Baseball Hornets open first ODAC campaign loaded with youth
By Jeff Nations
WINCHESTER -- Those numbers affixed to the back of jerseys should come in extra-handy for Shenandoah University baseball fans headed out to today's season-opening doubleheader at Bridgeforth Field.
It's a new season, new conference and new faces -- lots of new faces -- as the Hornets open up with a non-conference twin bill against Misericordia.
"This club is the youngest team that we've had in a long time," Shenandoah coach Kevin Anderson said. "We're carrying a 48-man roster, playing 40 varsity and 18 jv games. And on that roster, over half have never played a college varsity game."
Several will get the opportunity to do so today, and more will soon for the Hornets.
The youth movement is nowhere more startling than in the starting rotation, where Shenandoah plans to use four true freshmen among the five-man group.
Senior right-hander Nick McMahon will handle the season-opening start, with former Sherando star lefty Darrell Thompson slated for the nightcap. Freshman Phillip Morse is slated to start Monday's home game against Mount Aloysius, and fellow freshmen Billy Arens and Ryan Mossman are penciled in to complete the rotation.
"Hopefully we won't have too many growing pains," Anderson said. "Normally the difference between a freshman and an upperclassman is just consistency."
Consistency can be expected from McMahon, who was 6-1 in eight appearances with a 3.19 ERA and 35 strikeouts in 53 2/3 innings last year.
"He's worked his way up from the jv program, when we were a senior-dominated staff for a couple years. In fact, he started last year on the jv team and by the end of the year he was a starter, pitching in regionals. That's a great credit to him. It's been enjoyable to see him progress from a freshman to now the leader of the staff."
McMahon is no stranger to starting season openers -- he did it twice at Fauquier High School, then again as a freshman on the Hornets' jv team.
"I'm just more excited to get out there than nerves," McMahon said. "I'm just ready to get going. I'm anxious."
McMahon, who said getting swept by Misericordia last season left "a sour taste in my mouth," is also anxious to see Thompson in action in the second game.
"We could not be happier with Darrell," Anderson said. "The way he's worked, mentally and physically, he has been a gem. We're really going to be counting on him to come in and be in our rotation."
The Hornets, coming off their fourth straight season of 30-plus wins and a fourth trip to the NCAA regionals, will have a bit more experience in other areas. But even where veterans do return, they aren't necessarily in the same spot this season.
Senior Nick Beall, a 2013 preseason NCAA Division III All-America honorable mention selection by D3baseball.com, is a typical example. After playing last year at first base and designated hitter, Beall is shifting to left field this season after the Hornets graduated two of three starters from last year's squad. The lone holdover, sophomore Corbin Lucas, is moving over to center field.
"We think he can do that," Anderson said of Beall. "We're asking him to hit in the middle of the order. He's a proven, quality hitter and a switch hitter."
Beall can hit, no question -- last year he posted an eye-popping .421 batting average with 12 doubles, a triple, two home runs and drove in 35 run in 145 at-bats on the way to earning first-team all-USA South Conference and All-South Region honors last year.
Beall, along with cleanup-hitting third baseman Mikey Paul, will provide much of the pop for the Hornets this year.
"We've got a lot more speed in the lineup, I think, kids who can hit the ball all over the park," Beall said. "I think we're pretty deep, actually, talent-wise. We do have a lot of young guys, but they'll definitely get the opportunity to gain some experience and help out any way they can."
Anderson said this year's youthful squad has already been successful in the classroom, where the Hornets posted a combined GPA (all four classes) of better than 3.0 in the fall semester for the first time in his 10-year tenure.
He's optimistic they'll do as well on the field, despite shifting from the USA South to the Old Dominion Athletic Conference this year. The Hornets were picked to finish third, behind Bridgewater and Lynchburg, in the ODAC preseason coaches poll.
"We're jumping from one frying pan to the next by going from the USA South to the ODAC," Anderson said. "The dynamics of the schedule are going to change a little bit. In the USA South we didn't play doubleheaders, it was single games on the weekend. Now our conference games, we play one game during the week -- a Tuesday or Wednesday vs. your closest opponents -- then every Saturday you play two nine-inning games in a doubleheader. So that's going to change our thinking, as far as our pitching a little bit."
Anderson is no fan of the doubleheaders -- the Hornets have 13 this season -- but does see Shenandoah's depth as a plus in those situations.
Like his players, Anderson is ready to see what the Hornets can do against a full ODAC slate. Last year, SU split two-game sets against both Bridgewater and Lynchburg.
"I have a lot of respect for everybody in the ODAC, from top to bottom," Anderson said. "We're excited to be a part of the conference."
Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or firstname.lastname@example.org>