After Banner Year, Virginia Tech Looks To Repeat In ACC
For the better part of the last decade, Florida State had a monopoly on the ACC. The Seminoles won six consecutive titles, capped by the conference’s first-ever national championship in 2018.
Virginia Tech was an unlikely candidate to challenge that supremacy. The Hokies were a combined 11-26 in conference action in 2017 and 2018, causing Scot Thomas, who had led the program since its inception in 1995, to be relieved of his duties.
Then Pete D’Amour arrived, and changed everything in a flash.
Picked to finish 10th in the 2019 ACC preseason poll, Virginia Tech raced out to a 9-0 start and went 20-4 in conference play and 47-11 overall en route to its first ACC regular-season championship since 2007.
“I was pretty confident that I had a plan to get the program back on the map,” D’Amour said. “If they trusted me, good things would happen.”
D’Amour had a track record of success—he spent 10 seasons as an assistant coach at Missouri, which made the NCAA Tournament every year he was there. He then won 40 and 39 games in 2017 and 2018, respectively, as the head coach at Kennesaw State, winning the 2018 Atlantic Sun championship. But the turnaround he orchestrated in Blacksburg, Va. is perhaps his most impressive accomplishment yet.
The Hokies raised their team batting average from .242 to .334, increased their home run total from 35 to 97 and their team OPS from just under .700 to above 1.000. And they did it with largely the same personnel.
Not that Virginia Tech’s newcomers didn’t step up along the way. Third baseman Kelsey Bennett hit .369 and slugged a school-record .725, picking up ACC Freshman of the Year honors. First baseman Jayme Bailey was another of the Hokies’ four starters who hit .350 or better, getting on base nearly 50 percent of the time.
This type of success was new to everyone on the Hokies’ roster—not even last year’s seniors had played in the NCAA Tournament. When Virginia Tech found itself in contention for the conference title, D’Amour told his players to stay off social media to block out any outside noise.
“Every player bought into everything the coaches were saying,” Bennett said. “Don’t make the team bigger than it is, don’t make the game harder than it has to be, play every team like it’s the best team out there. Just the simple stuff every coach preaches.”
But the Hokies’ resurgent season came to a bittersweet ending when they suffered an upset loss to North Carolina State in their first ACC Tournament game, then fell short against national-seed Kentucky in the NCAA Regionals.
Then in the offseason, Virginia Tech found out the hard way that success sometimes leads to attrition. Carrie Eberle, the 2019 ACC Pitcher of the Year who pitched to a 1.84 ERA in just over 200 innings, transferred to Oklahoma State. That leaves Keely Rochard, who was 22-3 and compiled more than eight strikeouts per seven innings a season ago, to carry the load in the circle this year.
“We’re going to have to rely on her pretty heavily,” D’Amour said. “She had a really stellar year last year and if you took away two of her bad games, she had an ERA that was probably top 15 in the country.”
This time around, the Hokies won’t be catching anybody by surprise. The ACC coaches picked them second in the preseason poll, with two first-place votes. And yet, it would be natural for Virginia Tech to feel slighted—just one of the five polls have the Hokies ranked in the top 25.
Virginia Tech will have a chance to inject itself into the national conversation early in the year at the St. Pete/Clearwater Elite Invitational in Florida. The Hokies will face Oklahoma State, Eberle’s new team, as well as SEC members South Carolina and Missouri and Big Ten powers Minnesota and Northwestern. All five of those teams made the postseason last year, with three hosting Regionals and two playing in the Women’s College World Series.
And to close the year, Virginia Tech will host Florida State in what could be a season-defining series. The two teams did not meet last year, leading many to wonder whether the Hokies would have still won the ACC if they had. The Seminoles won the conference tournament after Virginia Tech was bounced early.
But D’Amour said Florida State is the furthest thing from his team’s mind right now, and he is approaching this season with the same mindset as the last one.
“There’s a standard that’s been set,” D’Amour said. “We try not to deviate from it too much. For us to go into this year and say we’re going to duplicate what happened last year, that seems foolish. But the goals have pretty much stayed constant.”