Posted February 19, 2013 | comments Leave a comment

Nations: ODAC proving tough

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So this is what ODAC competition is all about.

Shenandoah University has been a full-fledged member of the ODAC (Old Dominion Athletic Conference) for seven-plus months now, since that momentous day -- July 1, 2012 -- when President Tracy Fitzsimmons made the formal announcement before a packed house in the Brandt Student Center's Ferrari Room.

It was a good day for Shenandoah athletics -- great day, even -- considering just how long the school had dreamt of joining the ODAC in favor of its then current conference affiliations, predominantly with the USA South.

For Shenandoah, simple geography was enough to pine for the move -- travel distances were guaranteed to be slashed, more natural competitive rivalries were bound to blossom. Unsaid, perhaps, was the added prestige -- both academically and athletically -- that joining the ODAC would bestow upon Shenandoah. The perception, rightly or not, is that the ODAC is more of a "brand name" than the USA South in terms of regional and even national awareness.

Two thirds of the way through this, the Hornets' inaugural ODAC campaign, one can't help but wonder -- still happy with that decision, Shenandoah?

I'm being facetious, of course -- less than two full seasons into a new conference affiliation, presumably a long-term commitment, is hardly a reasonable amount of time to measure the cost/benefit ratio of signing on with the ODAC.

Let's face it, though -- this has been a rude awakening, in terms of competitiveness, for Shenandoah.

Start with the fall season, where the Hornets boldly embarked upon this new venture in six intercollegiate sports. Strike that -- five -- since women's field hockey was actually competing in the ODAC for the second season. Their experience might prove instructive, so let's start there. In SU's first foray into the ODAC -- the 2011 women's field hockey season -- the Hornets posted a 1-7 mark in conference play. In the second go-around this past season, Shenandoah markedly improved to 4-4 overall in the ODAC and 11-8 overall. Encouraging, right?

Keep that in mind, when considering how the rest of the fall season played out. First, though, another bright spot -- the women's soccer team, under coach Liz Pike, entered the year coming off the program's first-ever NCAA tournament appearance. Even with heavy graduation losses, the Hornets more than held their own in the ODAC while posting a 9-11-1 record overall that included a 6-5-1 mark in conference games.

Shenandoah finished seventh (out of 11) and seventh (out of 10) in men's and women's cross country at the ODAC championship meet -- not great, but not terrible. Still, it was a bit of a downer after SU's perennial success (no lower than second the previous five years) in the USA South championship meet.

In volleyball, Shenandoah made it into the conference tournament as the final seed and fell in the opening round to top-seeded Randolph-Macon in three sets. The Hornets were 13-16 overall and 4-7 in conference play.

The Hornets had even more struggles in men's soccer, where a youthful squad managed just a 3-13-1 overall mark that included a 1-9-1 record against ODAC opposition.

Then, there's football. Coming off a third-place finish in the USA South after compiling a 6-4 overall record (5-2 in conference play), Shenandoah seemingly got the cold shoulder in the preseason coaches poll. The Hornets were picked to tie for seventh -- dead last -- with Guilford. As it turns out, that was optimistic. Shenandoah staggered to a 1-9 season and finished in the ODAC cellar after posting an 0-7 league record.

As unsightly as that record is, it doesn't really tell the tale for Shenandoah. The Hornets, with their own fair share of youth, were mostly competitive throughout coach Paul Barnes' final season leading the program. Scott Yoder was named to replace the dismissed Barnes after this season, tasked with turning SU into something more than a snake-bitten 'W' for rival ODAC programs.

On to the winter season, consisting of men's and women's basketball. Continuing that trend of some success in women's sports, Shenandoah earned the No. 6 seed in the ODAC women's basketball tournament after finishing 7-9 in league play (11-14 overall). On Monday night, the Hornets extended their season with an opening-round, 69-64 home win over No. 11 Hollins. They'll face third-seeded Virginia Wesleyan in Thursday's quarterfinals at the Salem Civic Center.

The men's basketball season has been a struggle for Shenandoah, not unexpected considering the Hornets entered the season with a roster loaded with fresh faces. Still, no one was expecting an 0-16 scuffle through ODAC play this year. Shenandoah (3-22 overall) nearly broke through in its season finale at Washington and Lee on Saturday before the Generals rallied for a 61-60 win in the closing seconds. The 12th-seeded Hornets faced top-seed Lynchburg in Tuesday night's opening round of the ODAC tournament.

Still to come, of course, is the spring season. Shenandoah, paced especially by its nationally ranked baseball team and a softball squad returning seven field starters and two pitchers off last season's 24-17 team, should fare better as the weather warms up.

All in all, the ODAC debut has been a mixed bag for Shenandoah. Somewhat competitive is still a far cry from contender-worthy in the ODAC. So while Shenandoah is finally where it wants to be, plenty of work remains to become what it wants to be -- a real player in ODAC athletics.

Sports editor Jeff Nations can be reached at 540-465-5137 ext. 161 or at jnations@nvdaily.com

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