When Hokies coach Pete Hughes said two years ago he wanted to spend his early Junes in Omaha, people laughed at him.
Omaha, of course, is home to the College World Series, NCAA baseball’s national championship.
When Hughes’ 2008 team broke the school record for consecutive losses, Omaha might as well have been as far away as Thailand.
But a year after reaching the NCAA Tournament for the first time in his tenure as the Hokies head coach, Hughes said they are inching closer to his ultimate goal.
“I think it’s insulting not to have any other goal than that,” he said.
The Hokies open the season today in Myrtle Beach, S.C. with a three-day round-robin affair at Coastal Carolina University. They face Indiana at noon today, followed by Tennessee Tech at 11 a.m. Saturday and Coastal Carolina at 3:30 p.m. Sunday.
For the second consecutive season, the Hokies are picked to finish fifth out of six teams in the ACC’s Coastal Division and 11th overall. Last year, they won 40 games and finished sixth overall in the conference, earning an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.
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Hughes will have to find a way to replace his two best hitters from a season ago. Austin Wates (.382 BA, 8 HR, 54 RBI in 2010) and Steve Domecus (.365 BA, 13 HR, 60 RBI) were drafted in the third and ninth rounds by the Astros and Dodgers, respectively.
“We will miss their leadership and productivity, but the core of our experience this year is on the positional side,” Hughes said.
“Austin and Steve weren’t always elite players, they formed into that. We’re looking for some guys to do that this year.”
Replacing Domecus’ power will be up to junior infielder Ronnie Shaban. In 2010, Shaban hit eight home runs and led the team with 67 RBI. He will be a staple in the fourth spot of the batting order.
Tim Smalling is another returning player who will be relied on heavily this season. The former Arkansas transfer got off to a hot start in 2010 before cooling off considerably at the end of the season. He batted just .250 in the postseason, including three strikeouts in 24 at-bats.
Smalling was drafted in the 14th round of last year’s draft by the Washington Nationals, yet elected to return to school in what Hughes described as a “pleasant surprise.”
With only three players with significant starting experience back this season, the Hokies will rely on a young core of players to mature quickly.
“I’m going to go with the hottest bats at any time,” Hughes said.