per D1 Baseball.
DeMartini, in particular, is coming off a season in which he slashed .323/.455/1.048 and is the heart and soul of Virginia Tech Baseball.
Ranked as the no. 35 prospect for the 2024 draft heading into the season, DeMartini replaces Jack Hurley as the focal point of the Hokies lineup, and is ready to take on a greater leadership role this season.
“Yeah, I think it’s just, now it’s just I feel like guys are looking at me [for] what to do. Whether that’s on or off the field, in the weight room, how we eat, what we do, you know, after practice. I think that’s the whole leadership role. It’s not a very like nerve-racking thing for me, but it’s just something that it’s nice to have. But, it carries a lot of weight and it’s really important, especially if we have new guys playing this year, showing them how we play baseball here and what not," DeMartini said.
John Szefc has raved about DeMartini’s development throughout his time in Blacksburg, both as a player and as a person.
“In relation to Carson, obviously he’s an elite-level player. I mean, from a hitting perspective and defensively. I mean, you know he played, he started as a true freshman on that  team, so his experience is probably off the charts compared to a lot of other guys in college baseball. I think when you combine all those things together, you know, you have a pretty elite-level guy right there. And I think probably where he’s matured the most, probably, is not actually even in his baseball; it’s how he kind of handles the group and directs the group where other people around him become better,” Szefc said.
“It’s almost like the point guard that makes everybody better with how he sets them up and can distribute the ball. Well, that’s kind of the way he is, I think, on a baseball perspective. You know, he’s going to be good. His skills are way advanced. I’m not really even – I have no concern about [where] he is skill wise. I don’t really have any concern about him, period. It’s just, for me it’s actually more fun to watch him interact with guys and help grow guys as opposed to watching him take BP or something like that.”
DeMartini, who dealt with a labrum surgery over the summer, claims to be 100 percent heading into the season opener against Charlotte next Friday.
A player the whole team appeared to be excited about heading into the new campaign was Sam Tackett, a redshirt junior outfielder who led the NECBL in just about every offensive category over the summer.
The Lexignton, Kentucky native took just 39 at bats last year, but Hokie fans should expect that number to skyrocket in the coming months.
“Well, he had our best fall. Like, he kind of had like a really breakthrough summer. You know, he led the NECBL in just about every offensive category. Then, he played a couple weeks in Cape Cod. He had a similar breakthrough summer, this past summer, to what Christian Martin did the summer before – and Martin came back and won a job and led our team in hitting last year,” Szefc said.
“I’m not saying Tackett’s going to do that, but he’s got enough ability to hit, to hit for power. He’ll play a very quality right field for us, if he ends up being our everyday guy out there, which at this stage of the game, it appears as if he would. He just plays like with a lot of confidence, man, like there’s a lot of intangible stuff with him that you can’t really like measure with a radar gun or a stopwatch, really. But, he’s also been here. This is his fourth year now.”
Tech has some solid outfield depth, with transfers Ben Watson (Elizabethtown) and Eddie Micheletti Jr. (George Washington) adding quality bats as well.
If healthy, Szefc says there’s no limit as to where this team can go in 2024.
“I mean, I think a lot of really good things. I would expect that they’d be an NCAA tournament-type team that could go deep in the NCAA Tournament. You know, if they play up to their capabilities and if they stay healthy. But, as far as you know, records or anything like that, or personal numbers, it’s hard to say. But, I couldn’t have told you that two years ago. Or, last year either. On paper, we actually were better last year than we were in . And then, we had six pretty substantial injuries that kind of hurt us last year. But, on paper, that team was actually better," Szefc said.
"If you go back two years ago, I know we had a great year in , but on paper, that team was not like this well-accomplished, you know, going-to-go-to-a-Super-Regional-type team. But, it did for a lot of different reasons. And I think as long as you have really good players and they can stay healthy and they understand that it’s a long haul versus just a short sprint – you know there’s a lot of things you have to get through during the course of a college baseball season – but if you can get guys through it, then you’ll have a lot of success with them.”
The Virginia Tech Hokies open up the 2024 season with a three-game weekend series starting next Friday against the Charlotte 49ers. First pitch is set for 4 p.m.