VCU Rams1

Former Temple outfielder Jimmy Kerrigan is batting .290 with 22 RBIs for VCU this season.

Former Temple outfielder Jimmy Kerrigan is batting .290 with 22 RBIs for VCU this season.

RICHMOND, Va. – Jimmy Kerrigan is in a good place.

The chaotic terminals of Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, one of the world’s busiest, cannot dampen the mood of the VCU outfielder. This time tomorrow, he’ll be in Miami, preparing for the Rams’ unprecedented NCAA Super Regional appearance.

“We’re confident as ever,” he coos in his South Philadelphia brogue.

The source of Kerrigan’s confidence is the aligned arc of his and VCU’s seasons, which have reached historic levels. As he’s found comfort as a Ram, so too has this team, which has won 14 of 15 games to capture both the Atlantic 10 Championship and an NCAA Regional for the first time.

Kerrigan certainly played his part in VCU’s stunning turnaround. The junior transfer is batting .290 this season with three home runs and 22 RBIs. He leads the team in on-base-percentage (.429) and has cemented himself as the team’s starting right fielder. He batted .417 (5-of-12) in four games to help spur VCU to the Dallas Regional crown.

A month ago, Kerrigan wondered if the Rams would even qualify for the A-10 Tournament before summoning a 13-game win streak. But that’s nothing compared to how Kerrigan felt last December, when a red balance sheet and a shift in philosophy killed the first Division I program to believe in him.

Kerrigan grew up within walking distance of the South Philadelphia Sports Complex, a concrete sprawl that hugs Route 95 and serves as home to the city’s holy quartet of professional teams, the Phillies, Eagles, Flyers and Sixers.

Although a hard-nosed standout for Neumann-Goretti High School, Kerrigan was lightly recruited. When new Temple Head Coach Ryan Wheeler dangled a scholarship, Kerrigan’s only Division I offer, he was happy to accept. A home-cooked meal was only 20 minutes from campus.

Wheeler, a former Richmond and William & Mary assistant, had been charged with reversing Temple’s fortunes, and he needed tough kids who could withstand a little adversity.

“He was one of the first kids I got a commitment from,” Wheeler said. “If there was anybody that typifies Philly, it’s Jimmy. He’s hard-nosed, blue collar and tough as nails.”

As a freshman, Kerrigan batted .218 in 37 games, and Temple finished 18-28, the school’s 14th straight losing season. Although two decades removed from the program’s glory days, Wheeler hoped to turn Temple around. He never got that chance.

Kerrigan leads VCU in times hit by pitch (22) and on-base-percentage (.429).

Kerrigan leads VCU in times hit by pitch (22) and on-base-percentage (.429).

On Dec. 6, 2014, Kerrigan and his teammates received a non-descript email that urged them to report to the student pavilion. They had no idea they were effectively walking the program to a firing squad. The players assumed an impromptu team meeting, but were surprised to find a number of other Temple teams waiting inside the hall.

Athletic Director Kevin Clark delivered the news. Temple was cutting seven sports, including baseball. In a YouTube video from the announcement, an unnamed female athlete can be heard among those sobbing while filming Clark’s address on her cell phone.

“We had no indication it was coming. We were shocked,” Kerrigan says. “I was just looking around [the room], thinking, ‘what?’ We were blown away. I don’t think it hit us right away.”

Six players left the baseball program immediately. The rest stayed for one final season wrought with emotion and cobbled together by brotherhood. There was faint hope the program would be rescued from death’s door, but in reality, the players knew they’d be auditioning for other schools.

Kerrigan sent emails to the coaching staffs of the teams on Temple’s schedule, hoping to draw interest. The early response was tepid. The market for an outfielder with underwhelming freshman numbers was thin, and he didn’t help himself early in the season.

“I was pressing at the beginning of the year. You could practically see the bat steaming I was gripping it so hard, trying to impress everybody,” he said.

Kerrigan’s fortunes began to change during Temple’s series at VCU that March. VCU swept Temple, but Kerrigan went 5-of-11 in three games and grabbed the attention of Rams’ Coach Shawn Stiffler.

Wheeler and Stiffler had known each other for years. Wheeler was friendly with late VCU Coach Paul Keyes and once lived in the same housing development. Wheeler, now an assistant coach at Saint Joseph’s, was happy to endorse Stiffler and VCU.

Kerrigan liked the similarities between the campuses and the opportunity to push himself outside of his comfortable, hometown bubble. But it didn’t make leaving Temple any easier.

“It was tough. I was really grateful because they gave me an opportunity to play Division I baseball. It was tough to leave there. I was close with the coaching staff and close with my teammates,” said Kerrigan, who batted .310 in 2014 as Temple’s starting centerfielder.

On May 24, 2014, Temple played the final game in the program’s storied 88-year history, a history that included College World Series appearances in 1972 and 1977. The Owls, who limped to a 15-32 record, beat UConn 9-4 that afternoon. Kerrigan was 3-for-6.

VCU’s postseason run has been storybook quality, but it didn’t begin that way for the Rams or Kerrigan. His playing time fluctuated after Logan Farrar won the starting job in center, and Kerrigan was also slowed by a fractured hand.

But on May 9, two games into VCU’s dazzling win streak, Kerrigan assumed the starting role in right and hasn’t looked back. He’s batting .356 (16-of-45) since with eight RBIs.

“Jimmy Kerrigan has brought a ton of grit to this program,” Stiffler said. “He’s just as blue-collar as they come. To be honest with you it took me half a season to figure out how to use Jimmy on our team and how to figure out that role, and that was one of the big things that changed.”

“He’s always been a great player, but the last 2-3 weeks, he’s been unreal,” says VCU shortstop Vimael Machin. “He’s the one that’s always ready to go. He’s the one telling us in the dugout, ‘Let’s go’. He’s really big for us right now.”

Wheeler says Kerrigan is one of 18 players from Temple’s final season who found a home elsewhere. Although he’s working for one of VCU’s conference rivals now, Wheeler found it difficult not to root for Kerrigan this postseason. He’s kept in touch with Kerrigan and his parents during the season, and watched the final games of the Dallas Regional intently.

“I couldn’t be more thrilled for him,” Wheeler said.

By this time last year, there was nothing left Kerrigan could do to save Temple, which had completed its slow, agonizing fade to black. He was saying goodbye to his postmortem hometown program and preparing for summer ball. There would be no reprieve. Now, every time he takes the field, he can help this VCU team secure another day. In front of him are teammates with clear heads.

“It’s been insane,” Kerrigan said. We’re all having a ton of fun. Guys are flying around, and it doesn’t look like anybody’s played 60 games. Everybody’s clicking right now.”

A short time later, Kerrigan boarded a flight to Miami. The future was bright.