To say members of the Rams are hungry is an understatement.
Just ask catcher Hunter Vay and first baseman Steven Carpenter.
Asked this week if they have any superstitions they’ve grabbed hold of during what’s been a nation-leading 21-game VCU win streak, they revealed they both have settled on a routine of not eating a pregame meal.
“I’m serious,” said Vay, a former Thomas Dale star.
Vay added that it’s just he and Carpenter who’ve adopted that pattern. And how does that aid in winning?
“Stay hungry,” Carpenter said with a grin. “Stay hungry for the win.”
Whatever works. And it’s worked quite well for the Rams, who rolled to an Atlantic 10 tournament title last week at The Diamond, clinching against Dayton Saturday.
That put them in the 64-team NCAA tournament field, in the Starkville (Miss.) Regional hosted by No. 7 overall seed Mississippi State.
VCU (37-14) is the No. 2 seed in the Starkville Regional pod, and will begin NCAA play against No. 3 Campbell (35-16) Friday at 8 p.m., in a contest streamed on ESPN3.
“It’s going to be really hard for a team to beat us right now,” Vay said. “It’s really hard to beat a team that hasn’t lost in two months. So, if they’re going to try to beat us, they better show up.”
This year marks VCU’s first NCAA tournament appearance since 2015. The Rams won the Dallas Regional that year to move on to the school’s first super regional.
That was coach Shawn Stiffler’s third full season at the helm, and it’s now an experience he can look back on as he readies his current team for what’s ahead this weekend. Stiffler said that when former VCU men’s basketball coach Shaka Smart (2009-15) was in Richmond, he taught him to be a note taker.
So, in the midst of the 2015 run, Stiffler penned a bunch of notes, on things he would do differently the next time he took a team to the NCAA tournament.
And while the COVID-19 pandemic changes things this year compared to six years ago, he’s tried to look back on some of those notes from 2015. For him, there’s been reflection on things he wished he would have enjoyed more the last time around.
But the big component for his players, he said, is getting them to understand every team they’ll face coming up will be good.
“But, so are we,” Stiffler said. “And that if you have the opportunity to put yourself into an opportunity late in the game, to put a swing, make a pitch, make a play, and you can execute those, you’re going to have an opportunity to win. You will. And so, we got to be ourselves.”
Stiffler understands that there will be a lot of emotion for players to start in Starkville. But the charge to the team is to turn it into what it is at its core: a baseball game. That simple.
“I did tell them that, ‘Look, right now it doesn’t matter what you’ve done or who the best team is. It’s who plays the best,’” Stiffler said. “You got to play good for a weekend. You play good for a weekend, you’ll give yourself an opportunity to win a regional.”
Campbell earned an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. The Camels, like VCU, have been potent at the plate. They’re fifth in the nation with 8.7 runs scored per game, one spot ahead of the Rams, who average 8.4. Zach Neto leads the group with a .414 average, and Matthew Christian, like VCU slugger Tyler Locklear, has 16 home runs.
The multi-faceted ability of Campbell’s lineup is what makes it dangerous, Stiffler said. But Campbell reminds him a lot of his own club, he said, in that the program values what VCU values.
“It’s going to be a lot like looking ourselves in the mirror, I think, to start, with their offense,” Stiffler said.
On the mound Friday, VCU will start Hampden-Sydney graduate transfer Bradford Webb, a right-hander.
The Rams arrived in Starkville Wednesday morning, cleared COVID-19 testing and practiced Thursday. For them, it’s business as usual, designated hitter Liam Hibbits said. And the hunger for tournament success is real. Just ask Carpenter or Vay.
“We just want to come out and play good baseball,” Carpenter said. “And we won our conference tournament, but we expect to keep winning. We expect to keep moving on.”