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May 30, 2013

Ready For Regionals

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When Pete Hughes was named Virginia Tech's coach in 2007, the Hokies played in front of a few hundred fans. Six years later, they're now a host-site on college baseball's biggest stage.

Virginia Tech, winners of 14 of its last 17 games, is relishing the chance to further find its niche amongst the ACC's elite. But more attention usually comes with more distractions. And as the Hokies ready for their first game in the double-elimination tournament, Hughes knows he must have the full focus of his players to advance to the round of 16.

"It's tough to have the same old routine when you have a crane dropping luxury suites in your park during practice," Hughes said during his pre-regional press conference. "But it has been a rallying point and a constant message for the past three days to remain focused. It's great for our program, and we're getting a lot of attention. There's a lot of buzz around here, and it feels like a football gameday Saturday. But our guys need to not get caught up in that noise and stay focused and take advantage of being a number 1 seed."

A tense atmosphere is expected at English Field for the entire weekend, which underwent significant construction to boost the stadium's capacity. There will likely be more than 5,000 fans in attendance, including many family and friends of the players. However, it would appear that players have taken Hughes' advice to heart.

"You just gotta stay level-headed and go from there," senior outfielder Andrew Rash said. "If you get caught up in all that (distractions), you're going to get blown away out here. I don't want to go out as a loser, I hate second place. I hated finishing second in the ACC tournament, just finishing in second doesn't sit well with me."

In that context, it was maybe not so bad that the Hokies lost to North Carolina in the ACC title game 4-1. It leaves Rash and his teammates wanting more.

Taking advantage of hosting the regional starts with winning a battle against fourth-seeded Connecticut (34-26) at 5:30 p.m. tomorrow. The Big East champions have won six of their past seven contests and like Virginia Tech, the Huskies have peaked at the right time.

"To win four straight games against four opponents (Big East tournament) they were 0-12 against during the season shows they can handle adversity," Hughes said regarding Connecticut. "They don't really care who they're playing, they're just playing against the scoreboard. They're hot, and they're arguably the best four-seed in the country. I don't know who else would be better than them."

The pitcher tasked with handling the streaking Huskies will be none other than ace Joe Mantiply, who is 6-0 with a 2.92 ERA this season. He hasn't lost a game in over a full calendar year (May 18, 2012), and allowed just 3 runs over 13 innings in his past two starts. It certainly appears Mantiply's teammates will be ready to rally around the senior.

"I've never been more confident behind a pitcher than I have been with Joe Mantiply," shortstop Chad Pinder said, who batted 6 of 15 with three home runs in the ACC tournament. "I've been playing with him since I was 16, and I have 100% confidence when he's on the mound. It's almost like a calm comes over me when I'm at shortstop, and he's such a great competitor. We all take pride in having him on the mound."

While Mantiply must be a key contributor if Virginia Tech is to come out victorious tomorrow, it's clear that a team effort will be necessary. Solid defense and timely hitting has been the key to success as of late, and that will likely be the winning formula against a group of teams that don't allow many runs to the opposition.

In situations such as these, players must have the ability to increase their intensity and focus while also treating it as just another game in order to stay relaxed. It's a difficult task, but it's one that these players have been waiting for since each first put on the maroon and orange.

"We just have to keep having fun, play our game, and not think that this stage is too big for us," Pinder added. "We have to stay locked in knowing what's right in front of us, and take advantage of it. It's a great opportunity for us and just not letting it slip through our fingers is really the main thing."

Opportunity is definitely knocking on the door in Blacksburg. The question looms: are the Hokies ready to answer it?

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