The Seneca Valley baseball team has enjoyed tremendous success in recent years, including winning titles in 2012 and 2014. Paramount in that success was Connor Coward. Coward, who is now pitching for Virginia Tech, is this week’s feature for the WPIAL Alum Q&A.
Coward’s prep career was incredibly impressive, as he was a three-year letterwinner for the Raiders, beginning in 2012. That season, Coward was primarily used as a position player, as the team compiled a mark of 18-5. Included in that record were WPIAL Class Quad-A playoff victories against Upper St. Clair and Central Catholic. In the title game, Coward started in the outfield, as his squad prevailed 5-3 against Mount Lebanon.
In 2013, Coward established himself as an elite hurler, as he compiled a mark of 8-1, with an ERA of 1.60. He also fanned 80 batters in just over 60 innings. The Raiders went undefeated in section play, at 10-0, and again made it to the title game after besting Bethel Park and Pine-Richland in postseason action, both courtesy of Coward shutouts. With the gold on the line, though, Seneca Valley and Coward came up short, losing 4-2 to North Allegheny. For his season, Coward received an array of accolades, including being named to the MSA Sports Diamond Studs.
Coward’s senior campaign at Seneca Valley was one for the record books, although the path to the championship was anything but easy. Coward was injured for the majority of the regular season, and the Raiders struggled as a result. The team posted just a 5-5 record in section play, qualifying for the postseason as the final team, the No. 16 seed. Coward returned to the lineup for the playoffs, however, and the Raiders staged an improbable run to the title, as they defeated Hempfield, Shaler and Pine-Richland to return to Consol Energy Park. In the title game, the Raiders edged Baldwin 5-2, with Coward earning the W on the mound. He allowed just six hits and no walks, striking out 11. The Raiders also captured a pair of victories in the PIAA postseason, before ultimately falling in the semifinals. They concluded the campaign with a mark of 12-12.
Following his high-school career, Coward matriculated to Virginia Tech, where he appeared in 15 games as a freshman in 2015. Although his ERA wasn’t pretty, he performed well in his three starts, and compiled a mark of 2-0. The Hokies overall went 27-27, falling in the play-in game of the ACC tournament.
2016 was a similar outcome for Coward individually, although the team took a major step backwards. Coward again appeared primarily out of the bullpen, as he made just three starts in his 17 appearances. Once again, his ERA was more than 7.00, although he lowered his batting average against while increasing his strikeouts, and recorded a save. Virginia Tech went just 19-36, though, including a 6-24 mark in conference play.
This season has been a revelation for Coward, as he’s established himself as perhaps the Hokies’ best starter. Thus far, he’s pitched in 11 games, including seven starts. He boasts a 5-1 record, with an ERA of 2.60. Moreover, hitters are batting just .220 against the junior, and he’s surrendered just two home runs. The Hokies, meanwhile, are playing .500 baseball, with a record of 17-17, and they’ve already matched last season’s win total in ACC action.
Connor dedicated his time to answer questions about his recent return to Pittsburgh, how he overcame injury during his senior year at Seneca Valley, and his love of a particular superhero.
Q: Your performance this season has been in complete contrast to your first two years. What is the biggest reason for the change?
A: The biggest reason for the change this year compared to the last two years is simply a mindset and becoming more comfortable on the mound. My freshman and sophomore year, I didn’t truly believe that I was good enough to be an elite player at this level of competition. I was trying to be too fine and throw every pitch to the absolute perfect spot, rather than just pitching and trusting that my stuff is good enough to get guys out. This year is much different; my confidence is as high as it has ever been, and I am not trying to be too perfect and do too much.
Q: You have appeared as both a starter and a reliever in each of your seasons with the Hokies. Do you have a preference, and what are the challenges of doing both?
A: I prefer to start rather than relieve; even when I was a reliever, I was usually coming into a fresh inning rather than with men on base – I think that was my coaches trying to play toward my strengths. Obviously a starter is the biggest pitching role, but I always found it less stressful. If I come out in the first inning and my location isn’t there or my pitches aren’t sharp, I can work through it and try to piece together a good outing. Being a reliever, your stuff has to be 100 percent at its best from the first pitch, and since you are only out there for a few batters, every pitch has to be at a high level.
Q: What pitches do you throw, and which do you consider your “out pitch”?
A: I throw a four-seam fastball, cut fastball, changeup, and a spike curveball. My out pitch and my best pitch is definitely my curveball. Ever since I started pitching, it has been my dominant, go-to pitch.
Q: What are the team goals for this season?
A: Our biggest team goal is to make a regional. We have the talent, experience and drive to get there. It’s just a matter of putting it all together.
Q: You’ve had a chance to travel to play against Pittsburgh a few times in your career. What has that experience been like?
A: Going back to Pittsburgh is always a treat. There is always a good amount of family and friends at the games that I haven’t seen in months. My old high school coach, Coach Semega, was at the game sitting front row behind home plate. I also get to eat my favorite local food. Recently when we traveled to Pittsburgh, all my teammates and I went to Primanti Brothers in Oakland. That was a cool moment for me; getting to show my teammates from all over the country a taste of the Steel City, whether they liked the sandwich or not.
Q: Why did you decide to attend Virginia Tech?
A: I chose VT because it was the perfect mix of baseball, academics and social. The campus is beautiful, the food is the best in the country, and the baseball team was one of the top rising programs in the country when I committed. Also, I always wanted to compete at the highest level possible, and the ACC is without a doubt the best conference in the nation right now.
Q: How much of a benefit has it been to have a former high-school teammate, Sam Fragale, also playing for the Hokies?
A: Sam was a huge help my freshman year. Being a college freshman is hard enough, let alone at a school where you know absolutely no one on campus and your first day of classes starts at 5 a.m. when you wake up for 6 a.m. lift, then 8 a.m. practice, then go to class just like everyone else. Having Sam there as a pillar to lean on really helped me. Sam has always been a great teammate, so having him here with me for the last three years is priceless.
Q: What is your major and ideal future profession?
A: My major is business marketing with a concentration in professional sales. I plan to go to law school after my undergrad. Debate has always been a serious passion of mine, so I would say my ideal profession would be a defense attorney.
Q: What was your fondest memory at Seneca Valley?
A: My fondest memory at SV was winning the WPIAL championship my senior year. That day and the day after that were two of the most memorable in my life.
Q: How did you handle missing most of your senior year due to injury?
A: Missing a majority of my senior year was one of the biggest personal struggles I have dealt with to that point. Knowing how much was expected of me and our team that year, made sitting on the bench that much harder. I was not going to except not playing my senior year, so I took an aggressive physical therapy program and followed my rehab every day. That is how I was able to be healthy in time for playoffs.
Q: Do you still keep up with Seneca Valley or WPIAL baseball?
A: I am always being reminded by my parents how the SV baseball season is going. My freshman year, I was listening to the MSA Sports live radio broadcast of the WPIAL playoffs when SV was playing.
Q: Who is the best hitter you have faced in college?
A: There are two hitters who come to mind when I think of the best hitters I have ever faced. The first one is Will Craig from Wake forest. He was drafted in the first round by the Pirates last year. The other was Willie Abreu from Miami. He was drafted in the sixth round last year.
Q: What is your favorite song or musician?
A: I have many favorite songs, so I couldn’t narrow it down to just one. But my favorite musical artist is easily Tom Petty. I have every song he has ever made on my Spotify. My walkouts freshman, sophomore and junior year have all been a different Tom Petty song, and I am going to his concert in Pittsburgh on June 9th.
Q: If you could only eat one food for the rest of your life, what would it be?
A: I am a huge food guy, so picking one would be hard. But if I had to pick one, it would be a Chipotle burrito
Q: What is a little-known fact about you or a hidden talent?
A: A little known fact about me is that I am a huge Batman fan. I read the comics, watch the movies, and play the video games. I have a pretty decent size comic book collection at home. My car has a Batman symbol front license plate, and I have a Batman lanyard for my car keys, and a giant light up Batman symbol mounted in my room.