KEYES’ INFLUENCE WRITTEN INTO VCU CHAMPIONSHIP BLUEPRINT

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Paul Keyes was 603-428-1 at VCU from 1995-2012 and led the Rams to eight NCAA appearances.

Paul Keyes was 603-428-1 at VCU from 1995-2012 and led the Rams to eight NCAA appearances.

RICHMOND, Va. – Working for Paul Keyes was not like Shawn Stiffler envisioned.

Keyes was already something of a legend in Virginia when Stiffler jumped from his alma mater, George Mason, to join the VCU coaching staff 2006. From 1998-2005, Keyes guided VCU to six NCAA Regional appearances and three CAA Tournament crowns. At 26 years old, Stiffler was eager to soak up strategy from one of the games’ most-respected voices.

But Keyes’ approach initially jarred Stiffler.

“It was day one. He would constantly talk to me about, ‘you’ve got to make this decision like you’re the head coach.’ As a young 26 year old I showed up here because I wanted to work for Paul Keyes. I wanted him to tell me what to do. But that wasn’t it at all,” says Stiffler.

Keyes didn’t want to give people around him the answers to their questions. He wanted them to find their own.

“It wasn’t easy for me. Coach Keyes is not a guy if you work for him who told you, ‘go up there and do X, Y and Z.’ If I said, ‘Coach we have nowhere to practice today.’ He’d say, ‘figure it out.’ But now I know how to do that. He just was one of those guys who would push you to push yourself. He stretched you every day. You had to be prepared for it. He did not believe in a routine.”

Keyes, a fierce competitor, savvy baseball mind, from-the-gut strategist, avid golfer and gregarious laugher, died in 2012 following a bout with melanoma. He won a school-record 603 games and directed VCU to eight NCAA bids in 18 seasons. His loss left a crater-sized void in the program.

On May 23, using more than a few of the foundational lessons he gleaned from six years under Keyes’ wing, with the vestiges of the longtime coach’s final recruiting class, Stiffler steered VCU to its first Atlantic 10 Tournament Championship.

It was Stiffler’s first conference crown as head coach, but in some ways, it felt like one final trophy for Keyes’ mantle.

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PARTY DOWN SOUTH: RAMS LOOK TO SHAKE UP DALLAS

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As you likely know by now, the VCU Baseball team is headed to Dallas for the NCAA Regionals. The Rams, making their first regional appearance since 2010, will take on Dallas Baptist in a region that also features Texas and Oregon State.

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If you ask the Rams, they’ll likely tell you their incredible late-season run, which has included 11 straight wins, has been influenced by Monty, the team’s good-luck charm. We’ve discussed Monty’s power before, which is why Logan Farrar confirmed Monday that VCU’s good-luck tiki would definitely be traveling to Texas.

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Friday’s game against Dallas Baptist will be televised on ESPN3. Here’s to hoping for some screen time for Monty.

VCU BASEBALL – ATLANTIC 10 CHAMPIONS

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Screen Shot 2015-05-24 at 10.42.42 AMA few weeks ago, VCU looked like it might not even make the Atlantic 10 Tournament. The Rams had just been swept at league-leader Saint Louis and were sitting 11th in the A-10 standings, albeit amid a tight race.

Yesterday, VCU capped its incredible turnaround by defeating Rhode Island 5-3 for the A-10 title in Arlington, Virginia. VCU has won 11 straight games and the Rams outscored their opponents 38-8 in the four-game A-10 Tournament. Now VCU will play in its 11th NCAA Tournament.

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Meanwhile, check out Logan Farrar’s tournament-clinching catch in centerfield. It made SportsCenter’s Top 10.

BASEBALL CHASING A-10 CHAMPIONSHIP

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The VCU Baseball team appears to be hitting its stride at the right time. The Rams are riding a seven-game win streak as they prep for the Atlantic 10 Tournament this week in Arlington, Virginia. VCU, the five seed, will open with fourth-seeded Davidson on Wednesday.

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One of the big reasons for VCU’s success this year is senior Heath Dwyer and his hair. Dwyer’s been terrific for VCU his entire four-year career – his 26 wins rank second in school history – but he’s been particularly splendid in 2015. In 15 starts, he’s 8-2 with a 2.90 ERA. I think it has something to do with the Thor-like mane he’s been growing out. The photo on the left is from a couple of years ago; the one on the right is from this week. Draw your own conclusions.

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SENIOR SITDOWN (THE FUTURE’S SO BRIGHT, BRI’S GOTTA WEAR SHADES)

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We recently had the opportunity to sit down with graduating VCU seniors Treveon Graham, Briante Weber and Jarred Guest to shoot a sort of all-encompassing video that looks back on their careers, as well as to the future. You’re going to have to commit roughly the same amount of time you would into watching a “Big Bang Theory”, but it’s worth it. In the past, you’ve only gotten snippets of what these guys were like, but here, you get a feel for them as people as never before. Let Briante Weber entertain you one more time.

WILL WADE MEDIA MINUTES

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VCU BASEBALL SIGNS GRAYSON DUTTON

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On Monday, the VCU Baseball team announced the signing of 4-year-old Grayson Dutton, who has rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare form of cancer. Grayson has endured rounds and rounds of treatment, not to mention surgery. When he’s feeling well, he’s been a fixture around the VCU Baseball team this year.

VCU ALUM NAMED MVP AFTER BANANAS EUROCHALLENGE BUZZER-BEATER

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Former Ram Jamal Shuler, a fan-favorite for VCU from 2004-08 has carved out a nice professional career for himself overseas, with stops in France, Germany and Ukraine. This weekend, he picked up some nice hardware when his current team, Nanterre of France’s ProA league, won the EuroChallenge (it’s complicated, but it’s essentially the No. 3 championship tournament in Europe) on this crazy buzzer-beater. Shuler is No. 1 in green in this video.

That replay is a little inconclusive, but this angle appears a little more definitive.

To boot, Shuler was named MVP of the EuroChallenge Final Four after he averaged 14.0 points and 4.5 assists. Nanterre wins a promotion to the EuroCup next year.

An All-CAA First Team selection in 2008, Jamal Shuler scored 1,011 points as a Ram and ranks 11th in school history with 170 three-pointers.

An All-CAA First Team selection in 2008, Jamal Shuler scored 1,011 points as a Ram and ranks 11th in school history with 170 three-pointers.

Crazy as that was, it’s still not the nuttiest buzzer-beater Shuler’s been party to during his European career. Check out the absurd winner Shuler hit in 2011 with Vichy.

PERFECT PITCH: VCU HURLERS HAVE RAMS IN CONTENTION

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Closer Daniel Concepcion (2.03 ERA, 8 saves) is one of a number of VCU pitchers enjoying career seasons.

Closer Daniel Concepcion (2.03 ERA, 8 saves) is one of a number of VCU pitchers enjoying career seasons.

RICHMOND, Va. – The VCU Baseball team is loaded with pitching talent, and that includes the dugout.

Head Coach Shawn Stiffler and first-year Pitching Coach Steve Hay, longtime friends and former high school teammates, were both accomplished pitchers in college at George Mason and Webber International, respectively. Stiffler served as a pitching coach at Mason and VCU for the better part of a decade before assuming taking over as Rams head coach in 2012. Hay succeeded Stiffler as George Mason pitching coach and produced eight productive seasons for the Patriots. Combined, Stiffler and Hay boast nearly a quarter-century of experience mentoring college pitchers.

It should come as no surprise that as VCU (24-16, 7-5 A-10) readies for a pivotal series with league rival Rhode Island this weekend, the Rams lead the Atlantic 10 Conference and rank in the top 30 nationally in both ERA (2.93) and strikeouts (338).

Stiffler’s teams have generally pitched well, but Hay’s influence appears to be having an impact this season. Senior left-hander Matt Lees, who pitched hurt and saw his ERA balloon to 5.45 last season, has allowed one earned run in 38 innings this year (0.24 ERA). During the fall, Lees and Hay worked to find a more comfortable arm slot for the senior lefty. The result of those labors has been one of the best seasons by a VCU reliever in recent memory.

Senior starters JoJo Howie (4-4, 3.06 ERA) and Heath Dwyer (5-2, 3.32 ERA) have been their usual, outstanding selves, while hurlers like senior closer Daniel Concepcion (2-2, 8 saves, 2.03 ERA) and classmate Tyler Buckley (2-0, 1.71 ERA) – who threw just 5 2/3 innings last season – have really hit their stride this year.

Earlier this week, VCU limited Maryland, the Big Ten’s highest scoring team, to just two runs in back-to-back wins over the 21st-ranked Terrapins.

“It’s all to their credit,” Hay says of VCU’s staff. “They’re good. It’s recruiting. They recruited good guys for me to walk into. They’ve obviously coached them up for three years.”

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OF BLOCKS AND BOOKS…

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Mo Alie-Cox averaged 7.4 points, 5.7 rebounds and and 1.9 blocks per game in 2014-15. He will receive his bachelors degree in May.

Mo Alie-Cox averaged 7.4 points, 5.7 rebounds and and 1.9 blocks per game in 2014-15. He will receive his bachelors degree in May.

Editor’s note: This feature ran in the winter edition of the Ram Report. You can find the link to the full article below. 

Mo Alie-Cox is only a redshirt sophomore, but it can be said with some certainty that the best comeback of his VCU career won’t come on the basketball court. No, the rally he’s led in the classroom has been much better.

Once ruled a partial qualifier by the NCAA, Alie-Cox was forced to sit out his entire freshman year. This summer, he’ll earn his bachelor’s degree from VCU in just 3 ½ years. Alie-Cox, who has quickly become a shot-blocking maven and fan favorite, also has two years of athletic eligibility remaining, and he’s exploring the possibility of using that time two earn not one, but two master’s degrees, one in criminal justice and the other potentially in coaching. It’s a remarkable success story for a student-athlete whose VCU career was marked by an early false start.

A conversation with Alie-Cox will reveal many things and sharply dismiss a number of misconceptions. A chiseled, 6-foot-6 giant with long, floppy dreadlocks, Alie-Cox is an imposing, physical presence on the basketball court. Off the floor, he is affable and unassuming. Unfailingly polite and matter-of-fact about his business, he’s as low-maintenance as they come. Despite his early academic misstep, it’s abundantly clear that he’s bright and articulate.

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