By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE –– At 6-foot-5, 235 pounds, Stephen Schoch is impossible to miss on the mound, and that’s before he unleashes a pitch with his signature sidearm delivery.
Schoch (pronounced Shock) is a “big, burly guy,” as University of Virginia head coach Brian O’Connor puts it, but the free-spirited right-hander brings more than a commanding presence to his new team. Schoch, who graduated last year from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, strengthens what already looked to be a talented pitching staff.
“The addition of Steve has been huge,” junior left-hander Andrew Abbott said.
“I think he can be a real force for us out of our bullpen,” O’Connor said.
The Cavaliers’ other relievers include Abbott and junior right-hander Kyle Whitten. Whitten led UVA with nine saves last year. Abbott has nine career saves at Virginia and pitched last summer for USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team.
Throw in Schoch, UMBC’s all-time leader in saves (13), and the Wahoos have “three viable options at the end,” Abbott said. And that’s not counting freshman Matt Wyatt, a 6-4, 210-pound right-hander.
In UVA’s home opener, a 4-3 win over VMI at Disharoon Park, Whitten struggled after relieving starter Zach Messinger, but Wyatt, Abbott and Schoch combined to pitch three scoreless innings Wednesday. In the ninth, Schoch struck out the side to record his first save as a Cavalier.
“I thought Stephen Schoch looked tremendous in the ninth inning,” O’Connor said. “We’re fortunate to have guys like that at the end of the game for us, and I thought Abbott looked sharp as well.”
Abbott said: “We have enough guys this year to make a real difference, and I think our pen could be one of the best in the ACC, if not the nation, this year.”
Schoch, who’s from Laurel, Md., attended Good Counsel High School, many of whose graduates have gone on to play sports at UVA. That group includes Kevin Doherty, a key player on the Virginia baseball team that won the NCAA title in 2015 and with whose family Schoch is close.
Doherty “actually was the guy, him and his father, who set me up with a lot of the coaches I worked with,” Schoch recalled, “and they’re ultimately the reason I picked up that funky throwing style, just because of a pitching coach they sent me to. He said, ‘Just try this,’ and I tried it and it worked.
“Kevin going here was something that was awesome for me to see, because anyone you support going and living out their dream at a school you really support … that’s really cool and you’re really happy for them. I’m lucky I got in touch with the Doherty family and kind of built that connection to UVA.”
Schoch dreamed of moving directly from Good Counsel to UVA, as Doherty had, but initially the interest was not mutual. So he enrolled at Appalachian State, from which he transferred to UMBC in 2016.
“This kid grew up wanting to come here, and he couldn’t out of high school, because we didn’t think enough of him,” O’Connor said.
Schoch said: “It was a rocky path, but I’m really happy I got here. I’d been told no a bunch of times by a bunch of people, and some of those people were coaches here. That’s just kind of been my whole life … I just want to work hard enough to get to the point where I can’t be told no.”
The win over VMI kicked off a 15-game homestand for the Cavaliers (2-2). Their next four games are against Bucknell (1-3) at Disharoon Park. The series starts Friday at 3 p.m. The teams will play a doubleheader Saturday and then meet once Sunday.
“We definitely have a lot of work to do,” UVA junior Devin Ortiz said, “and with this 15-game homestand we’re going to do it.”
The Hoos managed only three hits against VMI, one of which was an RBI single by Ortiz, who later scored the winning run.
“We did enough tonight to win,” O’Connor said afterward, “but we didn’t look like we need to in our at-bats, and our approach wasn’t what it needed to be. But I thought we pitched really, really well. We showed the strength of that bullpen that I’ve been talking about. In the back part of the game we continued to put up zeroes and found a way.”
This is O’Connor’s 17th season at UVA, where his record is 702-290-2. For his first 16 seasons in Charlottesville, his pitching coach was Karl Kuhn. But Kuhn left last summer to become head coach at Radford University, creating a vacancy on the staff that O’Connor filled with Drew Dickinson.
“The biggest thing I can say about Drew is [he stresses] just going at people,” Abbott said, “not being afraid, continually throwing fastballs, trying to get ahead and stay ahead almost 100 percent of the time if you can.
“Throwing strikes is important if you’re going to pitch in any system, regardless if it’s this one or somewhere else. But if you get ahead, then it makes it a tougher environment for the hitter to get a hit off you. That’s what you want to do as a pitcher, and then that can lead to outs, and outs lead to wins, which is the biggest thing in college baseball.”
Schoch, who’s in the Curry School of Education and Human Development, grew up dreaming of playing for the Cavaliers. He remembers a trip he took to Cooperstown, N.Y., with his travel team, the Elkridge Hurricanes. In a family picture, Schoch said, “I’m just decked out in UVA stuff. And so that’s kind of like the first time I remember a tangible thing of how much I really wanted to come here.
“I remember my prized possession growing up was this UVA hat I got at Five Below for five dollars. I was really stoked on it, actually, and I’ve kind of always have dreamed of coming here and playing for Coach Oak and everybody that’s here.”
He was a student at UMBC during the NCAA men’s basketball tournament in which UVA made history in 2018. In a first-round game in Charlotte, N.C., the Cavaliers fell to the Retrievers, thus becoming the first No. 1 seed ever to lose to a No. 16 seed.
Schoch said he watched the game at a Buffalo Wild Wings restaurant, “and I remember thinking, ‘There’s no way this just happened.’ “
He smiled. “I knew in the process of choosing UVA that people would bring it up. And so I’ve mentally prepared myself for it.”
Schoch, a former standout for the Cotuit Ketleers in the storied Cape Cod summer league, laughs and smiles and jokes easily. “He’s certainly added something to our locker room,” O’Connor said, “and that’s good … But when he’s on that mound, he locks it up and competes.”
Asked about Schoch’s attributes as a pitcher, O’Connor quickly listed three.
“One, he throws strikes, and that’s what you need a reliever to do,” O’Connor said. “Two, I think he’s a different look than you see most guys. He’s a big, burly guy that throws from sidearm and different arm angles. And three, I think the stuff is really good … I’m glad he’s here. I think he’s going to pitch a ton for us: sometimes in that closer’s role, if we have to go to Abbott earlier, or sometimes earlier in the game.”
For Schoch, 23, fulfilling his childhood dream has “been really awesome,” he said, “because while the dream was to come here and play here, the bigger part of the dream was to come here and win. And just the fact that I can be part of the system that helps this team win is just something I’m really grateful for, and I’m grateful the coaches trust me to do so.”