Right On Key

VMI off to best start in school history

April 5, 2007

By Douglas Kroll




Doug Kroll is an editor for CSTV.com, focusing on baseball.
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When Virginia Military Institute sophomore Chris Henderson toed the rubber for three of his five starts this season, little did he know that he would be making Keydet history by the time the third out was made in the ninth inning.


The Keydets are off to the best start in school history through 31 games with a 22-9 record, which bests last year's record-breaking mark of 20-11, and it's not too hard to figure out why VMI has set a record in three of the last four years for wins in a season: head coach Marlin Ikenberry.


The 1995 VMI graduate has done some things in his four seasons at the Lexington, Va. school that other coaches couldn't come close to. In his second season at the helm, Ikenberry led his team to the most wins in school history with 27.  Also in that season, the team post a 16-14 record in the Southern Conference. It was the first time VMI had seen a winning record in conference play since 1969.


Becoming the fastest coach in school history to reach 50 wins in a career (two seasons) hasn't humbled him one bit.


"I love being here and I love coaching the type of kids that we get and the bulldog-type mentality that our kids have," Ikenberry said. "That's the way we have to be. We're not [going to get] necessarily a Top-Ten rounder or a high profile kid, but we get really good baseball players that want to get better everyday."


Henderson has won his last three mid-week starts, and in all three, bragging rights were on the line as they faced in-state opponents. Old Dominion hadn't lost to VMI since 1979, but Henderson found a way to throw 8.1 innings of five-hit, one-run baseball to post his first victory of the year.


Maybe that was the most impressive win in terms of a drought against an opponent, but as far as caliber of a team, it's been take-your-pick with this club. A tough non-conference schedule had VMI playing a few teams that are certain to see June baseball, and just this week, the Keydets knocked off the highest ranked team in their history--a 5-3 win over No. 5 Virginia.


But all of this didn't start against fellow teams that call the Commonwealth home. This all started the first week of the year when the team traveled to Gainesville for a meeting with Florida. The Gators, coming off a very disappointing season which saw them fall from No. 1 in the country to missing the SEC tournament, were still, the Gators. It figured to be a tune-up for an upcoming series with Miami, right? Wrong.


Friday night starter Trey Barham out dueled Brian Augenstein to pick up an opening-night 5-3 win. But it got even better on Saturday. VMI capitalized on three Florida error, and led the whole way before going on to win, 7-4. They could have just stopped there--anyone would take two-of-three from a perennial SEC power, especially now that Florida sits leading the SEC East.  But they didn't.


It was over a month later, but the Keydets traveled to yet another SEC school for a two game mid-week series. This time, it was Auburn's turn to scream, "Mercy!" The Tigers, No. 10 at the time, relinquished an early lead and fell, 7-4. VMI was all of a sudden 13-3 on the season and believing in themselves.


"Our kids were just ecstatic," Ikenberry said. "It was one of those things when you look up near the end of the game and we had a couple-run lead and it's the way we can teach our kids about the process, and about how it all comes with hard work and preparation."


Playing a tough non-conference schedule is something that Ikenberry really wanted to do this year. Heading to two SEC schools for five games and playing tough in-state competition would certainly qualify. 


The thing about the road wins would be impressive for any school from the Big South conference. But it's made even more special when you consider this: VMI's 30-win season in 2006 was the first winning season the school had seen in 41 years. Plus the fact that even with the record, they were just a 6-17 ballclub away from the friendly confines of Patchin Field.


"Last year we played fairly well at home," the 102-game career-winner said.  "We played very terrible on the road. I wanted to beef up our schedule so we could handle some adversity on the road, as well as to have some good teams come into our place. I think it's just we feel more comfortable at home." 


It's the pitching staff which has really come through, and it's the veteran battery that has been through it all that has carried the team, as the Keydets sit just eight wins away from last year's tally with 22 games left, not including a possible Big South Championship appearance (eight of the nine conference teams will head to Winthrop for the tournament).


It's that trip to Winthrop which has been a goal of theirs since they started the campaign back in the fall.


"One of our goals is to finish in the top half of our league," Ikenberry said.  "The other goal is to keep playing in June."


A postseason appearance in June would just be icing on the cake at this point for the Keydets. Obviously, it's every team's goal to keep playing as long as you can into the summer, but when you take a step back and realize where this program has come from in only four seasons, it's a rarity. 


Barham has already been announced as NCBWA National Pitcher of the Week. The Keydets also boast the nation's leader in saves, as Kevin Crum has 14 this season, already blowing away the VMI single-season and career records for saves, while the Big South mark of 16 in a season is well within reach.


The Keydets are having one of those seasons where it's tough not to find yourself rooting for them. Come June, who knows, we all just might.

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