BLACKSBURG — When Virginia Tech earned a bid to an NCAA regional in 2010, it was an important step for baseball coach Pete Hughes, who led the Hokies to the postseason for the first time in 10 years.
The next big step comes this weekend, when Virginia Tech hosts a regional and tries to establish itself a legitimate threat to the usual Atlantic Coast Conference powerhouse programs.
“It’s exciting times here at Virginia Tech, uncharted territory,” Hughes said. “It’s a significant step in the growth of our program. Things are buzzing. It doesn’t happen without good players and good administrators who want to fight to tell everybody at the national level that we’re serious about baseball at Virginia Tech.”
The top-seeded Hokies (38-20) are a host for the first time in the current NCAA tournament format. Virginia Tech welcomes Big 12 tournament champion Oklahoma (40-19), Coastal Carolina (37-21) from the Big South and Big East tournament champion Connecticut (34-26) to English Field for games that start Friday.
The Hokies earned home-field advantage thanks to a late-season surge that included three victories against Virginia, the No. 6 seed nationally, and an undefeated run through the pool-play portion of the ACC tournament.
A loss in the ACC title game to No. 1 national seed North Carolina did nothing to damage those hopes.
The Sooners have had plenty of success in the commonwealth in recent seasons. They lost the first game of the 2010 Super Regional at Virginia before beating the Cavaliers twice, and they worked their way out of the loser’s bracket to win the 2012 Charlottesville Regional.
Oklahoma coach Sunny Golloway said staff ace Jonathan Gray, expected to be a top-two pick in next month’s Major League Baseball draft, will start Friday’s opener against Coastal Carolina. But he was more interested Thursday in talking about how his team has played with a sense of perspective, considering the tornado devastation that has unfolded around it in recent weeks.
“There’s a lot going on back home, to say the least,” he said.
Golloway said his team chose to forgo its batting practice sessions at last week’s Big 12 tournament in Oklahoma City in favor of performing community service in the hardest hit areas of Moore, Okla. Golloway said his daughter, son-in-law and grandson live in Moore and that he rushed in try to help once he heard just how bad the damage was there.
“It’s been a tremendous life lesson for our student-athletes, what they’ve gone through, what they’ve done,” Golloway said. “It’s helped us to play very inspired baseball.”
Coastal Carolina enters the regional with the unfamiliar feeling of having to bounce back from a conference tournament loss. The Chanticleers had won six straight Big South championships and 17 straight conference tourney games before falling twice to Liberty in the league tournament. That snapped a 20-game win streak against the Flames.
“There were moments where we played about as good as you can play and there were days where we completely don’t show up at all offensively,” Coastal coach Gary Gilmore said. “That’s been the makeup and character of this team all year long.”
Connecticut finished in eighth place in the regular season in the Big East but went 4-0 in the conference tournament. Coach Jim Penders got ejected in the opener against Louisville and the Huskies surged from there, a run that culminated with an 8-0 win over Notre Dame in the title game.
Penders and Hughes are longtime friends who have refused to schedule each other in the regular season.
“I think we both had the same reaction when we saw each other pop up in the bracket,” Penders said. “That’s the only way we would play, in the postseason. So it’s meant to be.”