Up Close and Personal with Blair Varnes

Blair Varnes planned to run, lift and ride his motorcycle Monday. Still, the four-year weekend starter has his eye on the Seminoles' showdown this weekend at Clemson and beyond. In this candid and revealing interview, Varnes chats about his season and career, as well as FSU's chances of winning a first CWS title. "Some teams, I don't care how hot you are, if you don't have the talent you are not going to be able to do it. We have enough talent to win it," Varnes said.

It's high noon on Monday and Blair Varnes was just beginning to stir. A day earlier, Varnes saw another solid pitching effort dissolve into a no-decision. While Varnes had hoped for better individual numbers this season, he believes Florida State is playing well enough to capture the magical number that counts.

The program's first College World Series title.

"It's funny, when you get to the postseason, it's just how everybody is doing," Varnes said.

"You don't want anybody slumping. You want your best hitters hitting. We have the potential. Some teams, I don't care how hot you are, if you don't have the talent you are not going to be able to do it. We have enough talent to win it. But this is our whole season right here. Four weeks from now and we are done. The next couple of weeks will decide if we at home or away (playing)."

FSU (48-12, 15-6 ACC) clinched its 14th consecutive victory with Sunday's 6-5 win over stubborn Maryland at Dick Howser Stadium. The Seminoles also finished 12-0 at home in league play and remained wtihin striking distance of the conference's top three teams with a series at Clemson remaining this weekend. The ACC Tournament follows in St. Petersburg, where regional berths are at stake.

The heat is being turned up a notch.

"Being a senior, you've already played Miami, Florida, the Dukes and Marylands, it's not hard to get pumped up," Varnes said. "But when you go on the road to Clemson, with the ACC tournament and regionals coming up, you can never not get pumped up even more. It's starting to get fun again -- not again. It's just the bar is going to be raised a little bit. It's going to be a little tougher. It's a lot more fun."

Varnes (6-3), the Seminoles' senior citizen in the rotation, had another tough-luck outing against the Terps, sailing into the ninth inning wth a 5-2 advantage. But he was lifted after surrendering a single (just the fourth he had allowed) and beaning a batter. Making matters worse, his bullpen gave up three runs, including a game-tying single with one out. However, FSU won the game in its home half of the ninth when Nick Rogers walked with the bases loaded.

For Varnes, it marked his fourth no-decision in his last six starts. On the flip side, it was the first time this season Varnes ventured past the seventh inning and it also was the fewest hits he has allowed since he surrendered four in six innings against Pittsburgh in early March.

"Worse year of my life -- I wish I could start all over," Varnes said and chuckled.

"To go out to Hawaii and not get one win but only give up one hit in seven or eight innings. Have two rainouts in games I pitch. Three or four games I go out with a lead and relievers give up some runs. But then there were games were I absolutely got (blasted) and I deserved to get the loss. I think my record could be a lot better than 6-3, that's what is frustrating. When I look back I know what I did. But when people see my record my senior year they are going to say I dipped off."

A RECORD SETTER

Still, there's no denying Varnes' worth. The 23-year-old from Mississippi has been a starter in the weekend rotation for the last four years, and he will leave his name in the FSU record book in several categories. Varnes, who owns a career record of 37-10, ranks among the all-time top five in games started (71, 2nd), innings pitched (416.1, 2nd) and victories. He also has 307 career strikeouts.

Additionally, Varnes last month earned the Don "Doc" Fauls Award at the annual Golden Nole Awards Banquet. The award is given to the senior athlete who overcame the most adversity to contribute to FSU athletics. Past winners have included football standouts Chris Weinke and Dan Kendra. Varnes came back from elbow surgery in 1998 and a ruptured ACL in 1999, pitching against Miami in the CWS title game that year.

Time continues to tick. Sunday was Senior Day for Varnes and six others.

"Before the game I saw Mike Futrell's mom crying right before we went out (to take the field)," Varnes said. "I looked at my mom and she had tears running down her face. And my dad looked like he was trying to hold something in. I couldn't look at them. If I saw them crying, I would be crying. I tried not to look at them. It's something I will look back on and I will appreciate everything that has happened. I will come back and walk out there (mound) and think of all the great times. But right now it's just another game. We still have work to do."

Indeed. The Seminoles want to continue their hot streak heading into the postseason. Varnes likes FSU's chances, though he quickly points out that nothing is guaranteed this time of year.

"If we have the hitting going together like we had last weekend (at home against Duke) and the pitching like we had this past weekend (against Maryland) and defensively as good as we've been... you never know," Varnes said. "I've always said it doesn't matter how good you are. In college baseball, you have to be good enough to make it to Omaha and you have to get hot. That's all it is. The one week and the hottest baseball team wins."

Varnes also says FSU must prove itself again on the road at Clemson. The Seminoles have played 14 of their past 15 games at Dick Howser Stadium, where they finished 34-4. FSU hasn't been too shabby on the road (14-8) or against ranked teams (10-4).

"I am sure we can (play better)," Varnes said.

"We had a couple errors yesterday (Sunday), and did some stupid things. I think right now we have played a lot of games at home. We are not playing too much better than we played earlier in the year. You have to look maybe at the opponents or look at (our) home (schedule) because we feel fine right now. But we are about to go to Clemson, where it's going to be tough. If we lose two or three, everybody will go back to saying we are struggling. It's like this every year. We always have a lot of games at home early in the year, then we go on the road and start struggling. But this year we started off on the road and the end we had all the home games. We just have to keep our momentum going."

SOLID STAFF

Varnes also believes the Seminoles' pitching staff is good enough to carry the team to the CWS. Pitching coach Jamey Shouppe has repeatedly said his staff is a "good one but not a great one." While Varnes admits the team doesn't have a dominating starter or an overpowering closer, "I would like to see somebody who is pitching better than Matt Lynch right now," he said. Lynch (11-1) pitched the Seminoles' first complete-game shutout of the year with Friday's 4-0 victory.

"To say we don't have a dominant starter or a dominant closer, you are right," Varnes said. "Just watch the (major-league) draft. We won't have a first rounder. But I would rather have eight guys who are pretty darned good college pitchers than three studs and the rest are just duds. We just need to keep things going right now."

Varnes also likes the Seminoles' chemistry, pointing to their preseason work habits to their ability to rebound from a difficult March -- FSU dropped five of its final seven in the month -- to their toughness in being able to dispose of pesky teams such as Maryland with ninth-inning rallies in the second and third games. Stephen Drew's two-run home run won Saturday's contest in dramatic fashion, 10-8.

"If anything, this team is the hardest working team," Varnes said.

"I remember this fall when we were lifting weights. Used to be you would have five to six guys not lifting weights, or looking where the strength coach is. If he's not looking then they aren't doing anything. This year there where times when our strength coach would leave for 30 minutes and it wouldn't slack up one bit. Coach Martin had a couple days where he has called an optional practice and everybody was out there. I think that has made us a little tougher, that when it's at the end of the game you know everybody has worked hard. Overall mental toughness, maybe that can give you a little edge at the end."

Varnes also believes the ACC, easily the nation's best conference this season, will help the Seminoles in their quest to earn a 19 CWS appearance. Clemson, Wake Forest and Georgia Tech were the nation's top three ranked teams last week in the RPI rating.

"It's the toughest it has been since I've been here, but that's a good sign," Varnes said.

"I know five years ago when was being recruited, and I am from the SEC part of the country, people were saying, 'Why do you want to want to go to Florida State and to the ACC? It's horrible, this and that.' The ACC is unbelievable. North Carolina, to me, might be just as good as Stanford or anybody we've played this year. They are so underrated. Wake Forest has a chance to go to Omaha. Clemson, I want to see somebody knock them off at home because they will definitely host a super-regional. There's a chance you might see four (ACC teams) in Omaha, which is ridiculuous."

While the regular-season end is nearing, Varnes knows the importance of playing well in May and June. Monday was a scheduled day off for the Seminoles, but Varnes planned to lift weights and run in the afternoon before taking a relaxing drive around Tallahassee on his motorcycle.

Though his collegiate career is winding down, Varnes still has plenty left to accomplish. And it all centers around traveling to Omaha, Neb., in June.

"Growing up, all you want to do is make it to Omaha and the College World Series," Varnes said. "You want to be there, you want to have that chance. We have a good enough teamto win it. Last year (against Georgia in Super-Regional), we had people who were made after we lost. I was like, 'Guys, sorry, we don't have a good enough team. I am sorry.' We couldn't win (CWS). This year I will be upset, knowing that this is my last chance in college baseball to win but also knowing that we do have a good enough team to win it (title)."


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