The Virginia Tech baseball team will welcome back three Hokies for the 2021 season, each of whom had thought their collegiate playing days had come to an end about six months ago. Pitchers Peyton Alford and Jaison Heard and outfielder Tanner Thomas have all decided to take advantage of the NCAA’s additional year of eligibility option.
The trio were all seniors in the spring of 2020 but have been granted an opportunity to return for one more season following the NCAA’s decision due to the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic that shut down collegiate sports last March.
“It is great to have Peyton, Jaison and Tanner return to the program,” said Tech baseball head coach John Szefc. “They mean a great deal to us in terms of being first-class people, talented, ACC-caliber players, and they provide guidance to the program in general.”
From Knoxville, Tenn., Alford was used nine times out of the bullpen during the 2020 season, earning his first save for Tech at Louisiana on Feb. 22 and picking up a win versus Radford three days later.
In his career, Alford has started five of his 33 games pitched and has struck out 53 batters in 47 innings. The southpaw also has limited the opponents to a .227 batting average.
“When I originally heard about COVID and that our season was cancelled, I was devastated,” Alford said. “I was upset because I thought that I could have possibly just played my last baseball game without even knowing it. It was the best I had ever felt playing and was on pace to have a really good year. I just felt as if I had such a good thing taken away from me.
“Luckily for me, I am able to get the opportunity to get a master’s due to my extra year of eligibility being granted. In the grand scheme of things, I realized that getting a master’s while still being on scholarship was a huge benefit of coming back to school. While I would have never intentionally gotten my master’s, this has been a great opportunity looking back at it.”
Heard, a Maitland, Fla., native, also appeared in nine games for Tech during 2020, earning his fourth career save against Bryant on March 1. He struck out 57 batters over 48 innings pitched, posted a 2.16 ERA in the spring and has appeared in 36 career games, all out of the bullpen.
“When I found out the season was over I was devastated as you can imagine,” Heard said. “Pro ball is one thing, but college baseball is what I would imagine being the peak of baseball in general until you make it to the top where you make a lot of money playing the game. I saw it as the last time I would be around a group of guys that endured everything together and did it all for the love of the game.
“I wasn’t sure what was going to happen with my baseball career but that wasn’t even the scariest part. It was the feeling of hopelessness and disbelief.
“The process of coming back wasn’t as difficult once I had gotten all the facts. I had originally planned on coming back the fall and finishing my degree, so I was going to be on campus fall 2020 no matter what. Once I realized we had the chance to come back and play I would say it was a no brainer. I knew I wanted to get my degree from Tech and being able to play another year of college baseball is a blessing.”
From Jacksonville, Fla., Thomas started 12 games in all for Tech in 2020 and has 51 career starts in left field for the Hokies. He was enjoying a successful start to his senior season, which included a .432 on-base percentage while batting .286 with four runs and five RBI with three sacrifice bunts.
In all, Thomas has played in 65 career games with 57 starts, has hit two home runs and has 51 “My initial thoughts once I heard that the season was cancelled was shocked and let down,,” Thomas said. ”I believed that my final college baseball season was stripped away from me without a proper goodbye. It was like hitting the fast forward button and missing the climax of the season. I was really upset throughout the first couple months because I had no idea what my options were for baseball.
“Once coming back to play baseball was an option, I was definitely all for it,” Thomas said. “ I personally had one more semester until I got my degree. To come back for one more year to help spread out those classes over two semesters was a no-doubter. For the academic side, it made it easier on me.
“On top of the classes being more spread out, I got to play college baseball for one more season. I would have to be crazy if I turned that down. I knew I would have regretted not playing baseball and hanging up the cleats.”