Preview: SU baseball motivated by preseason ODAC ranking
WINCHESTER — Over the last four seasons, the Shenandoah University baseball team has advanced to the NCAA South Regional Tournament each year, won at least 30 games each year, and finished nationally ranked each year.
The Hornets have also posted a 27-4 record against the teams in their new league — the Old Dominion Athletic Conference — over the last four years.
So you can forgive the former USA South Conference power SU for not being entirely happy with being picked third in the 11-team ODAC’s preseason poll.
“We have had some pretty good success against the ODAC,” said Hornets senior pitcher Nick McMahon. “I think we’re going to be a pretty good team.
“I feel like the No. 3 ranking we received was not very accurate, because I think we’re going to perform pretty good.”
SU — which opens its season at noon today at Bridgeforth Field with a doubleheader against Misericordia — is the only team in the ODAC ranked in preaseason polls for D3baseball.com (No. 23) and Collegiate Baseball (No. 27). In the ODAC, the Hornets have been slotted behind Bridgewater and Lynchburg, two teams that SU split games with last year.
As the conference newcomer, it’s apparent that the Hornets are just going to have to go out and prove themselves, and SU will be counting on a lot of newcomers to do just that.
Tenth-year head coach Kevin Anderson said this might be the strongest freshman class he’s had, and it appears that they’re going to have to produce if the Hornets expect to remain among the nation’s elite.
SU’s five-man starting rotation alone currently consists of McMahon and four freshmen, but the Hornets are going to rely on a lot more than just what the starters provide.
Playing in the ODAC means playing doubleheaders — eight of SU’s 10 doubleheaders are against the ODAC, whereas last year, the Hornets only had three doubleheaders the entire year.
As a result, there should be plenty of opportunities for the 22 members of SU’s pitching staff to find work. But when given a chance, they’ll also have to produce — while every team in the USA South made the conference tournament, only the top six teams in the regular season will play in the ODAC tournament.
Though SU will not have the services of veteran Vince Claudio (7-1, 3.66 ERA in 721⁄3 innings) this year because of Tommy John surgery, the right-hander McMahon (6-1, 3.19 ERA, 35 strikeouts and 16 walks in 532⁄3 innings) is someone that Anderson has a lot faith in.
McMahon said a forearm injury hampered him the first month of last season, and he made his first two starts with the JV program. But in his first varsity start McMahon beat ODAC foe Randolph-Macon, which was a sign of things to come — McMahon went 4-0 against ODAC teams to play a large role in SU’s 7-2 overall mark against the conference.
“I could care less about my personal stats,” McMahon said. “I just want to put ourselves in a position to win.”
McMahon — who will start the first game of today’s doubleheader — feels the freshman who will join him in the rotation have a good chance to do the same.
That group includes left-hander Darrell Thompson, a Sherando graduate who was Northwestern District Pitcher of the Year, first team All-Region II and Group AA honorable mention selection after going 9-1 with a 1.63 earned-run average and 78 strikeouts in 512⁄3 innings in 2012. He will start the second game of today’s doubleheader.
“I love his work habits,” Anderson said. “He has worked extremely hard mentally and physically to refine his game and transition from high school to college.”
Other freshmen the Hornets will turn to are right-handers Bill Arens, Philip Morse and Ryan Mossman.
For middle relief, the Hornets will turn to senior right-handers Jon Nicholson and Steven Walker, junior right-hander Cody Vorous, a James Wood graduate, and junior left-hander Andrew Zarobila.
Closing duties are in good hands with sophomore left-hander Matt Riegler — the USA South Rookie Pitcher of the Year who went 4-0 with six saves and a 1.39 ERA in 321⁄3 innings. Freshman right-hander Cameron Lundmark will also be expected to handle closing duties and is one of six players Anderson said will split time between being a position player and pitcher.
“It’s an extremely young staff,” said Anderson while sitting in the Bridgeforth press box Thursday. “A lot of the people we’re counting on haven’t pitched in college yet. The fortunate thing for us is that at least we’re a spring sport — we had the fall with them. But ready or not, we play [today]. This is only the fourth day we’ve been able to get on the field.”
On offense, the Hornets’ top returning hitter should see more of the field.
Primarily as a designated hitter, senior Nick Beall hit .421 with 35 RBIs and had a team-best .522 on base percentage last year, which garnered him first team All-USA South and second team All-Region honors last year, as well as a Preseason All-American selection by D3baseball.com this season. Beall figures to be involved heavily in left field this year.
Beall also will be counted on to produce in the middle of the lineup, and he thinks the lineup will be a strong one.
“I think we have a lot of guys who can hit the ball all over the park,” Beall said. “We’re a lot faster this year. We did lose some pop, so we’ll need guys to step up, but I think we’ve got 15 guys who could really produce some runs.”
The Hornets will look to sophomore third baseman Michael Paul (14 RBIs, .321) to hit cleanup. Lundmark will play short, but because of pitching responsibilities SU may also play fellow freshman John Wilt, who can also play second, and Arens. Second base will be manned by sophomore J.J. McDaniel, and he’ll be backed up by senior Cody Smallwood, a Sherando graduate and team captain. First baseman will be split by juniors Andrew Creamer and Dan Powers.
In the outfield, sophomore Corbin Lucas — a second team All-USA South selection last year who hit .313 with 24 RBIs — will move over to center field. To his left will either be Beall or freshmen Lew Johnson, Ricky Pardo or Wilt. That trio of freshmen could also play right field.
Anderson is leaning on two players at catcher, particularly because of how many doubleheaders are on the schedule. Junior Joe Bittner and sophomore Daniel Freshley will share time.
Anderson said the one issue the Hornets have right now is finding someone that they can consistently plug into the leadoff spot, though it will likely be someone from the outfield. But one thing in particular Anderson does like is SU’s versatility — he thinks the Hornets will be able to do a lot of hit-and-run and situational hitting.
Though SU has proven itself against ODAC teams in the past, Anderson can’t stress enough that this Hornets team is young. If SU wants to transition its tradition of success to the ODAC, they can’t relent in their pursuit of excellence.
“We’re going to have play extremely well, with as many unprovens as we have,” Anderson said. “Consistency might be the key word in the equation. Can we play consistent, good baseball. We’ve been able to do that with a lot of upperclassmen. Now we’re going to be counting on a lot of young guys to do it.”
— Contact Robert Niedzwiecki at firstname.lastname@example.orgFollow on Twitter @WinStarSports1