By Brad Fauber
Christendom College put together a baseball season to remember last year when the Crusaders captured their first Eastern States Baseball League championship.
That success, coupled with the return of a wealth of experienced players, resulted in some high hopes for the Crusaders entering this season. Christendom's defense of its ESBL title hasn't exactly gone as planned so far, as the Crusaders have gotten off to a rough start in 2013, but that doesn't mean Christendom has already bailed on this season.
"The team goal was to continue to defend the ESBL championship, and that hasn't changed even though we've gotten off to a slow start," Christendom coach John Mercandetti said recently in a phone interview. "That was the team goal -- to continue to improve."
You can't blame Mercandetti -- who is now in his fifth season as head coach of the Crusaders -- for not fretting over Christendom's 0-3 start this season. After all, the Crusaders did begin last year with an unimpressive 1-3 record before eventually reeling off six straight wins to capture the league crown.
The Crusaders finished last season with a 9-4 record -- seven or eight games were canceled due to weather, according to Mercandetti -- and the year was highlighted by big wins over rivals Williamson Free School and Valley Forge Christian College.
In fact, it was a doubleheader sweep over Valley Forge late last season that vaulted Christendom into the top spot of the ESBL standings and eventually earned the Crusaders the ESBL championship.
"They went beyond expectations," Mercandetti said of last year's Christendom squad. "I would be a liar if I said at the beginning of last season that we would do as well as we did."
The Crusaders return plenty of experience from last year's team, as Christendom has eight seniors on this year's squad, including six that were in the starting lineup as juniors last season. Team captain and starting shortstop Dan Mitchell will look to lead the Crusaders' offense, while fellow senior Nicholas Blank will step into the role as Christendom's top pitcher after playing catcher last season.
Despite the retention of the core of its lineup, one thing that has hampered Christendom early this season is its lack of pitching depth. The Crusaders lost last year's ace, Patrick Stein, to graduation and Mercandetti said he has only three or four pitchers that largely make up the staff.
Christendom expected to get a boost in the pitching department from freshman Nate Harrington -- who figured to be the Crusaders' No. 1 pitcher this season -- but Harrington will require surgery after this season and is unavailable to pitch.
"Two weeks before the season started he found out he needed Tommy John surgery," Mercandetti said. "That set us back because we are not deep at pitching at all."
Christendom has also been severely impacted by the bad weather that swept through the area during February and March. The Crusaders, who generally practice at the Champions 53 field at the Bing Crosby Stadium complex in Front Royal, have been forced to practice inside the school's gymnasium due to poor field conditions.
"The only thing you can basically do in the gym is batting practice," Mercandetti said. "Any fielding drills you do in the gym are basically unrealistic. We do what we can, but after a while it's not advantageous."
The first time Christendom stepped on a baseball field this season was for its season-opening doubleheader against Cairn University on March 23, and the results were less than ideal for the Crusaders.
Cairn took advantage of three Christendom errors in Game 1 to grab a 7-3 victory, and the Highlanders broke a tie in the final inning of Game 2 to complete the sweep with a 3-2 win.
"You could tell that the rust was definitely there for Game 1," Mercandetti said. "But overall, I didn't think we were as rusty as we could be."
Christendom followed with a 9-2 loss on the road to Penn State-Mont Alto on March 24, but hasn't played a game since then. Weather conditions have already led to the postponement of seven games, and Mercandetti said make-up games are trying to be arranged.
The Crusaders are scheduled to play a doubleheader with Williamson Free on Saturday before traveling to Media, Pa., to take on the Mechanics again next weekend. A make-up game against Southern Virginia University could also be scheduled sometime next week.
The three-game ESBL championship series is currently slated for April 26 and 27, should the Crusaders have an opportunity to defend its current league title.
"We know we can do it. We're coming up on the steady opponents of ours," Mercandetti said. "We're hoping to turn it around."
Contact sports writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or firstname.lastname@example.org