Shenandoah set to open revamped ODAC tournament this weekend against H-SC

Shenandoah University first baseman Luke Nussman (4) touches gloves with pitcher Colin Morse during a game earlier this season. The Hornets host Hampden-Sydney in a best-of-3 series in the first round of the ODAC tournament on Saturday and Sunday. Photo courtesy of Shenandoah University

The upcoming Old Dominion Athletic Conference baseball tournament will have a different feel for Shenandoah University, and for a couple reasons.

Firstly, the 2018 edition of the tournament – which begins on Friday – will be the first since 2013 that the Hornets won’t enter the mix as the conference’s top seed after finishing in fourth place in the latest regular-season race.

To add even more variation to the mix, the ODAC tournament has undergone a makeover. No longer a six-team, double-elimination format held over a single weekend, this year’s tournament has been expanded to eight teams and is spread over two weekends.

The opening round, held on Friday, Saturday and Sunday on the home fields of the top four seeds, features four best-of-3 series pitting 1 vs. 8, 2 vs. 7, 3 vs. 6 and 4 vs. 5. The winner of each then proceeds to a four-team, double-elimination round at Lynchburg’s City Stadium on May 11-13.

Shenandoah, the fourth seed in the tournament, hosts No. 5 Hampden-Sydney in the first-round, best-of-3 series beginning at 3 p.m. Saturday. Game two – and an if-necessary third contest – against the Tigers will take place on Sunday, eliminating some of the mystery that came with the old format.

“This is my first time going through it, just like our players,” Hornets head coach Kevin Anderson said on Wednesday evening. “We know we have Hampden-Sydney. They know us. We know them. Our top guys have pitched against them. Their top guys have pitched against us. Oftentimes in a tournament, sometimes you would be facing a guy you haven’t seen or throwing a pitcher that every team hasn’t seen. That’s not the case this time.”

Whether that familiarity helps or hurts the Hornets (28-10, 14-6 in the ODAC) will be decided this weekend, but the teams’ first meeting in Hampden-Sydney on April 14 fell heavily in Shenandoah’s favor.

The Hornets, at the time closing out an impressive 16-game win streak that vaulted SU into the top half of the conference standings, blasted the Tigers by a combined score of 37-7 in a doubleheader sweep in that initial matchup.

Anderson said SU ace Colin Morse (5-3, 3.21 ERA, 68 strikeouts in 61 2/3 innings this season) will start the ODAC tournament opener against the Tigers on Saturday afternoon. The senior right-hander held Hampden-Sydney to a pair of unearned runs on six hits, five walks and nine strikeouts over six innings in a 26-2 win on April 14.

Anderson added that Robert Klinchock and Michael Bugonowicz are in line to pitch games two and three this weekend. Both pitched against the Tigers in an 11-5 win over two weeks ago.

Hampden-Sydney right-handers Jimmy Butler and Chase Mayberry (3.98 ERA in 2018) each started against Shenandoah in the teams’ first meeting, though neither made it through the third inning. The Hornets smashed a total of 44 hits off 11 Tiger pitchers between those two contests.

“I don’t think we can replicate that, quite frankly,” said Anderson, whose team has lost four of its last six games. “Everything we did was right and everything they did was wrong. We’ve been on both of ends of that stick – anybody that’s been in baseball has. We have a lot of respect for Hampden-Sydney. They’re very well coached. They’re extremely talented. When you’re in a tournament like this, you come in 0-0. Regular season records don’t mean a thing.”

In the rest of the ODAC tournament field, top-seeded Randolph-Macon hosts No. 8 Bridgewater, No. 2 Virginia Wesleyan hosts No. 7 Guilford and No. 3 Roanoke hosts No. 6 Lynchburg.

Hampden-Sydney brings a losing record (17-19) into the ODAC tournament, though the Tigers were 10-10 in conference play. The Tigers rank in the middle of the 11-team ODAC in team batting average (.299), runs scored (236), slugging percentage (.406) and team ERA (5.35).

Shenandoah ended the regular season sitting atop the ODAC in team batting average (.337), runs (350), RBIs (302) and doubles (101). Hornets sophomore designated hitter Keegan Woolford leads the ODAC with 57 RBIs, while junior first baseman Luke Nussman (37 RBIs) and sophomore outfielder Grant Thompson (36) also rank in the top 10 in the conference.

SU’s pitching staff ranks third in the ODAC in ERA (3.80).

Shenandoah has earned a spot in the NCAA Division III regional round eight times in the last nine seasons, including four straight years. Whether SU can extend that streak rests on its performance in the ODAC tournament.

The ODAC tournament champ receives an automatic bid into the NCAA field, and an ODAC team has earned one of the NCAA playoff’s 14 Pool C (at-large) bids in six of the past seven seasons. Shenandoah received an at-large bid in 2014, 2016 and 2017 after finishing as the conference’s regular-season champ in each of those years.

“Our third set of ten games was the best that we’ve played this year,” said Anderson, noting that the key to postseason success would depend on SU’s team-wide consistency. “We were 10-0. Our ERA was in the twos. We hit close to .400. Unfortunately our last set we went 4-4. We need to get back playing like we did in that third set of 10, putting three phases together. I like our chances but two out of three (phases) won’t get it done.”