By Brad Fauber
Front Royal missed out on the Valley Baseball League playoffs the last few seasons, and this year's Cardinals will certainly have their eye on returning the club to the postseason.
But for first-year head coach Brad Neffendorf, it's all going to start with Front Royal's approach.
"We're going to be a team that's going to go out and try to do things the right way, play the game the right way," Neffendorf said in a phone interview Wednesday. "I think we've got a really good group of guys that can do that. Hopefully be the dirty, grimy, competitive, exciting team -- that's what we're trying to do this summer."
The Cardinals, who finished fifth in the North Division standings with a record of 19-25 last summer, open the 2014 season today in a 7 p.m. home contest against Aldie.
Neffendorf is optimistic about what Front Royal's lineup can do this summer, but the Cardinals will have to wait at least a week into the season to get up to full strength.
Front Royal is still waiting on the arrivals of three players from Kent State -- which begins play in the NCAA Division I tournament today in the Louisville Regional -- and another four from Georgetown College, which recently competed in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics World Series.
Ryan Cleveland, a freshman from Georgia Southern who hit six home runs and 16 doubles with 31 RBIs this spring, will also be a late arrival and figures to settle into the middle of the Cardinals' lineup alongside Zarley Zalewkski of Kent State. Zalewski is currently batting .355 with two home runs, 16 doubles, 40 RBIs, and he leads the Golden Flashes with 76 hits.
"We've got a little bit of everything," Neffendorf said. "We've got some guys throughout the middle that are going to be able to do some things and the guys at the top and bottom of the lineup can run, but they can also drive the baseball a little bit, too."
Neffendorf said Front Royal added switch-hitting shortstop Wardy Polanco (Cecil College) a few days ago, and he will man the middle of the infield on opening day alongside second baseman Josh Keim (St. Joseph's [Indiana] College).
"[Polanco's] got a shot to really, really help us out and be one of the better shortstops in the league," Neffendorf said.
Trevecca Nazarene's Hunter Newman will play third today, and teammate Tyler Tichenor (.428 batting average, 30 stolen bases) will likely man one of the outfield spots alongside a combination of Nick Perez (Saint Leo University), Jacob Russell (Campbellsville University) and Tennessee Wesleyan's Shell McCain (.415, 24 stolen bases) throughout this season.
Neffendorf also held high praise for catchers Billy Germaine (Hill College) and Spencer Wolfe (Shepherd University), and both figure to start today, with Wolfe manning first base.
Chris Stevens (Kaskaskia College) will be the designated hitter today.
"I think the majority of them that we have had really good years," Neffendorf said. "... We weren't really concerned about the division or level of play they've come from, it was just kind of experienced guys that fit the mold of what we wanted to do."
Jake Harper, a left-hander from St. Joseph's (Indiana) College, will start on the mound for Front Royal against Aldie. Harper, who pitched for the Harrisonburg Turks last summer, was 2-2 with a 3.86 ERA and 45 strikeouts in 53 2/3 innings for the Pumas this spring.
"He's kind of a guy that understands what he can provide on the mound, what he can and can't do. He's not the kind of guy that's going to go up there and try to do things out of the ordinary," Neffendorf said. "One reason I wanted to go with him is that he pitched for Harrisonburg last summer, threw 55 innings for them. ... He might be the guy that can go up there and set the tone for us being that he's been in this league before."
Neffendorf said the Cardinals will feature a few young arms this season, but Front Royal should have some experience in the bullpen with Alvernia University's Kevin Becker-Menditto (2.74 ERA, 10 saves) and Indiana University Southeast's Evan Bickett (1.90 ERA, 11 saves).
Neffendorf said the goal is to return the Cardinals to the Valley League playoffs this season.
"I know the ownership and everybody involved wants that," he said. "... Absolutely I think this is a group that has the ability to get to the playoffs in the Valley League if everything goes correctly."
Contact sports writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @BradFauberNVD