RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — The coach who convinced many of VCU’s seniors that they could make history if they joined his baseball team has not been with the Rams during their best NCAA Tournament run.
Paul Keyes has, however, been in their thoughts.
“He’s there with us, every game,” left-handed pitcher Heath Dwyer said of the Rams’ longtime coach, who recruited Dwyer and fellow seniors Vimael Machin and Matt Lees. He also coached them for much of the 2012 season.
Keyes took a leave of absence in late in April 2012 when stricken with cancer. He died that November at age 50. Keyes led the Rams to eight NCAA Tournaments in 18 seasons.
This is trio’s final chance to bring VCU the championship Keyes talked about when he recruited them.
The Rams (40-23) rolled to the Atlantic 10 championship, then became just the fifth No. 4 seed to win an NCAA regional last weekend in Dallas. They will play in a super regional for the first time in program history this weekend at Miami.
In Dallas, Machin fielded a grounder at short, and as he threw to first base for the clinching out, “he came to my mind,” he said of Keyes, who made a trip to Puerto Rico to convince Machin to come to VCU.
“I’m pretty sure he’s up there, proud of us and happy, and that means a lot,” Machin said.
The Rams did a dogpile to celebrate, then doused coach Shawn Stiffler with Gatorade.
Then, Stiffler said, the team gathered for a moment of silence to honor Keyes.
“This program wouldn’t be in position to play in a super regional if it wasn’t for Paul Keyes,” Stiffler said. “You’re talking about the guy that paved the road. We’re just driving on it.”
Stiffler guided the team through the rest of the 2012 season, though he kept Keyes involved. Stiffler then held the job on an interim basis the following year before VCU named him the Rams coach. He had spent six seasons as one of Keyes’ assistants.
“I think about coach after every win. I think about coach after every loss,” he said. “What did I do wrong that coach wouldn’t have done? What would coach say in this situation?”
Not much has gone wrong of late.
The Rams have won 14 of 15, their only loss coming to Dallas Baptist in the regional. It forced a decisive winner-take-all game, and the Rams won, 3-1.
The season turned after a 6-3 loss at Norfolk State, a game in which VCU committed four errors, had trouble throwing strikes and a long bus ride home with a 26-22 record. The nonconference loss also highlighted that they were in danger of not even qualifying for the Atlantic 10 tournament, Dwyer said.
“Once we knew we were in a position where we win or we’re done, we really started to play at a high level, and that’s really when things turned around,” said Dwyer, who is from Chandler, Arizona.
The Rams responded by sweeping A-10 rival Fordham in a weekend series, beat Old Dominion the following week and then swept Saint Bonaventure in their final three games of the regular season.
The winning streak stretched to 13 before the loss on Sunday to set up the decisive game. Now the Rams head into uncharted waters, where two more victories would get them into the College World Series.
The Hurricanes (47-15) are regulars at this level, but the Rams are undaunted.
“Everything’s going our way,” Machin said, “and I hope we keep doing that.”
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