CAN THESE RAMS DANCE?

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Viral video time. This one comes via VCU University Relations, but there’s plenty of Athletics cameos in here, from Mo Alie-Cox, to Baseball Coach Shawn Stiffler to Pavarotti. Justin Timberlake has created a monster. Expect more of these.

VCU IS UP – IN ARMS – AGAIN

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Junior college transfer Brooks Vial is 3-2 with a 3.83 ERA . He is one of a number of newcomers who have bolstered VCU’s reworked pitching staff this season.

A year ago Sean Thompson was “the kid” on VCU’s staff, a freshman with a live arm who was trying to keep pace with a host of seniors. But that was last year. Today, he owns more Division I experience than any pitcher on VCU’s roster.

Thompson, who started and earned the victory in VCU’s historic regional championship game against Dallas Baptist last season, has taken his newfound veteran status in stride. In the meantime, the new guys, the players Thompson is being asked to lead, haven’t missed a beat.

Although there was no piece of equipment more valuable to the VCU pitching staff this fall than nametags, the Rams have the look of a team primed to defend their Atlantic 10 title and make a run toward a second straight NCAA appearance in large part due to their work on the mound. VCU is 19-10 this season and defeated defending National Champion Virginia on April 5. Despite shaky early performances, the Rams have carved out a 4.45 team ERA. In six A-10 games, VCU’s ERA is 2.21.

Despite some early concern, Thompson, who added 30 pounds to his frame in the offseason in order to shoulder an increased workload this year, says he could see potential in VCU’s new pitching staff during fall ball.

“I felt like in the fall I saw a lot of things people could do well. It just takes a good mindset and preparation to get people out at this level,” he said. We recruited them here because they had the ability, now it’s just harnessing that at this level.”

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BASEBALL TAKES DOWN DEFENDING CHAMPS

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VCU Baseball scored a nice win Tuesday before more than 3,000 at The Diamond. The Rams topped defending National Champion Virginia 7-5 behind a Darian Carpenter 3-run homer and five strong innings from Jonathan Ebersole. Have a look at some of the sights and sounds from the win. The Rams are now 19-10.

VIDEO: VCU BASEBALL MEDIA DAY

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VCU Baseball season is right around the corner. YOUR defending Atlantic 10 and Dallas Regional Champions open the 2016 season on Feb. 19 (Yes, February. College baseball is a different animal) at Kennesaw State. The Rams are scheduled to host their first home game on Feb. 24 against Maryland. This week, Coach Shawn Stiffler, as well as players James Bunn, Logan Farrar and Sean Thompson met with the media to discuss the upcoming campaign.

 

SAFARIS, SMARTS AND SQUATS

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"I love VCU Soccer. I ain't lion."

“I love VCU Soccer. I ain’t lion.”

If you’re a follower of VCU Athletics over at the DOT com site, you may have caught this great interview between Rams’ Baseball Coach Shawn Stiffler and Men’s Soccer Coach Dave Giffard. Well, these guys are pretty chatty, so something was bound to get left on the cutting room floor. That leads us to this. Giffard does as much international recruiting as any VCU coach, which is how he ended up fearing of his life on an African safari.

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Hey, we’re not all safaris and sportsball trophies over here. You can see games and championship celebrations. But it’s important for us to reiterate that academics are the cornerstone of this department. We want to prepare these men and women for the rest of their lives, not just four years of games.

This week, VCU Athletic Director Ed McLaughlin hosted an ice cream social for student-athletes who achieved a 3.5 grade point average last semester. A record 81 VCU student-athletes qualified.

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Also this week, spring-loaded VCU outside hitter Jessica Young, an A-10 All-Rookie Team pick last year, sat down with ESPN 950s Greg Burton. During the interview, Young discussed one of the secrets to her early success, her commitment to weight training. There’s a great chance Young can outlift you. And outjump you. And outrun you. Have a listen.

BASEBALL NOTES: RAMS CONFIDENT FOR MIAMI; KEYES LINEAGE A PART OF VCU RUN

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VCU, which boasts the nation's 12th-best ERA, is set to face Miami, the country's highest-scoring offense, in Super Regional play.

VCU, which boasts the nation’s 12th-best ERA, is set to face Miami, the country’s highest-scoring offense, in Super Regional play.

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.

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CASTOFF KERRIGAN FIGHTS FOR TOMORROW AT VCU

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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.

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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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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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