Hornets set to start ‘new season’ in ODAC baseball tournament

Shenandoah University's Nate Loman, right, greets Tristan Baker, left, after Baker scored during a game against Elizabethtown earlier this season. The Hornets open ODAC tournament play Friday in Lynchburg. Rich Cooley/Daily

Shenandoah University’s baseball team raced to 31 victories in its first 34 games this spring, a run that vaulted the Hornets to the top spot in the D3baseball.com/NCBWA Top 25 for six straight weeks over the final half of the regular season. SU has cooled off a bit since then.

The Hornets, who went 3-3 over their final six games of the regular season during the last week, will start fresh in postseason play while aiming to regain their consistency on the diamond this weekend in the Old Dominion Athletic Conference tournament.

Shenandoah (34-6), the tournament’s top seed for the fourth straight year, opens postseason play against No. 6 Roanoke at 11 a.m. Friday at Lynchburg’s City Stadium. The start of the tournament, originally scheduled for Thursday, was pushed back a day due to weather forecast for the Lynchburg area.

“We were a little tired at the end, which is expected,” Hornets head coach Kevin Anderson said Wednesday morning of SU’s .500 ball to close out the regular season. “We played some very good teams and unfortunately our record was not what we wanted in those last six games. But that ended our first season and our approach is that we’re starting our second season on Friday. And we hope that our second season is a four-day season, and when we get done with that we hope to start a third season. That’s our approach, is to look out the front window rather than the rear view mirror.”

Joining SU – which is ranked third and sixth in the latest D3baseball.com and American Baseball Coaches Association polls, respectively – and Roanoke in the six-team field is No. 2 Washington and Lee, No. 3 Randolph-Macon, No. 4 Virginia Wesleyan and No. 5 Hampden-Sydney. The tournament, scheduled to run through Monday, is double-elimination, with the champion earning an automatic bid to the NCAA Division III regional round.

The Hornets went 7-3 against ODAC tournament teams during the regular season, with losses to W&L, Virginia Wesleyan and Hampden-Sydney.

“Of the years that we’ve been in the ODAC, every year it’s good, but all six teams are outstanding clubs. Four of them have been in the top 25 throughout the season at different times,” Anderson said. “Whoever can get hot for four days is going to win this and advance.

“That’s the fun part of a tournament, you never know who’s gonna step up on a daily basis, whether it be offensively, defensively or on the mound. … Oftentimes when you see teams win it, somebody gets hot that maybe is not that team’s main player. So I’m anxious to see who steps up from our club.”

Shenandoah will turn to junior right-hander Colin Morse to start Game 1 on the mound Friday morning, Anderson said. Morse, the ace of a pitching staff that leads the ODAC in team ERA (3.86), is 8-0 this season with a 2.60 ERA and leads the conference with 73 strikeouts in 72 2/3 innings pitched.

In his lone start of the season against Roanoke on March 25, Morse limited the Maroons to two runs over eight innings in the Hornets’ 9-2 victory.

Anderson said he expects Roanoke to counter with left-hander John Ruhlman – who was outdueled by SU freshman Gerard DePhillips (6-1, 2.21 ERA this season) in the second game of the teams’ regular season doubleheader – on Friday.

Ruhlman, a senior, is 3-5 with a 4.24 ERA and 46 strikeouts in 76 1/3 innings this season.

“We’ll see an outstanding left-handed pitcher,” Anderson said of Roanoke, which ranks in the top half of the ODAC in team batting average, runs scored and team ERA. “They’ve got some guys that can hurt you at the plate, a good bullpen. They’re very well coached. What a tournament it’s gonna be. We’ll need to be on our A game on a daily basis.”

Shenandoah, led by senior designated hitter Jake Loew, the ODAC leader in home runs (10) and RBIs, enters tournament play as the conference’s leader in team batting average (.325) and runs scored, but the Hornets will be without a key lineup piece in sophomore first baseman Luke Nussman.

Nussman, who leads the ODAC with a .469 batting average, has missed the last six games with mononucleosis and will remain out of the lineup heading into the weekend, Anderson said.

“We haven’t had him now for a number of games, and that hurts. He was 18 for his last 29 and quite frankly was carrying the ball club,” Anderson said. “We’ve been doing some mixing and matching to try to replace him. We’ve got some guys that are a little banged up, as you would be after playing 40 games. We’re trying to get them healthy and Coach (Bruce) Cameron has been working with the hitters on trying to make some technical adjustments because starting Friday you’ve gotta trust what you’re doing and it’s all about competing at a high level.”

Game 2 of the ODAC tournament between W&L and Hampden-Sydney will start at 2:30 p.m. Friday, followed by Randolph-Macon and Virginia Wesleyan at 6 p.m.

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