2022 NCAA Tournament Blacksburg Regional Preview
No. 1 Virginia Tech vs. No. 4 Wright State (7 p.m. ET, ACCN)
No. 2 Gonzaga vs. No. 3 Columbia (1 p.m. ET, ESPN+)
No. 1 Virginia Tech (41-12)
Season in a Sentence: Led by an offense that’s hitting .308 with 110 home runs, Virginia Tech is enjoying a breakout season, as it goes into regionals with 41 wins overall, and its 19-9 record in ACC play was the best mark in the regular season, which helped earn the Hokies their first regional trip since 2013, which is also the last time they hosted.
Best Pitcher: Drue Hackenberg, RHP—The youngest son in a family full of professional athletes, Hackenberg has been an immediate difference-maker as a freshman. He’s 10-2 with a 2.83 ERA and an 80-to-15 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 86 innings. There are plenty of other talented pitchers on the Virginia Tech staff, but so much of the Hokies’ success on the mound is predicated on Hackenberg pitching well in his turn.
Best Hitter: Tanner Schobel, SS—There are so many viable choices to choose from here. Gavin Cross is the team’s best 2022 draft prospect, Jack Hurley leads the team in hitting and doubles and Nick Biddison provides a stolen base threat in addition to some power, but Schobel gets the nod for doing most all of those things well. He’s hitting .373/.456/.703 with 16 doubles and team-leading marks in home runs (17) and walks (32). With so much offensive depth, there truly might be no wrong answers here.
Outlook: There is an immense amount of pressure associated with hosting a regional at the end of a breakout year and there are countless examples of host teams stumbling in their first time hosting or first time hosting in a while, with the latter being the case with this Virginia Tech team. But if this group just does what it has done all season, it will be in good shape. The offense should be able to put up runs, even against a good pitching staff like Gonzaga, but the key will be what the Hokies get on the mound, particularly once they get past Hackenberg in the rotation.
No. 2 Gonzaga (36-17)
Season in a Sentence: Gonzaga first made a statement this season with a sweep of Oklahoma State on the road in early March and stayed hot the rest of the way, winning every weekend for the rest of the season, and while the Zags fell short of hosting a regional, they’ve shown to be a threat to win a regional regardless.
Best Pitcher: Gabriel Hughes, RHP—Coming off of playing for USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team last summer, Hughes put up monster numbers during the 2022 regular season. He enters regionals with an 8-2 record, 2.84 ERA, a .198 opponent batting average and 131 strikeouts (good for sixth in the country) in 92 innings. His pedigree and performance are such that he will hear his name called very early in the draft this summer.
Best Hitter: Tyler Rando, C—Rando has been the steadiest contributor in the Gonzaga lineup this season. He’s hitting .324/.414/.537 with 15 doubles, seven homers and 34 RBIs. He leads Gonzaga’s regulars in all three slash line categories, is second in homers and is tied for second in doubles.
Outlook: Gonzaga’s winning formula all season has been to get great pitching and score just enough to get the job done, and that’s what it will look to do this weekend, even if that might be easier said than done if it gets into the winner’s bracket or regional final games against Virginia Tech. If it can stay on schedule on the mound, Gonzaga has a shot to win this regional. If the Zags end up in slugfests somehow, that might be tough sledding for a team that hasn’t had to play that way very much this season.
No. 3 Columbia (30-16)
All-Conference Team Honorees: C Weston Eberly (1st), OF Hayden Schott (1st), OF Cole Hage (1st), SP Joe Sheets (2nd), 3B Anton Lazits (2nd), SS Andy Blake (2nd), OF Josh Solomon (2nd), DH EJ Kreutzmann (2nd)
Season in a Sentence: The Lions began the season 7-13, albeit against a relatively tough schedule, but got scalding hot after that point, going 23-3 the rest of the way, including coming back from one game down to win the final two games of the Ivy League Championship Series against Pennsylvania.
Best Pitcher: Joe Sheets, RHP—A first-year player in the program, Sheets quickly established himself as a reliable member of the rotation. He has a 2-1 record and a 5.79 ERA, and is one of two Columbia pitchers along with righthander Sean Higgins to have started 10 games this season.
Best Hitter: Hayden Schott, OF—On an offensive-minded team, Schott has been the best hitter of the bunch during the 2022 season. He’s hitting .331/.359/.608 with 17 doubles, 11 home runs and 50 RBIs. He leads the team in slugging percentage, home runs, RBIs and is tied for the team lead in doubles.
Outlook: Columbia’s challenging non-conference schedule and its hot streak throughout the second half of the season earned it a three seed, which is the fourth time in history that an Ivy League team earned that distinction. Columbia also accounted for two other times, in 2014 and 2015. The Lions have the offense, which hit .303 overall and .343 in Ivy League play, to stay competitive throughout the weekend, especially in what will likely be an offensive playing environment in Blacksburg, but how well they compete will come down to how they complement that with solid pitching.
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No. 4 Wright State (30-25)
Season in a Sentence: Wright State wasn’t the dominant force that it was last year within the Horizon League, but in a testament to the high level at which it operates, it still won the regular-season title by two games and secured the automatic bid by trouncing the competition in the Horizon League Tournament by a combined 56-7 score.
Best Pitcher: Alex Theis, LHP—Theis began the season in the bullpen but quickly earned a place in the rotation and never looked back. He has a 3.14 ERA and 86 strikeouts in 57.1 innings. He’s also in good form, as he hasn’t given up more than one run in any outing since April 24. He’s prone to stretches where he struggles to find the strike zone, but if he’s in the zone, he’s extremely tough to hit.
Best Hitter: Alec Sayre, OF—One of the holdovers from last season’s team that was such an offensive juggernaut, Sayre is the centerpiece of the Raiders’ lineup. He’s hitting .361/.450/.584 with 17 doubles, 10 home runs and 52 RBIs, which leads the team in hitting, on-base percentage, doubles and RBIs, and he’s tied for second in home runs behind Gehrig Anglin, who has 17.
Outlook: Last season, Wright State was the toughest four seed in the field and it showed that when it pushed Tennessee to the brink in the opening game of the Knoxville Regional. On paper, this Wright State team isn’t quite on that level, but it played a tough non-conference schedule, including winning a game in a series against Virginia Tech in March, and it’s a program that believes it belongs with the big boys in the sport. That belief can go a long way this time of year and it wouldn’t be a shock to see the Raiders playing on Sunday.