By Brad Fauber
Shenandoah University is in a pretty comfortable position heading into its first Old Dominion Athletic Conference baseball tournament.
The Hornets ended the regular season on a strong note, winning seven of their final eight ballgames to claim the third seed in the six-team tournament, and Shenandoah will have momentum on its side when it plays No. 4 Washington and Lee today at 6 p.m. at City Stadium in Lynchburg.
"I can't remember the last time I was more proud of a baseball team," Hornets coach Kevin Anderson said Wednesday in a phone interview. "The team has overcome a lot of adversity this season.
"I think we're playing our best baseball right now. We like where we are."
The Hornets (27-10, 13-7 ODAC), who spent the entire season ranked in D3baseball.com's top 25 poll before dropping out of the rankings this week, have had plenty to like about the way they have been swinging the bats this season.
Over the final 10 regular-season games, Shenandoah scored an eye-popping 144 runs, and the Hornets lead the ODAC with 309 runs scored this season. SU also is second in the conference in home runs with 30.
"I think team chemistry has been key. We have an outstanding group of young men. They play well together, they don't care who gets the credit," Anderson said. "We don't talk about statistics, we talk about situational hitting. That's been our approach all year."
The Hornets' most impressive offensive output this season came just last week in a doubleheader sweep against Washington and Lee. Shenandoah scored a combined 43 runs on 44 hits in the two games.
In the first game of the doubleheader last Tuesday, Shenandoah had 32 hits -- including seven home runs -- in a 28-14 win. The Hornets followed that up with a 15-14 win in the nightcap.
Washington and Lee has a powerful offense of its own, as the Generals lead the conference in home runs with 39. The Generals (18-15, 11-9) hit nine homers in their two games against Shenandoah this season.
Much of Shenandoah's success in the double-elimination tournament will hinge on the performance of the Hornets' young pitching staff. Anderson said freshman Phillip Morse will take the mound for the Hornets today against the Generals, and senior Nick McMahon will start on Friday.
Morse has appeared in the 10 games this season, including eight starts, and is 3-2 with a 4.38 ERA.
"We were young at the beginning of the season, but we've had a lot of guys get valuable experience," Anderson said. "We're going to expect a good effort out of a couple of guys [on the mound]."
Shenandoah's offense will be lacking a key component throughout the conference tournament, as freshman shortstop and leadoff hitter John Wilt suffered a separated shoulder in a game last Friday at St. Joseph's (L.I.) and will not be available.
Wilt was batting .341 with 27 RBIs and 35 runs scored out of the leadoff spot for the Hornets prior to his injury. Anderson said either senior Nick Beall or freshman Ricky Pardo will take over the leadoff role depending on pitching matchups, while the shortstop position will vary game by game, with freshman Billy Arens and sophomore J.J. McDaniel likely in the mix.
The Hornets and the Generals play the third game of the tournament's opening day today, as Game 1 between top-seeded Bridgewater and No. 6 Roanoke starts at 11 a.m., followed by Game 2 between No. 2 Hampden-Sydney and fifth-seeded Randolph-Macon at 2:30 p.m.
If Shenandoah wins today, it will play the winner of Game 2 at 6 p.m. on Friday. A loss would mean the Hornets play the winner of Game 1 at 2:30 p.m. Friday.
Getting off to a good start today against the Generals is critical for the Hornets, and Anderson said it will take a complete effort to slow down Washington and Lee's powerful lineup.
"Washington and Lee is one of the better hitting teams we've seen. Their lineup one through nine has tremendous power," Anderson said. "They are one of the biggest Division III teams that I've ever seen, and we're going to have to play our best to beat them."
Contact sports writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or email@example.com