Hornets aiming for berth in Series
WINCHESTER — In helping the Shenandoah University baseball team to the NCAA Division III Tournament, the Hornets senior class can take pride in returning the program to the elite status that it enjoyed in making four straight NCAA tourney berths from 2009-12.
But as the team practiced Tuesday at Piedmont College’s Loudermilk Stadium in Demorest, Ga., it wasn’t with a “just happy to be here” feeling, especially since the Hornets couldn’t have been more miserable following their last appearance on a field for tournament play.
“We’ve got nine seniors out of the 28 players we brought down here,” said Shenandoah coach Kevin Anderson in a phone interview while the team got in some hitting at a nearby high school after getting in 45 minutes of defensive work at Loudermilk Stadium. “They’ve been leaders here at Shenandoah, and they don’t want their careers to end at regionals.”
The Hornets — 31-9 and ranked 13th in the nation by D3baseball.com — open up play in the six-team, double-elimination South Regional at noon today against No. 6 Covenant (Ga.). Covenant is 26-13 and won the USA South Conference championship.
The winner of the South Regional — which will run through Saturday — will advance to the NCAA Division III World Series in Appleton, Wis., that will take place from May 23-27.
The rest of the field includes Emory (Ga.), the second seed out of the University Athletic Association that is 29-10; two schools from the Southern Athletic Association in No. 3 Birmingham-Southern (35-10) out of Alabama and No. 5 Rhodes (32-15) out of Georgia; and SU’s Old Dominion Athletic Conference rival Bridgewater (33-12), the fourth seed and the squad that left such a bad taste in the Hornets’ collective mouths the last time SU played a game.
It was SU that won the ODAC regular season championship with a 17-3 record, a mark that included a 9-0 win over the Eagles on April 17, a week before the ODAC Tournament began in Lynchburg.
The Hornets then won their first three games of the ODAC Tournament, the last of which was a 4-3 win over Bridgewater. But the Eagles rallied to beat SU twice on the final day of the tournament, including a 6-5 win for the title that gave Bridgewater an automatic berth into the NCAA Tournament.
In the championship game, SU led 5-4, but two eighth-inning runs from Bridgewater sent the Hornets to their first defeat of the year when leading after seven innings. SU had been 27-0 in those situations up to that point.
“It’s hard to deal with a loss like that,” Anderson said.
Though SU did not officially receive a berth in the NCAA Tournament until Monday, one of the nation’s top teams all year prepared as if they would get a spot in it. Anderson gave the team four days off after the tournament to give them a much-needed physical and emotional break, and when they resumed practice they focused on being precise with their execution in everything they do.
Offensively, the Hornets are as good as they get. They rank second in the nation in batting average (.353), sixth in the nation in runs (371, an average of 9.3 per game) and seventh in on-base percentage (.425).
On the mound, SU will turn to sophomore left-hander Darrell Thompson — a Sherando graduate who went 9-2 with 68 strikeouts, 12 walks and a 2.38 ERA in 791/3 innings — to start today’s game. Senior right-hander Vince Claudio (7-1, 53, 25, 3.72, 552/3) — a veteran from the team’s D-III World Series trip in 2010 — will start Thursday. SU will play at noon Thursday if it loses or at 3:30 p.m. if it wins.
If SU makes it to Friday, either sophomore right-hander Phil Morse or sophomore left-hander Michael Scimanico will pitch, depending on who the Hornets face.
One piece of good news is that SU will be able to turn to sophomore right-hander Garrett Wooddell, who was a question mark for the tournament because of a thumb injury suffered 10 days ago at Bridgeforth Field.
Anderson said Wooddell got his right thumb caught in a gate and nearly lost the tip of it. But on Tuesday, Wooddell looked good while throwing in Georgia, and Anderson said he will be on SU’s 25-man roster for the tournament.
Wooddell has made a team-high 15 appearances for the Hornets this year and has posted an ERA of 1.89 while striking out 12 and walking four.
“He ripped up his thumb pretty good,” Anderson said. “If he wasn’t a submariner, he’d probably be out just because of the friction with the ball. We count on him, so it really helps to have him available. He’s done an outstanding job for us this year.”
Anderson said assistant coaches Bruce Cameron, David Jenkins and Phil Betterly have done an outstanding job preparing his team for what they’re about to face in the South Regional. Bridgewater is the only team in the field SU has faced previously.
“Right now, we’re focused on Covenant, and they’ve got talent throughout the lineup and tremendous speed,” said Anderson of a squad that ranks 22nd in the country with 95 stolen bases. “All the teams present different challenges.”
A couple notable things from the rest of the field are that Birmingham-Southern leads the nation in ERA at 2.00 and is ranked 14th in D3baseball.com and Emory, ranked 22nd, boasts junior outfielder Brett Lake, who is tied with Hornets junior third baseman Michael Paul for the nation’s second-highest RBI total (58).
Anderson couldn’t help but rave Tuesday about Loudermilk Stadium, a facility that features covered stands, trees surrounding the stadium, and perfectly-manicured grass on the field.
And he couldn’t really ask for a better team to take that field with.
“What I like about this team is that we have a bunch of guys who don’t care about who gets the credit,” Anderson said. “They pull for each other and want each other to do well.”
If they play to their potential, the Hornets have just as good a shot of winning as anyone.
“As long as we make all the routine plays, execute with our team hitting, and minimize the walks we allow, we’ll be fine,” Anderson said.
— Contact Robert Niedzwiecki at email@example.comFollow on Twitter @WinStarSports1