Shenandoah focused on playoff future in second weekend of ODAC tournament

Shenandoah University pitcher Michael Bugonowicz has a mound meeting with catcher Chase Smallwood during their April game against Bridgewater. The Hornets continue play in the ODAC tournament against Randolph-Macon on Friday in Lynchburg. Rich Cooley/Daily

WINCHESTER – Shenandoah University’s baseball team has made a habit of reaching the NCAA Division III playoffs in recent years. Earning a spot in the regional round for the ninth time in the past 10 seasons will require a championship-level performance in the upcoming second weekend of the Old Dominion Athletic Conference tournament.

The Hornets, the fourth seed in this year’s conference tournament, very likely need to hoist the championship trophy – a feat that guarantees a playoff bid – on Sunday afternoon to earn a spot in the NCAA regional field.

Shenandoah, the ODAC’s regular season champ in each of the four seasons prior to 2018, has won the conference’s tournament title once (in 2015) since joining the league in 2013. The Hornets’ quest for No. 2 starts with a game against top-seeded Randolph-Macon at 4 p.m. Friday, the first contest in the four-team, double-elimination bracket scheduled for Friday, Saturday and Sunday at Lynchburg’s City Stadium.

“We’re kind of going in there thinking it’s win or go home,” Hornets senior catcher Chase Smallwood said on Wednesday afternoon. “We all know what’s at stake. If we wanna get to that World Series like we’ve had in mind from the beginning of the year, we’ve gotta win this weekend. We didn’t go in being the number one team for the first time in four years. We don’t have an at-large bid right now. We have to win the conference tournament in order to get to the regional tournament.”

To earn that ODAC tournament title, Shenandoah would have to win, at minimum, three games in three days on a field that also includes second-seeded Virginia Wesleyan and No. 3 Roanoke.

Friday’s matchup between Shenandoah (31-10) and Randolph-Macon (31-5-1) will feature the ODAC’s top two offenses.

The Hornets – who swept their best-of-3 series against Hampden-Sydney last weekend to reach the tournament’s final four – enter the contest leading the conference in team batting average (.333), and they rank second in runs per game (9.1) and slugging percentage (.472) and third in home runs (27). R-MC, meanwhile, is the ODAC’s leader in homers (48), slugging (.513) and runs per game (9.8) and trails only Shenandoah in team batting average (.300).

In the teams’ regular season meeting – a doubleheader in Winchester on April 21 – Shenandoah fell victim to the Yellow Jackets’ powerful offense. R-MC swept both games by scores of 18-2 and 8-4, mashing 30 hits and six home runs in the two contests.

Slugging senior first baseman Joseph Tuzzolo – the ODAC leader in home runs (11) – went deep twice for R-MC and had six RBIs in those two games against SU, while Michael Nickles belted three homers and drove in six.

The Yellow Jackets – who also rank second in the ODAC in team ERA (3.52) – put up 17 runs in each of their two wins over No. 8 Bridgewater in the first round of the tournament last weekend.

“They can make a scoreboard look like a pinball machine,” said Shenandoah head coach Kevin Anderson, whose team has won four straight games after losing four of five late in the regular season. “They’ve got power. They run the bases well. They pitch well. They really don’t have any weaknesses. That makes you play – I don’t wanna say error free, but you better be on point or it can be a long day for you.”

Depending on the outcome of Friday’s contest, Shenandoah will play either Virginia Wesleyan or Roanoke on Saturday. The tournament champion will be determined on Sunday, with two teams being eliminated on Saturday.

The Hornets, who finished the regular season 14-6 in conference play, went 1-5 against the other three teams left in the ODAC tournament, which began last weekend with four best-of-3 series featuring the league’s top eight teams.

Shenandoah’s lone win against the ODAC’s top three this season came against Virginia Wesleyan, a 7-5 victory in game two of a doubleheader that marked the end of regular season conference play on April 28. The Hornets were outscored by a combined total of 59-26 in their six games against R-MC, Virginia Wesleyan and Roanoke.

Though it’d be very difficult for Shenandoah to make the NCAA regional field without winning the ODAC tournament, Anderson said failing to win the conference title wouldn’t necessarily mean an end to the Hornets’ season. Recipients of the NCAA’s 16 Pool C (at-large) bids will hinge on how many top seeds across the country win their respective conference tournament titles, he added.

In the latest regional rankings released last Thursday on D3baseball.com, Shenandoah was absent from a nine-team list in the South Region that included Randolph-Macon (No. 1), Virginia Wesleyan (4) and Roanoke (9).

“I think all four teams are capable of winning a region and going to the World Series. That’s how good the ODAC is,” Anderson said. “I think that if we do two-and-barbecue, we probably won’t go. But if we can get down there, make a good showing, get to the championship game. Of course our goal is to win it, but that would get us to 33, 34 wins. I think it would be very difficult to keep a team out of the NCAA regional with 33 or 34 wins.”