Hard work paying off for William and Mary freshmen catchers Keane and Smith

Contact Reporterkholtzman@vagazette.com

WILLIAMSBURG – Almost a year ago, William and Mary freshman catcher Matt Keane celebrated one of the most dramatic conclusions to a high school sports season imaginable.

It happened when Keane's Lafayette High team won the 3A championship thanks to a last-inning home run. An on-field, postgame graduation ceremony ensued on the Liberty University diamond for Keane and his classmates, who were missing commencement in Williamsburg.

The madness apparently followed Keane to William and Mary (29-30), which is in the NCAA Tournament after a wild, come-from-behind win over UNC Wilmington to claim its first Colonial Athletic Association tourney title in more than a decade.

After losing the CAA opener last Thursday, the Tribe won two straight to make the championship round last Saturday, storming from seven runs down in the ninth inning to send the match with Wilmington into extra innings. William and Mary eventually won, after a 27 1/2 hour rain delay, before beating the regular-season champion Seahawks again in the second game to earn the automatic NCAA spot.

"That was pretty unreal," Keane said. "I thought Lynchburg was amazing, being tied in the last inning. But then coming back seven runs in the last inning, we were sitting there in the bullpen (entering the ninth) like, 'This is pretty tough.'"

Keane battled with fellow Tribe rookie Hunter Smith for the starting catcher job for the first quarter of the season or so before Smith, a New Jersey product, locked down the role.

Keane, whose brother John succeeded him at Lafayette as starting catcher, has taken the move in stride and on Wednesday during an NCAA tourney media gathering at Plumeri Park, the William and Mary freshman was all smiles.

"I'm just trying as hard as I can," Keane said. "To be honest, I'm just so grateful to be part of this experience. It's pretty fun being here in Williamsburg. It's a great group of guys. Being with Hunter, he's a really good guy to work with. He's just as hard working. It's fun to show up every day and play baseball."

Keane was 0-for-1 in a pinch-hitting role Friday afternoon as the Tribe fell 17-4 in the opener at host and top-seeded Virginia, the reigning national champion.

Now, fourth-seeded William and Mary will play either No. 2 Bryant or No. 3 East Carolina in an elimination game 1 p.m. Saturday in Charlottesville.

Keane had a solid regular season at the plate, hitting .297 in 14 games played with three RBIs.

Tribe coach Brian Murphy said Smith (.285, 1 HR, 40 RBIs) started to sew up the starting spot after the California road swing in March.

Keane measures in at 6-4, 175 pounds while Smith is a stockier 6-1, 200 pounds.

"You never have a good team without a good catcher, or good catchers," Murphy said. "Matt has done a good job for us, too. Both of those guys have done a real good job."

"I still feel really confident in myself," Keane said. "He has a little more pop than me, obviously. He's pretty big. He did really well defensively all year."

That's what Smith, a lifelong catcher, takes the most pride in. He said everyone field and throws, but no one else in the field has the responsibility of blocking.

Smith started fall ball unable to hit as he recovered from ACL surgery and wasn't able to swing away until the second semester.

He's been taking notes from the Tribe's top hitter, senior Charley Gould, who hits one spot ahead of Smith at cleanup.

Gould was the most experienced catcher on the roster after junior Ryan Hissey was selected in the 14th round of last year's MLB Draft by the Toronto Blue Jays. He is currently with Class A Lansing, hitting .268.

Gould is a full time first baseman now, but did step in some this season behind the plate.

Hissey's absence left a major opening that Smith, by Keane's account, earned squarely.

"I never went out there and tried to say, 'Hey I have to be better than him today,'" Smith said. "It's like, "How can I make myself better? Every day doing something to try to make yourself better... Emptying the tank every day.

"That's something that I think me and Matt, especially, we try to do that every day. Whatever happens, happens. Whoever is playing is playing. We just kind of go from there."

Smith, Keane and the Tribe didn't get off to a good start Friday, but as Keane noted Wednesday, just look what happened in Charleston at the CAAs. "Anything can happen," he said.

"Not really happy to be here because that kind of sounds like you're satisfied," Smith said Wednesday, "but everybody is very happy and very hungry. We want more."

Holtzman can be reached by phone at 757-298-5830.

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