Hornets set to open 2017 baseball season

Jake Loew, a preseason All-American, returns to lead Shenandoah University's baseball team in 2017 after batting .373 with six home runs and 55 RBIs as a junior last season. Photo courtesy of Shenandoah University

WINCHESTER – Shenandoah University baseball coach Kevin Anderson considers senior Jake Loew to be one of the most improved hitters he’s had in his 14 seasons with the Hornets.

Loew, who began the 2016 season without a starting role, ended his junior year batting .373 with six home runs and 55 RBIs, the latter of which led the Old Dominion Athletic Conference last spring. He was voted a second team All-American designated hitter by D3baseball.com at season’s end, and became the sixth Hornet to earn preseason All-American status last month.

With SU, which has won three straight ODAC regular season titles, set to begin its 2017 season with a home doubleheader against Misericordia starting at noon today, Loew has risen from lightly used reserve to the Hornets’ captain in a year’s time.

“He’s improved as much as probably any hitter we’ve ever had,” Anderson said earlier this week. “His bat speed’s tremendous. Everybody in the program has tremendous confidence in him. You think of a guy that wasn’t starting at the beginning of the year last year and he became a second team All-American. That’s pretty impressive on his part. And now he’s a guy that was a unanimous pick as team captain. To see his progression as a freshman to now, it’s almost like we have a coach playing on the field and leading the program. And he is a premier hitter.”

The expectation for Anderson this spring is that Loew will provide the power in the heart of the Hornets’ lineup as the key piece of production in a core group of returning starters that will drive SU’s offense, which ranked second in the ODAC in runs scored, RBIs, home runs, doubles, hits and walks last year.

Shenandoah University's Colin Morse fires a pitch during a game against Dickinson last season. Morse, a junior, will lead the Hornets' pitching staff in 2017. Rich Cooley/Daily

Surrounding Loew, who will remain entrenched in the cleanup spot this season, Anderson said, will be fellow 2016 All-ODAC honorees Abel Arocho, a senior, and Tristan Baker, as well as senior catcher Dan Cameron, who batted .385 with two homers, 18 RBIs and a .506 on-base percentage in 19 games last season before breaking his hand.

Baker, a second baseman who batted .340 with 12 doubles, 26 RBIs and 59 runs scored out of the No. 2 spot in 2016, will take over the leadoff role this season, while Arocho (.393 batting average, 46 RBIs in 2016) – the Hornets’ co-captain and starting right fielder – will move up a spot to the two-hole after leading the ODAC in hits (72) a season ago.

Loew, who will remain as SU’s designated hitter, said that group is aiming to offer more than the offensive firepower for the Hornets in 2017.

“I don’t wanna say it puts pressure but we feel responsible to create the next core group of guys for next year,” Loew said. “So when I get up to bat and I see a guy like Abel at second base … I get more confident in myself and I think my teammates see that and they think, ‘Wow, that’s a good relationship. That’s a cool thing to have going.’ So everybody sort of develops that.”
The left side of Shenandoah’s infield will introduce some new faces this spring. Nick Goode, a James Wood High School grad and transfer from Hagerstown Community College, will man shortstop and junior college transfer Christian Rice, whom Anderson said was the Hornets’ leading hitter in the fall, will be the starting third baseman.

Anderson said the Hornets will use a platoon situation at first base, with lefty Luke Nussman getting the starts against right-handers and seniors Neil Dutton (a Randolph-Macon Academy graduate) and Nate Loman splitting time against lefties depending on which of the two is having the most success at the plate and/or is operating out of the bullpen that game. Loman batted .256 and drove in 24 runs in 129 at-bats for SU last season.

In the outfield, true freshman Michael Cruz will start in center while another JUCO transfer, Dylan Stouffer, will play left.

Sherando grad Chase Smallwood, who spent two seasons at Shepherd University, will serve as the backup catcher and will relieve Cameron in the second half of weekend doubleheaders and occasionally during midweek games.

“This is the deepest we’ve ever been position player-wise,” Anderson said. “It’ll allow us to manage a game where that last third put a guy in for the best scenario for that situation. We’ve got some defensive guys also that we can put in, some pinch-runners.”

On the mound Shenandoah has had to replace lefty starters Michael Scimanico (a 2016 All-American) and Darrell Thompson – both are now playing professionally in the Pecos League – and closer Phil Morse, who was drafted in the 16th round by the Washington Nationals last summer, as well as reliever Ryan Mossman (39.1 innings pitched in 2016). That quartet led a Hornets staff that led the ODAC in strikeouts (383) and ranked third in the conference in ERA (3.48) last season.

Colin Morse, Phil’s younger brother, will step in as the Hornets’ new No. 1 starter and will get the ball in Game 1 Saturday against Misericordia. He went 5-1 with a 2.80 ERA and 55 strikeouts in 64.1 innings for SU as a sophomore last season.

“He’s one of the best pitchers in Division III baseball and when he’s got all three pitches going he’s pretty tough,” Anderson said of the younger Morse, who is 10-1 with a 2.60 ERA in his first two collegiate seasons.

Sophomore left-hander Zach Teeple (4-1, 3.89 ERA, 29 strikeouts in 39.1 innings in 2016) will be Shenandoah’s number two starting pitcher, and freshman Gerard DePhillips and reliever-turned-starter Robert Klinchock will round out SU’s four-man rotation.

Anderson said the closer role will operate by committee this season between right-hander C.J. Morton and lefty Matt Burns, and Strasburg High grad Tyler Hott and fellow seniors Ryan Kinter and Steve Jones will make up the nucleus of the Hornets’ bullpen.

“They’ll play a huge role in our success,” Anderson said of the senior trio of relievers. “And they can also go into a starting role if need be. We’ve always tried to pride ourselves on bringing upperclassmen out of the bullpen in pressure situations and those three we definitely feel are ready to do that.”

Shenandoah, which has reached the NCAA regional round in seven of the last eight seasons, was picked second in the preseason ODAC poll behind 2016 tournament champ Randolph-Macon. The Hornets are ranked 16th in the D3baseball.com top 25 poll.

In addition to today’s doubleheader against Misericordia, Shenandoah will host No. 5 La Roche – which reached the NCAA Division III World Series last season – in a twin bill on Sunday.

“We’ve got the toughest schedule in school history,” said Anderson, who is 385-177-1 at SU. “We’re gonna play, depending on which poll you see, five of the top 20 teams and four teams that are in the top 10. And we come right out of the chute with two outstanding baseball teams.”

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