Hornets in familiar spot entering ODAC tournament

Shenandoah University’s baseball team is getting quite comfortable sitting atop the Old Dominion Athletic Conference standings.

For the third year in a row the Hornets claimed the conference’s regular season championship, meaning SU once again heads into the ODAC tournament – which begins today – as the field’s No. 1 seed.

The three-peat came as no easy task, either. Shenandoah opened its conference slate with back-to-back losses to Roanoke on March 12 – a pair of defeats that started the Hornets’ first three-game losing streak since 2008 – and have dealt with a handful of injuries to key contributors.

Still, SU closed the regular season by winning 20 of its final 24 games, including 13 of its last 15, to finish 30-8 overall (15-5 in the ODAC) while maintaining a firm presence in the D3baseball.com and American Baseball Coaches Association top 25 polls.

“That’s a great accomplishment for our young men and our program for three years in a row to win the regular season title, overcome the adversity this year with a boatload of injuries to a lot of key guys,” Anderson said Tuesday afternoon.

“It’s a credit to our assistant coaches having other guys prepared. And I just can’t give enough credit to our players for adopting the ‘next man up’ philosophy and going in and getting it done. We’ve won games with pitching. We’ve won games by hitting. We got beat some games also, but it’s really been a great group of young men to work with.”

No. 9/12 Shenandoah is slated to take on sixth-seeded Bridgewater (21-17) in an 11 a.m. contest to kick off the six-team, double elimination tournament at City Stadium in Lynchburg on this morning. The tournament is scheduled to last through Sunday.

As the tournament’s top seed in 2014 and 2015, Shenandoah reached the championship game twice while winning the school’s first ODAC tournament crown last season.

To repeat as conference champs, the Hornets will have to survive a tournament field that also includes No. 2 Randolph-Macon – the second-ranked team in the D3baseball.com poll – No. 3 Washington and Lee, No. 4 Hampden-Sydney and No. 5 Virginia Wesleyan.

Only four games separated SU and Bridgewater in the final conference standings, and the Hornets’ didn’t lock down the tournament’s top seed until the second win of a doubleheader sweep of Lynchburg in last Saturday’s finale.

“It’s by far the best this conference has been since we’ve been in it,” Anderson said.

“Each weekend and every week was a dogfight and it came down to the last weekend. We could’ve finished anywhere from first to fourth or fifth. Fortunately our guys got big at Lynchburg, got a sweep.”

Senior left-hander Mike Scimanico, who started the second game of the Lynchburg doubleheader, will get the ball today for the Hornets. He’s 6-1 with a 1.97 ERA and leads the ODAC with 83 strikeouts in 64 innings.

The starting trio of Scimanico, fellow senior lefty Darrell Thompson (5-2, 4.50 ERA, 63 strikeouts) and sophomore right-hander Colin Morse (5-0, 1.73 ERA), as well as senior closer Phil Morse (eight saves, 0.40 ERA), help lead a Hornets pitching staff that is second in the conference in team ERA (3.20) and leads the ODAC in strikeouts (328) and opponent batting average (.240).

At the plate, Shenandoah ranks in the top half of the conference in most major offensive categories. The Hornets are second in the ODAC in runs scored (296), RBIs and home runs (20), and third in team batting average (.307), on-base percentage, slugging and total hits.

Junior outfielder Abel Arocho leads the Hornets with a .421 average and 41 RBIs, while junior first baseman Jake Loew is batting .385 with six home runs and leads the ODAC with 47 RBIs.

SU should get a boost in the field and at the plate with the return of junior shortstop John Wilt, who has missed the last 13 games due to knee and shoulder injuries, Anderson said, but the Hornets will remain without first baseman Neil Dutton and catcher Dan Cameron, as well as a few injured relievers.

Central High School graduate Zach Herbaugh has started at catcher in Cameron’s absence and the sophomore is batting .295 with seven RBIs in 20 games.

Completing today’s tournament slate will be a 2:30 p.m. contest between Randolph-Macon and Virginia Wesleyan and a 6 p.m. tilt between Washington and Lee and Hampden-Sydney.

The Hornets split two regular season meetings with Bridgewater this season, and Anderson said he wants his team to continue to focus on “what we do,” which includes players executing in “team situations” and making the routine plays, and pitchers getting ahead in the count, throwing strikes and working fast.

“We’ll stay with what we’ve done all year,” Anderson said.

Contact staff writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or bfauber@nvdaily.com