Top of their game
WINCHESTER – Shenandoah University wasn’t Darrell Thompson’s first choice.
Thompson was the type of kid who had wanted to venture out of the Shenandoah Valley to attend college, and the standout pitcher from Sherando High School had aspirations of playing Division I baseball at the University of South Carolina after his graduation in 2012, a vision ultimately dashed by his undersized, wiry frame and a fastball velocity not quite up to par with Division I standards.
Shenandoah University, little more than a last-ditch option for Thompson before his senior season, began to look more appealing in the spring of 2012. Hornets head coach Kevin Anderson had begun recruiting the left-hander hard, consistently staying in touch throughout Thompson’s final high school season. When Thompson’s Sherando career ended with a 2-1 loss to Monticello in the Region II quarterfinals – a game in which the left-hander allowed just three hits – the first person out of the stands to congratulate him on his senior season was SU assistant coach Bruce Cameron.
After offering his compliments on a stellar senior season, Cameron added, “We still want you at SU.”
“That really hit home to me,” Thompson said from the dugout while looking out over an empty Bridgeforth Field, SU’s home diamond, last week, “and they were the only college that actually came to the regional game. … (Cameron) sat through the entire game and that was really the turning point.”
An official visit to Shenandoah’s Winchester campus just up the road from Thompson’s Middletown home followed, leading to another meeting with Anderson, who informed Thompson that the Hornets were in a rebuild mode and that freshmen would get their chance to play right away. Thompson was sold.
That same spring, former SU assistant coach David Jenkins was working on luring another left-handed pitcher to Winchester. Michael Scimanico, a reliever from St. Joseph Regional High School in Montvale, New Jersey, had gained Jenkins’ attention at a camp and through an online video. Weekly phone conversations with Jenkins led Scimanico to visit Shenandoah, where he learned of the program’s success under Anderson that included back-to-back NCAA Division III World Series appearances in 2009 and 2010.
“One of my biggest things that I was looking for was a team that could win because my high school team won a lot,” Scimanico said. “We were pretty successful so I wanted to compete at a good level and in a good program that tended to win a lot of baseball games.”
Like Thompson, Scimanico chose to continue his baseball career with the Hornets. Four years later, the duo is trying to lead SU – ranked eighth in the latest D3baseball.com top 25 with a record of 21-6 (8-4 ODAC) with 11 regular season games remaining – to its third straight NCAA regional appearance while capping off two of the most successful pitching careers in the program’s history.
Considered by Anderson to be the Hornets’ best pitchers on a staff brimming with talent, Thompson and Scimanico entered their senior seasons coming off a pair of junior campaigns that saw the duo lead a staff that posted a 2.80 team ERA, the seventh-best mark in all of Division III.
This spring, Scimanico is 3-1 with a 2.25 ERA and 58 strikeouts, ranking fifth and second in the Old Dominion Athletic Conference in the latter two categories. Thompson is 4-1 and tied for the team lead in wins. Although Thompson’s ERA has risen to 4.23 this season – 14 of his 18 earned runs have come in two games – his 10.57 strikeouts per nine innings are second only to Scimanico’s 11.86 among qualified pitchers in the ODAC.
“Their work ethic is second to nobody,” said Anderson, who added that the senior lefties are ideal role models for young hurlers Colin Morse (4-0, ODAC-best 0.58 ERA) and Zach Teeple (4-1). “They have a great attitude, very coachable. They have handled adversity well because let’s face it, it’s not easy. There’s some days that the plan doesn’t come to fruition. But they buy in, they work hard. They’ve worked extremely hard in the video room perfecting their mechanics. It has been a pleasure to coach those guys for four years.”
For the better part of two seasons, Thompson and Scimanico – good friends off the field – have produced similar results on the mound. Last season, the first in which both lefties were full-time starting pitchers, Thompson went 7-1 with a 2.26 ERA and 57 strikeouts, while Scimanico was 6-1 with a 2.44 ERA and 48 strikeouts.
But most of the similarities between the two end there. As Anderson points out, both are weekend starting pitchers who have “taken different roads to get here.”
Thompson was thrown right in as the Hornets’ No. 2 starter as a freshman in 2012, an experience he said “made me come out to be who I am today.” The next season, Thompson was awarded the ODAC Pitcher of the Year honor after winning 10 games in 11 starts. Last spring, he was named the conference tournament MVP as the Hornets won their first ODAC tournament title.
Thompson’s strikeout rate has risen in each of his four seasons, while he’s allowed just two home runs since serving up five as a freshman. That success, he said, came after he realized he could no longer survive by challenging hitters with a mid-80’s fastball like he did in high school, which led to Thompson developing better command of his off-speed pitches in the offseason between his freshman and sophomore seasons.
“The big games where I do well I have fastball command on both sides of the plate and my changeup has great fade and sink and I’m able to spot that as well,” Thompson said. “… When I can command all my pitches that’s when the baseball gods have blessed me that day.”
Scimanico, meanwhile, began his SU career in the bullpen, notching three saves his freshman season. He spent the first half of his sophomore season as a reliever before struggles prompted Anderson to try the left-hander in a starting role.
Scimanico began sitting next to Anderson in the dugout during games to better study opposing batters and learn what pitches to throw to counteract their approaches at the plate. In his second career start, Scimanico tossed a complete game in a 3-2 win over Catholic University of America.
“I appreciate coach Anderson had a lot of confidence in me and gave me the baseball again,” Scimanico said. “… From there I kind of continued my success in there.”
On game days, which typically for Thompson and Scimanico consist of the ODAC doubleheaders that occupy most of the Hornets’ Saturdays during the season, Thompson regularly gets the ball in game one.
“He sets the tempo for the day and I try to bring the energy in game two,” said Scimanico, whom Thompson calls the more “rambunctious” of the two pitchers.
A friendly competition to out-perform each other helps keep the two sharp on the mound, as does their different yet complementary styles, said Anderson.
At 6-foot-4, 180 pounds, Thompson considers himself the “craftier” of the two pitchers, with height to create more deception on a downward plane and a fastball that sits between 86 and 88 miles per hour. He complements the fastball with a fading changeup and a curveball. Scimanico, a 6-foot, 210-pound “bulldog,” is more of a power pitcher with a running, sinking fastball that regularly reaches in the high 80s while occasionally touching 91 on the radar gun.
Those attributes have drawn the attention of professional scouts, who usually visit SU to check out hard-throwing closer Phil Morse (five saves) but tend to leave Winchester with good impressions of Thompson and Scimanico, as well.
“We’ve both received feedback from multiple major league teams so far,” Thompson said. “It’s very exciting. It’s very encouraging for us, but I mean right now our goal is to win a national championship and if we can help lead this team to a national championship I’m sure that’ll impress all the scouts.”
Anderson said scouts have already been impressed.
“They have been scouted very heavily,” the longtime coach said. “A number of clubs like both of them and I hope they get the opportunity to play at the next level. They’re deserving of so, and I think they can have a lot of success at the next level.”
Contact staff writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or firstname.lastname@example.org