When reflecting on last season, VCU’s Shawn Stiffler couldn’t help but put the coaching cliches away.
Stiffler commanded a group a year ago that he characterized as one of the best teams the Rams have had in the last 15 years. It was a squad he called “elite.”
That team won 39 games, was top 20 nationally in multiple statistical categories and claimed their second Atlantic 10 regular-season title.
But in the span of hours on its first day of A-10 tournament play, VCU saw its season come to a halt. The Rams, in the double-elimination competition, fell to Fordham and Richmond. Just like that, a team with sky-high potential was done.
“I’m not over it yet,” said Stiffler, who’s entering his eighth season as head coach at VCU. “Actually, I hope none of them are over it yet. I know you’re supposed to say, ‘We should move on ... we’re focused on the future.’ No we’re not. No we’re not. We think about it all the time.”
It’s a fragile season and nothing’s guaranteed, Stiffler said. But he hopes his players hold grudges over what happened last year.
A majority of them were right there to experience it. The Rams return a veteran group, particularly among position players, with seven of nine starters back.
It’s another talented team, one that was picked to finish first in the A-10 in the preseason coaches poll. And it’s one that will move through the year with the disappointment of last year still on the brain.
The Rams’ season begins Friday, with the first of a three-game series at Charlotte.
“I think we use it as kind of a motivation, and definitely a drive to be better this year,” junior first baseman/designated hitter Liam Hibbits said.
With an experienced team, one of the things Stiffler thought the Rams needed to focus on was older players holding other older players accountable. He wants to see the veterans hold each other up, with their urgency and with the standard they set.
Twenty of the 37 players on VCU’s roster are upperclassmen.
“Because I know they’re going to do the work,” Stiffler said. “But are they able to really realize if the wrong pitch happens at the wrong time in the wrong inning you lose a game? At the wrong point of the season it could cost you a season.”
Among the returners in VCU’s starting lineup are the team’s top two batters a year ago: Hibbits (.366) and senior second baseman Paul Witt (.336).
Hibbits also drove in a team-high 60 runs in what was a breakout sophomore season. Stiffler said Hibbits continues to progress, including becoming a better defender. “He is such a tough individual, tough competitor,” Stiffler said.
On the mound, VCU lost more than half of its innings from last season, including standout starter Connor Gillispie, who was picked in the ninth round of the MLB draft in June, by the Orioles.
Stiffler said pitching is the question mark for the Rams. But one important player back is junior right-hander Justin Sorokowski (Lee-Davis), who threw 72⅔ innings last year over 20 starts, with a 3.47 ERA. Also, senior right-hander Michael Dailey — the A-10’s rookie of the year in 2016 — is back after undergoing Tommy John surgery last year.
“I think guys are eager to step in,” Sorokowski said of the pitching staff. “I’ve definitely seen development just from the fall.”
Being a veteran team this year can be a luxury in some aspects, but Stiffler also says it comes with responsibility. The 2020 Rams have high potential and memories of last year to prove just how fragile things can be.
Now, how will they proceed?
“I think it’s just a great teaching point to where we just have to do everything we can to win, because we’re not owed anything,” Witt said of last year. “And we don’t deserve anything. We have to earn it.”