Scot Thomas did not attend Virginia Tech. but there is no Hokies coach more rooted in Blacksburg, more versed in the town-gown bond, more aware of how paramount that bond is during these trying times.
Thomas' softball team continued its drive toward an ACC championship Saturday with a doubleheader sweep of Maryland. This the Hokies did before an overflow and season- high crowd -- many of them Blacksburg residents -- that enjoyed an exquisite spring afternoon and another few hours not pondering Monday's mayhem.
"It seriously meant the world to me," left fielder Caroline Stolle said of the outpouring.The Hokies (38-12, 13-3 ACC) won by scores of 5-4 and 11- 1, the second game shortened to five innings because of the sport's eight-run rule. They lead second-place North Carolina State by two games in the loss column with four conference games remaining.
"I know there's Hokies around the country, and they'll be watching us," Stolle said. "We're proud to be here, and we're not ashamed. ... There's still no other place I'd rather be. ... As I told my teammates: We'll be sad later. Let's go out and do what we love."
Stolle drove in three runs on the afternoon, third baseman Charisse Mariconda and pinch-hitter Kelsy Rokey (two second-game home runs) four each. All-conference pitcher Angela Tincher (3.83 grade-point average in finance insurance and business law) won both games to run her record to 29-4.
Remarkable performances less than a week removed from Monday's on-campus shootings.
"It was just perfect," Thomas said.
A Blacksburg High graduate, Thomas has coached the Hokies for 12 seasons and worked previously in the athletic department's equipment room for three years. The only reason he chose East Tennessee State out of high school instead of Virginia Tech was to chase his baseball dreams.
But Thomas is more than a local, or "townie," as he proudly calls himself. He hails from a family that is a Blacksburg-Virginia Tech institution and married a Blacksburg High-Virginia Tech alum.
Thomas' mother, Judy Ridinger, has worked at Virginia Tech for 43 years, ever since she graduated from Blacksburg High. She began as a secretary and now serves as a human- resources administrator.
Thomas' late stepfather, Jack Ridinger, retired as a Virginia Tech Police captain last spring after 26 years of service. Also Blacksburg born-and-bred, he died of a stroke in July.
"People who grow up in Blacksburg are the backbone of Virginia Tech," Thomas said.
And that backbone will steady this community after the gun violence that killed 33 -- the suicidal shooter, a student, and his 32 victims, 27 students and five faculty members.
"Blacksburg and Virginia Tech are one and the same," Thomas said. "Like the vigil the other night, I think the students felt that sense of community."
His players felt the same sense Saturday -- the crowd of 1,283 was more than three times this season's average. And did they ever need it.
"You don't know what to say," Thomas said. "You try to say the right thing, and you definitely don't want to say the wrong thing. You try to dance around a little bit. ... We had a horrible practice Wednesday. I thought the ballfield would be a sanctuary, but they were very quiet, not themselves."
So that night Thomas treated the team to dinner at Kabuki, a lively Japanese steakhouse. Thursday's practice was improved, Friday's downright sharp.
And Saturday's effort was what you'd expect from the nation's 20th-ranked team, and its crowd -- fans fussed at ball-strike calls and even scolded Thomas for waving home a runner (Erin Ota) who was thrown out at the plate.
Please don't misunderstand.
Virginia Tech and Blacksburg are not "back to normal." Scars are fresh and raw and will begin to heal only with time.
Saturday mourners continued to gather at the memorial in front of Burress Hall, the campus' signature edifice. They continued to place candles on the altar at War Memorial Chapel. Yellow tape still surrounds Norris Hall, where 30 victims died.
But there are signs, small steps. Cabo Fish Taco poured imported drafts and high-end margaritas well into Saturday morning. The healthy crowd mobbed Gillie's for a vegetarian breakfast.
Classes resume Monday, graduation is May 11, and the first home football game is 19 weeks away.
"Part of me doesn't want to go back to class," Rokey said. "But I know I need to."
Meanwhile, Rokey and her teammates pursue that ACC title -- and so much more. On the verge of earning their third consecutive NCAA tournament bid, these Hokies -- along with a women's track and field team that won the ACC championship Saturday -- are a beacon in the darkness.
"I hope so," Thomas said. "But that's not a burden I want to put on them. I do want us to show how strong we are, how strong our community is. And if we can do our part in the healing process, that would be great."
David Teel can be reached at 247-4636 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org