It's standard operating procedure in the coaching profession to preach the virtues of blocking out postseason distractions, but Virginia Tech baseball coach Pete Hughes has discovered that kind of chatter doesn't sink in quite as easily when his playing field suddenly becomes a construction site.
It's been a week unlike any other in the history of Tech's baseball program, which makes sense considering the team is hosting its first NCAA tournament regional beginning Friday.
Hughes and his team have tried to feed off the energy of the carnival-like atmosphere at English Field, where 1,000 temporary seats and an auxiliary press box have been installed to accommodate the most attention the program has ever seen.
"It's tough to have the same old routine when you have cranes dropping luxury suites in your park during practice," said Hughes, whose No. 1-seeded team will play its first game in the regional 5:30 p.m. Friday against regional No. 4 seed and Big East tournament champion Connecticut (34-26).
"It feels like a football game-day Saturday, but our guys need to not get caught up in that noise and they need to stay focused. They need to take advantage of being a number one seed and playing good in their home park. Everything else is just part of the scenery. That's been our message."
Before Tech's game, which Hughes plans to go into with ace left-hander Joe Mantiply (6-0, 2.92 earned run average) on the mound, No. 2 seed Oklahoma will play No. 3 seed Coastal Carolina (37-21) at 1 p.m. in English Field.
Oklahoma will start right-hander Jonathan Gray (9-2, 1.55 ERA, 127 strikeouts and 21 walks in 110 innings), who could be the No. 1 overall pick next Thursday in the Major League Baseball first-year player draft.
Oklahoma (40-19), which also will use likely high-round draft pick left-hander Dillon Overton (9-2, 2.89 ERA) in the regional, has had recent postseason success in the state. Last season, Oklahoma advanced into a super regional by winning in Charlottesville. In 2010, Oklahoma earned a trip to Omaha, Neb., for the College World Series by winning a super regional in Charlottesville.
No team in the tournament may be dealing with more disruption than Oklahoma, which is located in Norman, Okla., just nine miles south of Moore, Okla. A tornado struck Moore on May 20, killing 24 people, including 10 children, injuring 377 people and causing nearly $2 billion in damage.
On the day of the tornado, Oklahoma coach Sunny Golloway said he drove into the area that was hit by the tornado to check on his daughter, son-in-law and grandson, all of whom live in Moore. All of his family members were OK. Golloway said he ended up less than a mile away from the site of some of the worst destruction.
"The things that happened around us … were inspiring, to say the least," said Golloway of his team's reaction to the tornado. "The way that the people of Oklahoma have come together and pulled together, supported one another — (the tornado) was pretty devastating."
While Oklahoma will play with heavy hearts, Tech (38-20) will have the advantage of playing in the most familiar of settings. Tech made its last trip to the NCAA tournament in 2010, when it lost its first game of a regional in Columbia, S.C., to The Citadel, before bowing out of the tournament three games later in a loss to South Carolina.
That experience showed Hughes, who plans to start right-hander Devin Burke (10-3, 3.30 ERA) in Tech's second game of the regional, the importance of getting off to a good start in the regional.
"It's of the utmost importance," said Hughes, whose team has won 16 of its last 19 games. "We saw life in the losing bracket three years ago in South Carolina. That's a tough way to live. Game one is essential, and then game two really puts you in the drivers' seat, but with game one you've got to get in that winner's column. Then, you live your life day-to-day after that, but it's important to get off to the right start or it becomes a war of attrition."
Tech will continue to rely on the hot bats of players like outfielders Tyler Horan (.349, 11 home runs, 50 RBI), Mark Zagunis (.336, nine home runs, 48 RBI) and Andrew Rash (.312, nine home runs, 57 RBI) and shortstop Chad Pinder (.327, seven home runs, 48 RBI), a Poquoson High graduate.
UConn, which is led by 10th year coach and UConn alum Jim Penders, also enters the tournament on a significant roll. UConn went into the Big East tournament as the No. 8 seed, and defeated Louisville, South Florida, Rutgers and Notre Dame to win the championship. UConn was 1-11 against those four teams in the regular season.
Penders, who has helped lead UConn to the NCAA tournament in three of the last four seasons (including its first-ever appearance in the super regionals in 2011), and Hughes are tight enough buddies to avoid a meeting like this one involving their teams under normal circumstances.
"We're too friendly to schedule each other during the regular season," Penders said. "I think we both had the same reaction when we saw each other in the bracket pop up. That's the only way we would play — in the postseason, so it's meant to be."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun