It’s been quite a four-year run for the VCU Rams under head coach Shawn Stiffler.
They’ve won 35 or more games in each of the last four seasons, they won the 2015 Dallas Regional, pushed the hosting Miami Hurricanes in the 2015 Coral Gables Super Regional, and captured the A-10 regular season title in 2017 with a 19-5 mark in conference games.
Once a near-regular in regionals as members of the Colonial Athletic Association, with appearances in 1998, 2002, 2003, 2005, 2007, and 2010 prior to their 2015 run, the Rams have continued their consistency as a member of their current league. The late Paul Keyes was very successful as the head coach in Richmond, and Stiffler hasn’t missed a beat at the helm since taking over.
Heading into 2018, the program will have the talent on hand to put together a regional run, and perhaps the glass slipper will fit them once again.
At the plate, they’ll be led by their shortstop, 2017 Atlantic 10 Rookie of the Year Paul Witt (.361/.429/.425, 11 2B, 36 RBI), Zac Ching (.286/.360/.391, 14 2B, 40 RBI), Mitchel Lacey (.300/.389/.454, 4 HR), 2017 Atlantic 10 All-Rookie Team honoree Steven Carpenter (.287/.430/.396), and Daane Berezo, who played a big role on that 2015 super regional team, has walked more times than he has struck out in his career, and has nearly 400 at-bats in a VCU uniform.
The headliner among those returning on the mound is senior Sean Thompson, who went 7-4 with a 3.46 ERA in 83.1 innings in 2017 and has 36 starts and more than 200 career innings for the Rams, but he’ll be helped in the rotation by Michael Dailey, who had a 4.61 ERA over 15 starts a year ago, one season after going 6-0 with a 1.57 ERA in 14 appearances (10 starts) in 2016, on the way to being named the A-10’s Rookie of the Year.
Sam Donko isn’t around anymore to lead the bullpen, but Hayden Moore (2.96 ERA, 24.1 IP, .206 OBA), Ryan Fox (3.15 ERA, 20 IP, .203 OBA), and Benjamin Dum (3.83 ERA, 44.2 IP, .269 OBA) are all back to give VCU some talent and depth in relief.
That’s not to say it will be a cakewalk to the league title for VCU, because the top of the A-10 has never been more competitive, and they’ll get a stiff challenge from the likes of Saint Louis, Rhode Island, and a Davidson team coming off of a super regional appearance of their own.
The Billikens return just about everyone from a 2017 offense that hit .284/.371/.437 as a group a year ago and have a tough one-two punch in their rotation in Miller Hogan and Jackson Wark, both of whom have pro baseball futures ahead of them. They are also just a couple of years removed from rattling off four consecutive league championships, so the pedigree is there. Rhode Island returns staff ace Tyler Wilson, a workhorse who helped lead his Rams to a regional appearance in 2016. He was sorely missed in 2017, when he lost most of his season due to injury. And while Davidson will be without cult hero Durin O’Linger in the rotation and a couple of key power bats from last year’s squad, there is still enough talent around to make their mark in the conference.
As that magical 2015 run gets further in the rearview mirror, more and more of the core of that team has moved on from VCU, but the wins have continued to pile up, and it doesn’t appear that the 2018 season is going to be any different. Led by a small group of players who were around for that banner season and a new set of stars that have emerged in the ensuing years, perhaps the Rams can find some of that magic again.