By Jeff Nations
WINCHESTER -- Shenandoah University sophomore starting pitcher Darrell Thompson has a vivid description -- visceral, even -- for his fate as a freshman pitching for the Hornets last year.
As part of a retooling young team, Thompson had to grow up fast as a freshman for Shenandoah. The left-hander was soon taking regular turns as a weekend starter, pitching the most important games against Old Dominion Athletic Conference rivals each and every time out. Shenandoah coach Kevin Anderson knew it was a tough assignment for a freshman.
"Last year was definitely a big surprise, coming in and being a weekend starter," Thompson said. "I mean, it was a lot of pressure. Coach even said, 'I fed you to the wolves last year,' but it made me who I am now."
Anderson describes the decision to fast-track Thompson to the top of the rotation a bit differently, but it sounds equally unpleasant.
"We were very young last year, and as the year went on he developed into a weekend starter even though he wasn't ready," Anderson said. "We threw him in the fire out of necessity, and he handled it well. Now he's developed into our No. 1 pitcher."
It turns out, Thompson wasn't devoured like prey every time he toed the pitching rubber. He wasn't torched with alarming, confidence-crushing regularity, either. Thompson, freshman or not, turned into one of the Hornets' best pitchers last season and could legitimately stake a claim as Shenandoah's No. 1 pitcher this year.
Last season, Thompson made nine starts for the Hornets and posted a 1-1 record in 45 2/3 innings. His ERA was inflated (5.32), but Thompson limited baserunners (seven walks allowed) and battled in each of his starts. In a complete-game victory over ODAC rival Mary Washington last year, Thompson fanned eight in the 5-1 win.
Along the way, the Sherando High School graduate learned and improved as he settled into that high-pressure role.
"I couldn't overpower guys like I could in high school," Thompson said. "I got here and tried to overpower them, and they started hitting balls over the fence. This year I've really developed my change-up, and that's really saved me this season compared to last year.
"I was still trying to develop it through the year last year, but now I have confidence in it and I can throw it whenever. It's a big part of where I'm at now."
Anderson said that improved change has given Thompson a weapon that enhances the rest of his arsenal, and it's made him that much more effective this season. In six starts so far, Thompson is 5-1 with a 3.07 ERA. In 41 innings, he's allowed just 38 hits and eight walks while striking out 38 batters.
"It's made his fastball so much better," Anderson said of the change-up. "He's going to be 82 to 86 -- he has the ability to work the fastball on both sides of the plate, but when you have the change-up that he has that makes it look 86 to 90. And then he has the ability to throw a backdoor breaking ball and a backfoot breaking ball.
"So when you have command of three pitches and you can get outs with all three, that makes it pretty tough on the hitter."
That three-pitch mix is what drew Anderson's attention, even when Thompson was coming up through high school with the Warriors.
"Expectations were very high coming in," Anderson said. "He's really been a coach's dream. He's spent the countless hours with the video, watching his mechanics, working at his craft. He's in outstanding physical condition. His work habits are second to none, and he's extremely coachable."
Thompson was at his best earlier this season against ODAC rival Roanoke. He worked seven innings against the Maroons, allowing just one hit and an unearned run while fanning seven in a 13-1 win.
Thompson still defers to senior Vince Claudio as the Hornets' ace, although Anderson isn't so sure about that.
"Over the last year, I really learned that first-pitch strikes and your percentage strikes, you try and get 70 and 70 for both of those, and I've really been trying to do that each start," Thompson said. "It's easy to win games when your offense is putting up 20 runs a game, like they have been. It makes our job a lot easier. And our defense has been great and that's really helped. That's mainly what it is. I'm not really doing anything different."
Through the fire and despite the wolves, Thompson survived and thrived for the Hornets.
"He's a guy that's thrown three pitches at any time in the count, and getting outs with all three pitches," Anderson said. "As a coach, the only thing you can do is provide an opportunity for a young man. Darrell has made the most of his opportunity. He's a Dean's List student in the classroom. He's been a gem."