The scouting reports on Denny Wagner usually always featured a familiar description when it came to the right-handed pitcher.
“ It seemed I had the label of a workhorse placed upon me a few times in my career,” Wagner said. “So yeah, being able to start and finish a game was something I took pride in doing. To me it meant a couple of things – one, you couldn’t chase me from the game with your bats and two, I had done the necessary work to prepare myself and be able to endure the physical labor involved with pitching deep into games.”
Wagner put in serious work on May 22, 1997 as the Castlewood High School graduate crafted a 140-pitch, complete-game masterpiece in leading Virginia Tech to a 3-2 victory over the University of Southern California Trojans in a NCAA baseball tournament game in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
It was Tech’s first NCAA tourney triumph since 1969 and turned out to be Wagner’s final start for the Hokies.
Friday marks the 23rd anniversary of that memorable outing and two thoughts immediately came to the 43-year-old Wagner’s mind when reminded of that fact.
“ Perseverance and man, I am getting old,” Wagner said. “We persevered as a team that day and fought through many challenges.”
Virginia Tech sported a 33-26 record entering the 1997 NCAA tournament, the worst mark among the 48 teams in the event and the Hokies had made the field only by virtue of winning the Atlantic 10 Conference tourney.
The USC Trojans were a regular postseason participant and featured future MLB sluggers Morgan Ensberg and Eric Munson in the starting lineup.
The Hokies were heavy underdogs, but they did have one thing going for them and that was the guy on the mound.
“ Denny had great stuff,” recalled Matt Griswold, an outfielder on that Tech team. “An electric mid-90s fastball that would dominate opponents.”
At Castlewood, Wagner struck out 334 batters over four seasons and led the Blue Devils to two state tournament appearances. As a senior in 1994, he was 11-0 and tossed three no-hitters.
“ Whenever we would face one of the better teams on our schedule, Denny always took it to another level,” said Josh Miotke, a teammate of Wagner’s at Castlewood. “You would see that extra pop on his fastball and know that it was about to be a short day in the field.”
On a Thursday afternoon in Alabama, Wagner was going to rise to the occasion once again in front of a crowd of 1,730 fans.
“ We were a big group of mostly country boys from Virginia against the perennial powerhouse from Southern California,” Griswold said. “We were a lot tougher than them for sure. Denny was always a laid back guy, but I remember that game he was super fired up and emotional. We all were, but when you see your pitcher out there blowing them away with a 95 mile-per-hour fastball and all pumped up, it got the rest of the team fired up too. I remember feeling so much confidence in him going into that game, almost like we had an advantage with him on the mound.”
Wagner became engaged in a pitching duel with Scott Henderson of USC.
The Trojans took a 2-1 lead in the fifth inning, but the Hokies tied the game in the top of the sixth.
Wagner escaped a bases-loaded jam in the bottom of the sixth inning unscathed.
“ You know, I felt pretty good most of the game,” Wagner said. “I remember not having much of a breaking ball that day, but I had a good fastball and a good split that I used effectively. I got a little tired late in the game, but I was able to ride the adrenaline through the last couple of innings.”
Tech took a 3-2 lead in the top of the ninth inning as Matt Reynolds connected for his second solo home run of the contest. That left it up to Wagner to finish things off.
After retiring the first batter he faced in the bottom of the ninth, Wagner surrendered a double to Brad Ticehurst and walked Wes Rachels.
That prompted a visit to the mound from Virginia Tech coach Chuck Hartman.
“ He asks if I’m all right,” Wagner said. “I tell him that I am a little winded, but I want to finish this. Chuck said ‘Finish it’ and walks off.”
Wagner did just that, striking out Marc Mirizzi and getting Greg Walbridge on a flyout to secure the win in a game that took 2-hours, 33-minutes to complete.
“ When the final out was recorded it was a giant feeling of relief and pride in my team,” Wagner said. “I don’t think a lot of us had realized what we had done until a little later. We had played a giant, taken down a powerhouse and highly-decorated baseball program.”
USC would win the College World Series the following year, but on that day the Trojans were tamed by Wagner, who scattered eight hits, walked three and struck out seven.
“ We were led to believe that if you were going to beat them, you had to deal with Wagner,” USC coach Mike Gillespie told the Associated Press afterward. “They said he was capable of pitching against anyone and holding anyone down. From our perspective, that proved to be the case.”
The Trojans gained revenge two days later, eliminating Tech from the tourney with a 6-2 win. Former Powell Valley High School star Todd Zirkle got the start on the mound for Tech that day and suffered the loss, yielding four runs in 3 2/3 innings of work.
A couple of guys who attended VHSL Group A schools in far Southwest Virginia started two of Tech’s three games in the 1997 NCAA tournament. How neat is that?
“ It was cool having two Southwest Virginia guys representing our part of the state,” Wagner said.
The Oakland Athletics chose Wagner with the 42nd overall pick in the Major League Baseball Amateur Draft a couple of weeks after the victory over USC.
He finished with a 10-4 record and spun six complete games in his final season with the Hokies.
Was that win over Southern Cal his top performance in college?
“ It was one of the best, but probably not the best,” Wagner said. “I remember throwing really well at South Florida earlier that year. A high level scout in the New York Yankees organization approached me after the game and said it was one of the best collegiate games he had seen all year. We lost 2-1 in the bottom of the ninth on a pop up that barely made it out of the infield.”
Wagner played seven seasons in the minor leagues and reached the Class AAA level. He logged 180 innings in 2000 for the Midland RockHounds, leading the Class AA Texas League in that category and showing he was still a workhorse.
Yet, many of the people in his home state remember him most for the afternoon he shined in the postseason spotlight for the Virginia Tech Hokies.
“ I was so happy for him and for the community in general,” Miotke said. “It’s always great when we can celebrate the success of a hometown kid and Denny definitely solidified himself as one of the best to ever do it from our area.”
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May 22, 1997
Virginia Tech 3, Southern California 2
Virginia Tech 000 011 001—3 9 1
Southern Cal 000 020 000—2 8 0
Wagner and Gauch. Henderson, Penney (9) and Brown. W – Wagner (10-4). L – Henderson (8-4). HR – Reynolds (VT) 2 – 5th, none on & 9th, none on; Frietas (USC), 5th, none on.