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Meet Stephen Schoch, Virginia’s Dippin’ Dots-loving, head-punching closer

Virginia pitcher Stephen Schoch. (ACC)
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Virginia relief pitcher Stephen Schoch woke up Wednesday morning with a thought: When will Dippin’ Dots, the self-proclaimed ice cream of the future for more than three decades, become the ice cream of the present?

The ballpark concession stand staple had been on Schoch’s mind since Sunday, when a fan behind the Virginia dugout at South Carolina’s Founders Park attempted to bribe the right-hander with the sweet treat as he jogged to the mound to close an elimination game in the Columbia regional against the host Gamecocks.

“I heard a fan offer free Dippin’ Dots if I blew it, which, the price of Dippin’ Dots with inflation is just unreal,” Schoch said in a postgame interview on ESPN that went viral and, combined with his colorful antics on the mound, helped make the Laurel native and Good Counsel graduate an instant folk hero this week. “For a brief moment I was like, ‘Damn, Dippin’ Dots sound good,’ but also I thought in the back of my head, if we win today and win [later] tonight, we’re going to be here another day. That’s more per diem, so that means I can buy my own Dippin’ Dots and be a winner.”

After Schoch finished off South Carolina, Virginia defeated Old Dominion on Sunday night and beat the Monarchs again in a 10-inning classic Tuesday to clinch a spot in the super regionals against Dallas Baptist.

Schoch, who began his collegiate career at Appalachian State, was at Maryland Baltimore County for three seasons and fulfilled a dream by enrolling at Virginia as a graduate student in 2020 to pursue a master’s degree in higher education, does most of his deep thinking — about ice cream and other subjects — off the field.

When he’s between the lines, the 24-year-old with the quirky sidearm delivery struts around the mound after strikeouts, yells after walks and occasionally punches himself in the side of the head. “I think three words every time I’m out there,” Schoch told ESPN. “The first one’s a swear word; it starts with ‘F.’ The second word’s attack. The third word’s win.”

“In the game of baseball, I feel like whoever thinks first is going to lose,” Schoch explained in a phone interview Wednesday. “With the head-punching and where I’m at to begin with, I know pretty well that I’m not going to be the first one thinking out there. After every game, I go back and watch my outing because half the time I can’t remember what happened. I’m so immersed in the competition that I’m not really storing it in my mental storage bank, if you will.”

Schoch — pronounced “Shock” — is 4-1 with a 2.52 ERA and eight saves in 21 appearances this season, with 52 strikeouts in 35⅔ innings. When he records a save, as he did Sunday against South Carolina, he flings his glove into the outfield with all the gusto of Daniel Hudson celebrating the final out of the World Series. For Schoch, the unusual act, which originated after he capped a dominant summer with the Bethesda Big Train of the Cal Ripken Collegiate Baseball League in 2017 by closing the championship game, serves a purpose.

“Obviously I play with a lot of intensity,” Schoch said. “I don’t even know what I’m mad at out there. I just get mad, and sometimes you got to take out that extra frustration. I’ve been told I high-five my teammates too hard at times, and I don’t want to be hurting anyone’s hands, so I figure a good way to get some of the energy out is launching the glove into left field. I guess people like it because a lot of people watched it on Twitter. I just figured, ‘Keep doing it, keep having fun with it, keep being myself.’ ”

Schoch switched to a sidearm delivery as a sophomore in high school — “It was either that or give up a million home runs,” he said — and earned second-team All-Met honors as a senior. Over the years, he has developed a devastatingly deceptive pickoff move, which he used to nab a would-be Old Dominion base-stealer in a key spot.

“Get chunky and a little funky with it,” said Schoch, who pitched the final 3⅓ innings of Tuesday’s game and earned the win after Devin Ortiz hit a walk-off home run in the 10th.

When asked during his postgame interview Sunday whether anything made him nervous, the 6-foot-5, 235-pound Schoch paused. “Caves, mainly,” he deadpanned. “Nothing really.”

Moments later, he embraced a comparison to Kenny Powers, the fictional, washed-up reliever played by Danny McBride in HBO’s irreverent comedy “Eastbound & Down.” There’s undoubtedly some Powers to Schoch’s style — he’s a big fan of the show — but there’s some Al Hrabosky, too. "The Mad Hungarian” carved out a successful 13-year career as a relief pitcher in the big leagues with a shtick and mound presence designed to get into hitters’ heads.

“[Hrabosky] always talked about how he was this big ugly guy on the mound who everybody would hate,” said Schoch, who rocked some facial hair that Hrabosky would have been proud of while at UMBC. “When you’ve got a target on your back, the hitter wants to embarrass you and make you look stupid, and they’re going to try to do stuff they can’t do. You’re going to get contact hitters trying to hit a ball 5,000 feet.”

“He’s an interesting cat,” Virginia Coach Brian O’Connor told Wes McElroy on Richmond’s 910 the Fan this week. “… He’s been around a few blocks a few times, and he brings a looseness, a belief, a confidence level that you can do anything. He’s just kept it loose for our guys at really, really critical times throughout this year.”

The Cavaliers remained in Columbia ahead of Game 1 of their best-of-three super regional series Saturday. They’re just a three-hour drive from Myrtle Beach, where “Eastbound & Down” filmed its third season and Kenny Powers pitched for a fictional team called the Mermen, but Schoch and his teammates are focused on heading west, to Omaha and the College World Series.

The man others are calling “everyone’s favorite college baseball dude” and “the NCAA’s most entertaining pitcher” has gained more than 5,000 Twitter followers since Sunday and had the CEO of Dippin’ Dots slide into his DMs. He remains astonished that an opposing fan would “break the bank” by attempting to bribe him with the ice cream of the future and is equally surprised by the recent attention he has received.

“It’s been pretty unreal because this is just kind of the stuff I do all the time,” Schoch said. “I never sit there like, ‘Oh, if I punch myself in the head right here, people are going to be like, wow, cool-guy alert.’ It’s just kind of something I do. … The stakes are a little higher now than when I was a little boy, but at the end of the day I’m just a kid living out his dream playing the game he loves.”

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