By Jeff Nations - firstname.lastname@example.org
WINCHESTER -- You can bet that Kevin Anderson didn't need to do any last-minute packing on Monday.
The Shenandoah University baseball coach knew his team had earned a spot in the NCAA Division III regionals nearly a month ago by virtue of winning the USA South Conference tournament championship, but the question of where wasn't answered until Monday, when the Hornets learned that they will be the top seed in a six-team regional field in Fayetteville, N.C., starting on Wednesday. The Hornets will play Bridgewater in the tournament's opening game at 11 a.m. on Wednesday.
None of this was ground-breaking news to Anderson, who expected his team would be headed to Fayetteville as the top seed after winning its regional competition last year to earn a spot in the Division III World Series. The regional assignment even puts the Hornets in a somewhat familiar locale, as the host site for the four-day tournament is fellow USA South member Methodist University's Armstrong-Shelly Field. Methodist's absence from the tournament altogether was about the most surprising thing Anderson learned from Monday's tournament pairings.
"I was surprised that they did not get a bid," Anderson said. "Last year our conference got three bids, and this year we got one. I thought that [Methodist] was very deserving of a bid."
If that's a slight toward his conference, Anderson has no time to worry about it. He has very real concerns heading into Wednesday's matchup against the Eagles, most of which center around the Hornets' potential rust after an excruciatingly long wait for the NCAA tournament to begin. After beating Christopher Newport 7-4 for the conference tournament championship on April 18 in Burlington, N.C., Anderson's team played two final non-conference games at home to try to stay sharp. The last, a 14-12 loss to Stevenson, took place on April 22.
"That's a real concern for us," Anderson said of the lengthy layoff. "We gave them some time off after the tournament, and then we went into exams week. We practiced some more after that, and missed some because of the weather.
"We've tried to prepare the guys as best we can, but we haven't had a meaningful game since April 18. We hope we can get back into the swing of things pretty quickly."
The Hornets will at least have the benefit of facing the one team in the regional field they've seen before. Shenandoah rallied past Old Dominion Athletic Conference champion Bridgewater for an 11-8 road victory on March 4. Anderson wouldn't be surprised to see Bridgewater (23-18) start right-hander Kevin Chandler against his team.
"He baffled us for five innings when we played them," Anderson said.
Shenandoah (34-8) will choose between top starting pitchers Jake Yocum (6-0, 3.02 ERA) and Greg Van Sickler (7-2, 3.30 ERA) to open against the Eagles. Anderson said that decision will be made today after the Hornets embark at 6 a.m. for North Carolina.
"It's going to be a battle, there's no question," Anderson said of his team's matchup against Bridgewater. "We were very fortunate to come out on top when we played them."
Despite the long break, the Hornets managed to get a bit less healthy during their gameless stretch. Starting catcher Keeton Need dislocated a pinkie finger during practice on Saturday and is uncertain for this week's tournament, while outfielder Kevin Brashears fouled a ball off his foot and is slowed by a bruise.
No. 2 seed Salisbury takes on No. 5 LaGrange in Wednesday's second game starting at 2:30 p.m., and No. 3 Mary Washington faces No. 4 York, Pa., in the 6 p.m. nightcap. The tournament is double elimination, with the winner advancing to the double-elimination championship May 28-June 1 at Fox Cities Stadium in Appleton, Wis.
As the top seed, the Hornets are expected to be the team making a return trip to Wisconsin. But Anderson doesn't have his bags packed for that trip just yet.
"Everybody's 0-0 going into the tournament," Anderson said. "These are six really good teams and it will be a matter of who can get hot for four days."