By Jeff Nations
WINCHESTER -- It comes a year later than expected, but Shenandoah University's baseball team secured a new banner for the Bridgeforth Field outfield fence on Thursday.
The Hornets, who stumbled a bit in their first foray into the Old Dominion Athletic Conference last year after moving over from the more highly-regarded USA South Conference -- for baseball, anyway -- were determined to make a better showing this season.
Shenandoah earned its chance at an outright ODAC regular-season title, and the Hornets simply would not share the crown with Bridgewater. SU dashed off a four-run rally in the top of the first inning and ace left-hander Darrell Thompson took care of the rest in Shenandoah's 9-0 victory.
"It's huge, especially after last year," Thompson said. "We came in, felt that we were going to own the ODAC and then kind of got pounded around. Then this year we came back and showed that we actually are the best team in the ODAC."
Thompson was a huge reason for that. A sophomore from nearby Sherando High School who cut his teeth in the Hornets' starting rotation last year, Thompson showed just why he's become one of the conferences best this season in a complete-game effort. He allowed only five hits, walked two and struck out 12 and retired 16 of the final 18 batters he faced to record his third straight complete game.
"Darrell was phenomenal," SU senior catcher Joe Bittner said. "He was hitting spots, his off-speed was fantastic. It's one of the best games I've ever seen him throw."
Nationally ranked Shenandoah (No. 12 in one poll, No. 18 in another) staked Thompson to a four-run cushion in the first with plenty of help from the error-prone Eagles. Corbin Lucas had an RBI single, one of three hits in the inning against Bridgewater starter Dillon Via, but much of the damage came thanks to that trio of miscues plus Via's three wild pitches.
It was a disappointing start for Bridgewater coach Curt Kendall, whose club was aiming to grab a share of that regular-season title.
"We were playing for that today, you would have thought," Kendall said. "The fact that we came out here and we don't field balls and we're not sharp of the pen in the first inning, that's unacceptable at this stage of the game."
Via was done after an inning, but lefty reliever Jordan Showalter did a nice job in long relief. He shut down the Hornets for the next three innings before finally giving up a run in the fifth, also unearned, on Daniel Freshley's RBI double.
Bittner padded Shenandoah's lead in the seventh inning when he unloaded on a pitch from Showalter and deposited the ball over the left-field fence an on to neighboring Bodie Grim Field. Hornets coach Kevin Anderson estimated the homer trailed at least 400 feet, probably a bit more.
"He came with a changeup the pitch before that and made me look pretty bad, actually," Bittner said. "I just wanted to sit on it, make sure if I got it again that I wasn't going to miss it. And I didn't."
Thompson's toughest spot came in the top of the fourth, when he loaded the bases with two outs. That inspired a quick visit to the mound by SU's coaching staff.
"We try to keep it under 14 pitches an inning, and there were only two innings where he threw more than 14," Anderson said. "So it wasn't like he had a huge, extended effort where it was taxing on him. The one inning that his pitch count was a little high, we gave him a break. We talked to him, and we thought he was just in total command."
Thompson was that, as he escaped the jam by striking out pinch hitter Ryan Leake on three pitches.
The Hornets plated more runs in the bottom of the eighth on Dan Powers' two-run double, but by then the only question was whether Thompson would get the shutout. He did, working around two singles in the top of the ninth to get Leake on a game-ending groundout.
"Regular-season champion, I think it's always meaningful so hat's off to them because they got that title," Kendall said. "I know we don't give awards for that, but it means something to your program."
Anderson said the regular-season title is the first of many goals the Hornets set for this season.
"These nine seniors came in with a lot of goals this year," Anderson said. "And they wanted to be the first team in Shenandoah history to win an ODAC championship. I commend those guys for taking over the program, leading by example. That's something that when they get to be an old guy like me, they'll come to the yard and look out there, and they'll always remember that."
Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or firstname.lastname@example.org>