Monday, June 07, 2010

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Season over, yet drama continues for Tech

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- You see this once, and you want to see it again. Taste it twice. Try it anew. Test yourself against the best until you finally break through.

This Virginia Tech baseball run was pretty fun, wasn't it? Not the ending, no. But everything that led up to Tech's 10-2 loss to South Carolina on Sunday night was memorable, and you only hope the program can continue on a similar path after making the NCAA tournament for the first time in a decade.

And that's what you wonder about if you're a Tech fan: Is the year's success the start of perennial postseason participation? Or is it another streak of lightning on the Olympic sports landscape, like the Angela Tincher-led softball team making the Women's College World Series, or the Patrick Nyarko-fueled run to the final four of soccer's College Cup?

Several years later, neither of those other two teams is a national contender -- or even an upper-tier club in its own conference -- any more.

So now that the baseball tournament has ended for Tech, the program encounters a new kind of drama. The major league draft opens with the first round and supplemental picks tonight. It continues through Wednesday, and a horde of Hokies figure to become pros before it's over.

Among the underclassmen who could be targeted: their cleanup hitter (Austin Wates), their shortstop (Tim Smalling) and their weekend starters (Justin Wright, Mathew Price and Jesse Hahn).

Key players moving on via graduation include their leadoff man (Sean Ryan), their third-place hitter (Steve Domecus), their closer (Ben Rowen), and their outfielder/catcher who started 40 games (Anthony Sosnoskie).

That's a lot of turnover to overcome. But reload they must if the Hokies hope to return to this tournament.

"That's our next goal," Tech coach Pete Hughes said. "How do you do it? You just keep recruiting like crazy and being positive and get involved with really good student athletes and great people.

"But I think our recruiting classes are really good, and I love the experience we've got coming back in our program. I love the direction we're going. But no question, that's going to be our biggest challenge: to sustain at this level."

Wates -- a toolsy athlete who will be taken in the high rounds -- said something very interesting after the second game Sunday. He said that almost all of his success is due to Hughes, particularly when it came to increasing the outfielder's confidence at the college level.

And that's the best thing you can say about this club moving forward: There was never a sign of nerves here. Not when they were introduced in silence in front of 6,000 Gamecocks fans. Not when Joe Mantiply trotted in from the bullpen to replace the injured Hahn in a tight game against The Citadel earlier on Sunday, a freshman called to action several innings before expected. Not when a slow chopper sent the tying and go-ahead runs in motion, and junior second baseman Michael Seaborn calmly scooped it up and threw accurately on the run.

Ahead or behind, at bat or in the field, the Hokies played this regional as though they felt like they belonged. The key is to keep churning out guys with that mentality and skill.

"The work never stops," Hughes said. "The work recruiting kids, motivating kids, teaching kids, developing guys, it never ends. We're up for the challenge. We're excited about the product that we have to sell now. I think it's a lot better product than we had four years ago."

No doubt about that. This baseball team popped shoulders back in place and kept playing, won road series against some of the best the ACC had to offer, spent the majority of the season holding steady in the national rankings. And this weekend, it eliminated two teams before running into a Gamecocks squad that was simply better.

In other words, it gave more than anybody thought it would.

Kind of like softball and soccer once did.

If Hughes has his way, though, the similarities will end there.

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