Shenandoah baseball set to start new season under the usual high expectations

Shenandoah University's Colin Morse, the 2017 ODAC Pitcher of the Year, returns to lead the Hornets' pitching staff this season after going 9-1 with a 2.43 ERA and 96 strikeouts in 2017. Shenandoah opens the 2018 season with a home doubleheader against Neumann University on Sunday afternoon. Photo courtesy of Shenandoah University

WINCHESTER – Shenandoah University’s baseball team has earned the top seed in the Old Dominion Athletic Conference tournament for four straight years and has appeared in the NCAA tournament eight times in the last nine seasons. Outside perception suggests the Hornets are equipped for more good things in 2018.

Shenandoah emerged as the ODAC’s preseason favorite in a vote of league coaches released last week, and the Hornets enter the season ranked 12th and 16th nationally in the D3baseball.com and American Baseball Coaches Association preseason polls, respectively. And yet longtime head coach Kevin Anderson chuckled when asked what his team’s potential is in 2018 on Friday afternoon, as he’s not quite sure of the answer.

“That’s the great thing about baseball,” said Anderson, whose team opens its season with a doubleheader at home against Neumann University on Sunday after the threat of poor weather wiped Saturday’s games off the 2018 slate. “You go into a season thinking one way, or you have a plan, but you better have a plan B and a plan C and a plan D, and you better be able to adapt.”

For Shenandoah, plan A this spring begins with starting pitching, defense and the ability to apply pressure offensively, Anderson said. It’s that first aspect – starting pitching – that, on paper, could be the Hornets’ driving force.

SU’s entire five-man starting rotation is back from last year’s team that went 41-10, set a new school record for wins in a season, spent six weeks ranked as the top Division III team in the country and came a victory short of making the program’s third World Series appearance. The Hornets led the ODAC in team ERA (3.66) and strikeouts (331) during their lengthy playoff run.

Topping that pitching staff is senior right-hander Colin Morse, who was named the ODAC’s Pitcher of the Year last season after going 9-1 with a 2.43 ERA and 96 strikeouts in 92 2/3 innings pitched. Morse is one of three returning Hornet pitchers – alongside sophomore right-hander Gerard DePhillips (7-2, 2.31 ERA in 2017) and senior righty Michael Bugonowicz (6-2, 2.58) – who ranked among the top five in the ODAC in ERA last season.

While Shenandoah’s starting staff is set, Anderson said that the bullpen is the Hornets’ “biggest question mark.”

The Hornets are again searching for another closer after the graduation of Tyler Hott, who worked his way into that role last season and had what Anderson called “one of the best years in ODAC baseball history” while recording a league-high 11 saves.

“This year we’re gonna go in closing by committee and if that’s the way it goes all year that’s great, but we have a number of candidates,” said Anderson, who rattled off a list of six relievers but only one (junior C.J. Morton, who’s pitched 14 innings over the last two seasons) of which has logged innings for Shenandoah.

Anderson added that the Hornets plan to take a similar by-committee approach to a starting lineup that could feature anywhere from four to six new players each game.

Shenandoah returns three starters in the infield, including junior first baseman Luke Nussman, a first-team All-ODAC selection last season who batted .411 with a home run and 29 RBIs in 38 games. Junior Tristan Baker, a career .334 hitter and a 2017 second team all-conference pick, enters his third season as SU’s starting second baseman, and Anderson said Robbie Marcelle will retain the starting shortstop job after vaulting into that role over the latter third of last season.

Potomac State transfer David Delawder will be Shenandoah’s starting third baseman, Anderson said, and senior Chase Smallwood, a Sherando High School graduate, will serve as the Hornets’ primary catcher.

Senior Nick Goode (34 RBIs in 2017), a James Wood grad, will start in right field this season, Anderson said. He added that freshman right-hander Henry Delavergne and sophomore lefty Michael Cruz will each play center based on matchups, and sophomore Grant Thompson will start in left.

Anderson said he expects junior Keegan Woolford, a Wake Tech transfer, to provide some power in the middle of the lineup, primarily as a designated hitter, once he recovers from a hamstring injury, and added that freshman James Papeika is “in the mix to get a lot of at-bats.”

The Hornets led the ODAC in RBIs (324) and runs scored (376) last season and ranked second in home runs (21) but lost three players – including slugger and two-time All-American Jake Loew – who combined for 129 RBIs last spring.

“This club, I don’t think we’re gonna have to rely on one or two guys to carry us,” said Anderson, whose team plays nine non-conference games before opening ODAC play with a doubleheader at Lynchburg on March 10. “I think we’ll play a lot of guys, try to get somebody hot. That’s what our approach is gonna be going into the year.”

Anderson added that while the dynamics of the team varies from year to year, Shenandoah once again boasts a strong senior class that has provided leadership on and off the field.

“We try to teach the ‘why’ first, the ‘how’ second, and our seniors have really assumed leadership,” Anderson said. “And they wanna carry on the tradition that the people before them have built. As a coach and a leader of the program, it makes you feel pretty good that guys buy in and they wanna try to maintain the status of the program.”