First-year Front Royal manager Brad Neffendorf had a plan in the months leading up to the start of the 2014 Valley Baseball League season.
Neffendorf's main priority was to return the Cardinals to the playoffs -- an experience that the club has missed out on during the last couple of seasons -- but he had a certain way he wanted to go about things.
With that in mind, Neffendorf focused his recruiting search in places that perhaps some coaches overlook. Instead of targeting less experienced players from larger colleges and universities, Neffendorf made it a priority to lure players with college baseball experience -- no matter what level of college baseball that may be -- to the Shenandoah Valley.
"We've got a lot of players with a lot of experience this year from lower-level universities," Neffendorf said earlier this season. "We have some D-1 guys, but I'm more about taking the guys that want to come in here and grind and maybe have some experience. It's not going to take 30 games for them to get the bat off their shoulder and drive some baseballs."
It's not surprising that Neffendorf feels that way. He serves as the pitching coach and recruiting coordinator at Campbellsville University in Kentucky, a program that competes as a member of the National Christian Collegiate Athletic Association (NCCAA) and the NAIA.
What is surprising is just how well that recruiting strategy has paid off for the Cardinals this season.
Just five of Front Royal's players that are currently listed on the roster are from Division I programs, and the rest of the Cardinals' 27-man roster contains some Division II talent and is littered with plenty of players from the NCCAA, NAIA and community college levels. But the Cardinals have made it work.
Front Royal has been one of the most well-rounded teams in the VBL through the season's first three weeks. Entering Friday, the Cardinals were 13-3 and held the top spot in the Valley League standings.
Front Royal's offense has been outstanding, and four Cardinals -- Hunter Newman (.410), Shell McCain (.389), Nick Sinay (.383) and Spencer Wolfe (.382) -- are batting over .380 so far this season, the most by any team in the Valley League.
The Cardinals were tied for the league lead in home runs (seven) entering Friday, and Newman, who plays college ball at Trevecca Nazarene University (Tennessee), was tied for the individual lead with three homers. He led the Valley League with 16 RBIs entering Friday.
Front Royal, as a team, was also leading the Valley League in runs scored (95), hits (153), doubles (29) and RBIs (79) after Thursday's games.
The power has been there for the Cardinals, but Neffendorf has placed a heavy emphasis on aggressive baserunning, as well. McCain (10), Sinay (10) and Wardy Polanco (9) are all in the top six in the league in stolen bases.
But it hasn't been all about the offense in Front Royal. Entering Friday, the Cardinals' pitching staff was second in the league in runs allowed (57) and earned runs (38), and third in the VBL in hits allowed (107) and walks (42).
Jake Harper, a lefty from St. Joseph's College (Indiana), has been stellar for Front Royal so far. Harper is 3-0 with a 0.95 ERA and 24 strikeouts in 28 1/3 innings pitched spanning four starts this season.
Harper's college teammate, right-hander Keegan Long, is 2-0 (four appearances, two starts) with a 0.61 ERA and 13 strikeouts in 14 2/3 innings. Relievers Evan Bickett (1.22 ERA, 19 strikeouts in 14.2 innings) and Kevin Becker-Menditto -- who has allowed just two hits and two walks in 7 1/3 innings -- have been solid out of the bullpen.
A little over five weeks still remain in the Valley League regular season, but Front Royal has already established itself as one of the pleasant surprises in the VBL this summer. The Cardinals look like one of the teams to beat and are well on their way to ending their playoff drought this season.
Contact sports writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @BradFauberNVD