Saturday, April 16, 2011

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Virginia Tech''s Andrew Rash leads the ACC in home runs thanks to his work ethic

BLACKSBURG -- Those who've seen him swing a baseball bat call him a beast.

A freak.

A shining example of all those things that can happen when you work hard and don't give up.

But the 2011 ACC home run leader seems more appreciative than anything. Of his mother. His coaches. His teammates.

Of his unexpected success.

Virginia Tech outfielder Andrew Rash knows he has natural talent. All anyone has to do is watch those heavily muscled forearms rip through the zone and send another ball over the fence to see that. Entering this weekend's series against Florida State, Rash had blasted 11 longballs -- which was four more than anyone else in this elite baseball conference.

But Rash knows there's more to his story than natural talent. After all, only two years ago, he wasn't sure he belonged at the Division I level.

"I was very raw," Rash said. "I couldn't hit anything with spin. I swung as hard as I could on every pitch. My motto was, 'Hey, swing hard in case you hit it.' "

The problem: He often didn't hit it.

"I remember going through my first fall here; I had two hits," Rash said. "I had a home run and I had a single that was off the end of my bat. All the other ones were strikeouts."

That's how all the best success stories start, right? With a lot of whiffs. Sure, we hear about the Bryce Harpers of the world, who never encountered a fastball they couldn't crush. We read about the A-Rods of the world, who were born to play this game and proved it from Day One.

But there are far more Andrew Rashes in this world -- guys who easily could have decided they weren't cut out for this level of baseball when they were confined to the pine. That's where Rash sat all of 2009, as he struggled to find his swing and keep up with the academic rigors of college.

"He's made as big a jump as I've seen in any kid I've coached," Tech coach Pete Hughes said of the redshirt sophomore. "I didn't think he'd be able to play here his freshman year. He swung and missed a bunch. The swing was crude.

"But to his credit -- and only his credit -- he would come in here after every game that he didn't play, and he would hit for an hour to catch up on the reps that he missed by not playing. Through his work ethic, he allowed his abilities to show through."

Rash says he gets that work ethic from his mother, Frances. After Andrew's father died of cancer when he was 6, she took charge of a household that included him and two sisters.

"She's the biggest part of my life," Rash said. "I don't know many mothers that could do what she's done. She's led me in the right direction in everything I've done."

That includes the South Carolina native's decision to come to Tech. Rash remembers making an unofficial visit to Blacksburg and seeing his mother sit down to talk with Hughes. Later, as mother and son left campus, he recalls the following conversation:

Frances: "You're not going anywhere else."

Andrew. "It's the first offer, Mom."

Frances: "You're not going anywhere else. You're going to play for Coach Hughes."

Andrew: "We'll see."

And we have.

Rash credits Hughes and his former assistant, Mike Gambino (now the head coach at Boston College), for molding him into the player he is. They simplified his swing, eliminating the heavy shoulder action that created too many moving parts.

Now he's short to the ball -- and long on homers.

"Every time he comes to the plate, he's got a chance to turn the game around for us," teammate Michael Seaborn said.

Which is a major turnaround for the slugger himself, who considered transferring in his early days in Blacksburg.

"There were days when I woke up and I was like, 'Maybe I need to look at some other options,' " Rash said. "And then finally I was like, 'You know what? I'm going to stick it out. I'm going to work hard. I'm going to do what it takes. I'm not going to try to find the easy way out.' "

There might be an easy way out for opposing pitchers. But against Rash, they haven't found it yet.

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