RICHMOND, Va. – VCU says it won’t be intimidated when the Rams meet storied Miami Friday in Coral Gables. It’s not for a lack of qualifications on Miami’s part. The Hurricanes (47-15) are the NCAA Tournament’s No. 5 overall seed and have reached the postseason 42 consecutive years.
But VCU, riding a wave of confidence, has won 14 of 15 games. The Rams are fresh off upsets, as the No. 4 seed, of top-seeded Dallas Baptist and Oregon State in the regional round. VCU players say they’re ready to keep the program’s historic run alive.
“Our confidence is as high as it’s been throughout the year,” says VCU third baseman Matt Davis. “We feel like we can compete against any team in the nation.”
The Hurricanes will certainly test that notion. In addition to hosting this weekend’s Super Regional at Mark Light Field, the Hurricanes boast an offense that includes David Thompson, who leads the nation in both home runs (19) and RBIs (85). As a team, the Hurricanes are scoring an NCAA-best 8.5 runs per game and rank fifth nationally in batting average (.314).
Miami’s offense will be an intriguing test for VCU’s dynamic pitching staff, which ranks 12th nationally in ERA (2.86).
“[Miami’s] reputation kind of does speak for itself. We know the numbers down there. We know they were a one-seed, hosting a regional,” says left-handed pitcher Heath Dwyer, who is 10-2 with 2.85 ERA. “But we’ve been an underdog through this whole NCAA Tournament. We beat the No. 1 seed [in our region] Dallas Baptist. We beat them twice, and we really feel like we can beat anybody, and we’re ready to play Miami. We’re not scared. We’re just as competitive of a team, and I think we’re ready to embrace the challenge.
There’s no doubt VCU’s recent 15-game stretch, in which the Rams have allowed three runs or fewer in each contest, has buoyed the team’s belief in its abilities. But another reason the Rams are ready to share the field with one of the nation’s best teams is because they’ve already played a challenging schedule.
This season, VCU was 3-4 against teams from the ACC, the nation’s second-ranked conference in RPI. Two of those losses were by a single run. The Rams also swept two games from Maryland, which will play Virginia in the Super Regionals this weekend. and took 2-of-3 from East Carolina, which earned a No. 2 regional seed.
VCU Coach Shawn Stiffler wanted to test his team with a difficult schedule, and the dividends are evident, he says.
“That’s a thought process of this program that started with Coach [Paul] Keyes and that’s going to continue through me,” said the third-year head coach. “We want to put our guys in the regional setting as much as possible during the regular season, and that’s why you see Chapel Hill, UVA, Maryland. We want to go places where guys are playing against regional people, regional caliber teams and regional crowds.”
VCU’s players believe Stiffler’s aggressive approach to scheduling has prepared them for this year’s postseason pressure-cooker.
“It really helps the team get comfortable playing good competition,” Dwyer said. “Maryland, that was a great mid-week series for us. We went and took two from a great team that won a regional against the best team in the country, UCLA. I think winning games like that and playing games like that gives the team a lot of confidence to play at that higher level and that big stage.”
KEYES FAMILY STILL PART OF VCU RUN
Paul Keyes guided the VCU program for 18 seasons and took the Rams to eight NCAA Tournaments. The revered coach died in 2012 following a battle with melanoma, but in some way, he’s still with this team as it marches into the Super Regionals.
Keyes’ oldest son, Paul Anthony, has served as director of operations for VCU this season, assisting the Rams with a number of administrative and travel-related tasks.
Paul Anthony was there in Dallas when the Rams clinched their first regional championship and found his way into VCU’s frenzied postgame dog pile.
“It’s a special moment for us. It’s a special moment to remember his father. He brought me here and made a lot of this team happen, and it’s been really special to share that with [Paul Anthony],” said Dwyer, one of three remaining Rams to play for Paul Keyes.
Stiffler says Paul Anthony, who played baseball at Christopher Newport, isn’t trying to follow in his father’s footsteps. Instead, he has his eye on graduate school for sports management. When VCU’s original director of operations left to accept a coaching position in December, Stiffler considered offering the role to Paul Anthony as an opportunity to gain experience. But before he did, Stiffler reached out to Paul Keyes’ wife, Trisha, to gauge the emotional dynamics at play. Convinced the arrangement could work, Stiffler brought Paul Anthony aboard.
Trisha Keyes has remained close to the program, as well as with Stiffler and his wife, but this was different. After spending six years as Paul Keyes’ assistant, Stiffler says it’s occasionally emotional to have Paul Anthony at practice and on the road with the team.
“It’s been really cool, really special,” he said. “There’s times where we’ll have conversations, and he’ll talk and say something and grin, and it looks like Coach is sitting next to you. Very, very special to be able to see him in the middle of that dog pile [Monday], because he’s been invested in this program longer than any of us have been invested in it. When he was sitting in diapers, he was invested in it.”