'Overachieving' Virginia Tech earns unlikely fans
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Angela Tincher is larger than life on the softball field, an irresistible force who transforms the ball into an immovable object as it passes through the strike zone.
She added to her growing canon of legendary feats Sunday, pitching back-to-back complete games against heavily favored Michigan to lead unseeded Virginia Tech to the program's first appearance in the Women's College World Series. With no margin for error after a 1-0 loss Saturday in the opening game of the best-of-three Ann Arbor Super Regional, Tincher threw pitch after pitch -- well over 200 in all -- past almost uniformly baffled Wolverines.
But as superhuman as Tincher seems when the ball begins dancing to her whims, she's equally at home among a roster of Hokies who were lightly recruited, dismissed or ignored before becoming the first ACC team to reach Oklahoma City. Even though she foreshadowed her most famous performance by striking out three Olympians in an exhibition the summer before she arrived at Virginia Tech, Tincher was far less of a recruiting catch than any of the aces she'll potentially square off against this week.
"Some people would probably call us overachievers," coach Scot Thomas said after his team advanced. "But the blood and guts of this team is walk-ons, and people who were passed over and people didn't want them. And we were fortunate enough to have them."
And so many of them contributed to Sunday's surprising 1-0 and 6-1 wins.
Success came from catcher Kelsey Hoffman calling a masterful game behind the plate. (After retiring Samantha Findlay for the final time on a groundout in the final inning of the second game, Tincher spun toward her catcher, pointed at her and yelled, "Great call.")
It came from senior Caroline Stolle, who after battling foot problems during her career, fouled a ball off her foot, but shook it off and drew a walk.
And it came from Whitney Davis, a walk-on, who singled to start a four-run rally that broke open the second game and padded the lead with her first career home run an inning later.
"I think the kids stepped up," Thomas said. "Angela gets a lot of the spotlight and certainly deserves every bit of it, but we had some other kids stepping it up too. I'm glad to see somebody like Whitney really step out and get a little bit of the limelight."
However improbable the feat seemed as the stadium cleared out on Saturday afternoon, the Hokies advanced to the World Series because they made the most of their opportunity.
Julie Denney understands that all too well.
Two years ago, Virginia Tech wasn't even a blip on the radar for Julie and Rusty Denney. Softball was a big part of their lives, but it revolved less around college standings than on their daughter Adrianne as she worked her way through the amateur softball ranks. A pitcher who hit 65 mph on the radar gun with a trademark rise ball, Adrianne Denney led her high school team in Casey, Ill., to the state championship as a freshman. And even after her team lost that game, Adrianne assured her mom it was all right; she had three more chances to win it all.
Some people would probably call us overachievers. But the blood and guts of this team is walk-ons, and people who were passed over and people didn't want them. And we were fortunate enough to have them.
Then one morning shortly thereafter, only hours after playing a volleyball match, she reported that her right arm felt cold. Tests eventually revealed that she suffered from thoracic outlet syndrome, the same condition that affected Colorado Rockies pitcher Aaron Cook. Adrianne underwent surgery to correct the problem only to later find it had returned. Sitting in a hospital bed while eating a banana after a second surgery a few months later, she felt something pop in the affected area and turned to her mom in alarm. An aneurysm eventually led to cardiac arrest, and while doctors were able to resuscitate her, they were unable to save her life in subsequent surgery.
On Nov. 30, 2006, exactly two months shy of her 16th birthday, Adrianne Denney passed away.
A few months later, still grieving the loss of her only child, Julie Denney turned on the television and saw the news of the shootings at Virginia Tech. She recalled feeling a sense of devastation for the families who suddenly faced the same impossible task she was struggling to overcome.
That was the first time Virginia Tech entered her mind, but it wasn't until another year passed when the school's softball team and its ace's signature performance helped the Denneys reconnect with the game that had united their family.
"This softball season, this is the second season's she missed -- she would have been a junior in high school," Julie Denney said. "This whole season was so hard for us, just to go on. But we watched Angela no-hit the Olympic team, and we hadn't really heard of her. So we went online and read a story in the Richmond Times about their whole family, how her dad had been on the driveway and practiced and practiced. And that was exactly the same story -- Adrianne and Rusty practiced on the driveway night after night. Sometimes Adrianne would get mad and I'd have to go referee, and it sounded like Angela's mom had to go referee. You don't get good at pitching unless you really practice at it. We just understood how much she worked at it."
Rusty Denney wanted to write a letter to let Tincher and the team know how much the performance had meant to the couple, but he struggled to find the right words to convey the kind of emotions for which no words serve as adequate substitute. Instead, not knowing anyone connected with the program, they decided to drive more than seven hours from Illinois to Knoxville to see Virginia Tech play in a regional hosted by the University of Tennessee.
They just wanted a chance to see the Hokies and possibly let them know how much the story meant. They didn't plan on staying beyond the first day of play. Instead, they found a group of Virginia Tech parents who were equally touched and welcomed them as family.
"[My dad] introduced me to them the game after they met them," Tincher said. "And I could tell it really touched my parents a lot. Just the story about a daughter, because we're so close, I could tell it really brought tears to both of their eyes. It was really emotional all the way around. Just to kind of think about someone that liked pitching like I do, and had something like that happen to her, really makes you appreciate what we're able to do and appreciate the opportunity I've had to pitch and be healthy."
Julie and Rusty Denney ended up staying for the whole weekend and made plans to drive to Ann Arbor for the super regional after the Hokies upset Tennessee. A group of Virginia Tech parents, including Denny Tincher (Angela's father) and Dana Hoffman (Kelsey's mother), set about acquiring some Hokies gear for them after Rusty Denney, a St. Louis Cardinals fan, arrived for the opening game of the regional against Louisville wearing the colors of the opposing team. By Sunday afternoon in Ann Arbor, both Julie and Rusty Denney were resplendent in maroon and burnt orange hats and shirts.
"People like this," Julie Denney said as she fought back tears, "really have helped us to make it."
In her hands, Julie Denney held a folder full of photos of Adrianne and articles about her athletic exploits. A bright-eyed blonde with a wide grin, Adrianne smiled out at teammates she never got a chance to meet. She never had an opportunity to play the game on its biggest stage.
But Julie and Rusty Denney will take her memory with them to Oklahoma City this week. The Denneys are part of the Virginia Tech family now. No amount of Tincher strikeouts or Virginia Tech wins will take away the pain of losing their only child, but watching a collection of players who turned their own countless hours in the driveway into opportunities seized in Knoxville and Ann Arbor at least allows them to return to the sport that provided so many of Adrianne's happiest moments.
Angela Tincher isn't really larger than life, but she and her teammates are reminders that none of us have enough time to take any opportunity for granted.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
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