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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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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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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UVA ON TAP: ‘HATS…KEEP BATS WARM’

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VCU senior left-hander Heath Dwyer is 4-1 for VCU this season with a 3.46 ERA.

VCU senior left-hander Heath Dwyer is 4-1 for VCU this season with a 3.46 ERA.

RICHMOND, Va. – VCU may be facing 14th-ranked Virginia at an opportune time. The Rams are hitting the baseball at an impressive rate, a trend they hope continues deep into Tuesday evening.

Senior shortstop Vimael Machin has led the way. Machin, who was named Atlantic 10 Conference Player of the Week on Monday, is in the midst of a 15-game hitting streak. He was 11-of-18 with six RBIs and a gaudy .696 on-base-percentage in five games last week for the Rams.

Machin was already an accomplished hitter – he entered the year batting .299 for his VCU career – before his recent hot streak, but he’s on a different level right now. Machin is batting .363 overall, eighth in the A-10, with 23 RBIs.

In addition, centerfielder Logan Farrar was 11-of-23 last week, including a 5-of-6 performance in Friday’s 16-3 win over UMass. He is hitting .303 this year with a .421 on-base-percentage, second only on the team to Machin.

Behind his lead, VCU outscored its opponents 52-7 last week. VCU Baseball Coach Shawn Stiffler says there’s a correlation between warm bats and warm weather.

“I think the biggest thing has been consistency in our routine,” he said. “I think the weather has broken, and to be able to get out here for practices on days like this and continue to work on our game. Everyone always knows, when the weather heats up, so do the bats, usually.”

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RAMSANITY 2014

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The VCU Baseball team held its annual “Ramsanity” challenge. It was so insane I pulled a hammy watching it. Senior pitcher Heath Dwyer was the individual champion in 23:28.

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Dwyer later celebrated by wearing this shirt:

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THE YEAR IN VCU ATHLETICS, FROM A TO Z

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Wrong A-B-C...whatever, close enough.

Wrong A-B-C…whatever, close enough.

June marks the conclusion of the college athletics calendar, and July’s arrival effectively signals the beginning of the 2013-14 season, at least for those of us in the biz, anyway. It all makes this week a good time to reflect back on the year that was in VCU Athletics.

A – is for Atlantic 10 Conference, in which, according to our slogan, the Rams were ‘all-in’. We were also all-in for another season of “Arrested Development” and Pop Tart ice cream sandwiches, so we’re having a good year. VCU competed in the A-10 for the first time in 2012-13, a move that has elevated the program’s national profile. The Rams’ first A-10 title came via the women’s tennis squad, followed by a men’s tennis crown days later. Meanwhile, several other sports (men’s basketball, women’s soccer, men’s soccer) reached the league’s championship final.

B – is for the Ball family, one of the driving forces behind the VCU Golf program. They’re like the Kennedy’s of VCU Golf, but with a better short game. Matt Ball may have just completed his 14th season with the Rams, but this one was surely different than the others. That’s because 40 percent of his starting lineup was occupied by sons Adam and Matt Jr. Son Adam, a freshman, led the Rams in scoring average (73.53) this year, while Matt Jr., a junior, placed seventh at the A-10 Championship and was named to the league’s All-Academic Team.

C – is for Courtney Conrad, the alliteratively named star of the women’s soccer team. Conrad led the Rams with 11 goals, including five game-winners, and received All-Mid-Atlantic by the NSCAA.

D – is for Daniels, Troy. If you are a fan of basketball players who score three points at a time (and the signed, obscure Mark Price picture in my dining room proves I am), then you would’ve enjoyed Daniels’ 2012-13 season. In 36 games, Daniels bombed a school-record 124 three-pointers, including games of 11, nine and eight.

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DWYER LANDS STARRING ROLE AS VCU ACE

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Sophomore Heath Dwyer is 6-5 with a 2.88 ERA for VCU this season.

Sophomore Heath Dwyer is 6-5 with a 2.88 ERA for VCU this season.

RICHMOND, Va. – The son of two part-time actors, VCU sophomore Heath Dwyer appears to have inherited a flair for the dramatic.

Dwyer, who nearly majored in theater at VCU, has played the part of a hero of late, delivering a handful of potentially season-saving performances. In his last three starts, the left-handed pitcher has thrown three complete games and is 2-1 with a 1.73 ERA.

He should’ve taken a bow after his last effort. On May 4 against first-place Saint Louis, Dwyer outdueled Alex Alemann, one of the Atlantic 10’s top pitchers, spinning a five-hit, 10-strikeout, complete-game shutout. The win helped the Rams take two of three from the Billikens and kept VCU’s A-10 Tournament hopes alive. Gutty and important as Dwyer’s gem was to VCU, especially for a sophomore, it did not catch Rams’ Coach Shawn Stiffler by surprise.

“I’ve never looked up and thought, this occasion is too big for him,” Stiffler said. “[He has] a maturity level of, you can drop him in New York with a quarter, and he can get home.”

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RAMS FIGHTING FOR A-10 BID IN SEASON’S FINAL TWO WEEKS

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Junior Joey Cujas leads VCU with a .326 average and 32 RBIs this season.

Junior Joey Cujas leads VCU with a .326 average and 32 RBIs this season.

RICHMOND, Va. – There’s no mystery about what the next two weeks mean to the VCU Baseball team. The Rams’ season boils down to six final Atlantic 10 Conference games, of which VCU will have to win the majority of to keep its season alive.

Seven teams will qualify for the A-10 Tournament May 22-25 in Charlotte. VCU (23-23, 8-10 A-10) is currently 10th, three games out of a conference tournament berth.

“Obviously, we understand completely what we’ve got to do,” said VCU Coach Shawn Stiffler. “The funny thing is that it’s not that far off of what we did last year. The only difference is…there’s a lot more teams in the league.”

In 2012, VCU started 7-12 in CAA play, but finished by winning seven of its final 10 conference games to capture that league’s No. 5 seed. The Rams eventually advanced within a game of the CAA Championship round.

If the Rams want to repeat that performance, now is the time to do it. The good news for VCU is that it will face two teams directly above the Rams in the A-10 standings. The Rams will travel to George Washington for three games May 10-12. The Colonials are 10-8 in the league and in eighth place. VCU will conclude the regular season at The Diamond May 16-18 with three games against rival Richmond. The Spiders are 11-7 in the A-10 and are tied with Saint Joseph’s and Xavier for one of the three final conference tournament slots.

The Rams know their backs are against the wall, but they’re not getting ahead of themselves. They can’t win six games at once.

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