Woolford establishing himself as the next Shenandoah slugger

Shenandoah University's Keegan Woolford stands after sliding under Bridgewater's Michael Morgan during a second base steal attempt during their game on April 10. Woolford leads the ODAC with 57 RBIs in his first season with the Hornets. Rich Cooley/Daily

WINCHESTER – The expectations are high each season for Shenandoah University’s baseball team, and yet longtime head coach Kevin Anderson tries not to let them fall on the shoulders of the program’s newcomers. It wasn’t difficult for Keegan Woolford to figure out what his projected role would be with the Hornets in 2018, however.

The Hornets entered the season in need of a middle-of-the-order power threat after the graduation of two-time All-American Jake Loew, and Woolford – a transfer from Wake Technical Community College in Raleigh, North Carolina – figured to get a shot at being the next Shenandoah slugger this spring.

“I knew coming in that expectations were high,” Woolford, a Charlottesville native and 2015 graduate of William Monroe High School, said on Thursday afternoon. “I did my research and coach was telling me (about) the player that graduated ahead of me, Jake Loew, so I knew I had big shoes to fill. But I’m just here every day trying to get better with the guys, trying to do what I can to win ballgames.”

Woolford has done his part to help the Hornets (28-10) earn the fourth seed in the Old Dominion Athletic Conference tournament during which they’ll host No. 5 Hampden-Sydney in a first round, best-of-3 series beginning Saturday at Bridgeforth Field.

As Shenandoah heads into the postseason, the sophomore designated hitter leads the ODAC with 57 RBIs, and Woolford’s eight home runs trail only Randolph-Macon’s Joseph Tuzzolo (10).

Woolford was the single power threat for an SU offense that was otherwise lacking in that aspect through the first month of the season, and he was a key force in the Hornets’ 16-game winning streak, a midseason outbreak that saw Shenandoah average 13.4 runs per contest.

“He has the potential with one swing of the bat to change the score of the game,” Anderson said.

“I don’t want to say he saved us, but he’s been a big part of our offense.”

The frequency of Woolford’s run production has been impressive. The slugger – who bats left-handed – has recorded at least one RBI in 28 of his 35 games played this spring, and Woolford has 18 multi-RBI games. He’s 10 RBIs shy of tying the school’s single-season record.

Even as he slowed down over the last week of the regular season, Woolford was still driving in runs. He’s gone just 5-for-25 over the past six games but has homered in three of the last four, and he has nine RBIs over the past five contests.

Over the course of the season the left-hander is batting .359, has hit safely in 29 games and leads the Hornets in slugging (.649).

“I’m just not trying to do too much. At times you’ll see over-exaggerated swings when I’m trying to hit the ball on top of (Daniel Morgan Middle School) over there,” Woolford said, gesturing to the building situated beyond Bridgeforth’s right-field fence. “We really don’t need that. We just need (me) to get the foot down, let her loose, get the run in.”

Woolford’s power surge this spring has brought with it a high strikeout total as well, a problem he said plagued him during his first and only season at Wake Tech in 2016. He had 12 home runs and 37 RBIs in 52 games for the Eagles that season, but also struck out 39 times.

Woolford has struck out a team-high 32 times in 131 at-bats with Shenandoah this spring, and though he said he’s unhappy with that total, Anderson is far less concerned about his slugger’s strikeout rate if it means Woolford is driving the ball with power.

“We want him to get three swings in. It doesn’t do him any good to sit back and put it in play with two strikes, try to beat it out,” said Anderson, who noted Woolford has good pitch recognition and understands the strike zone. “We’ve really gone away from that with our power guys. We want him going up and getting three swings, trying to drive a ball in the gap for an extra-base hit or a home run, unless it’s situational hitting, unless it’s a team situation.”

Woolford’s hope, he said, is that he can eventually get back to spraying the ball around the field as he did during his high school career at William Monroe. An all-state catcher for the Green Dragons, Woolford delivered a walk-off single – a line drive the other way over the shortstop’s head, he recalled – to beat Chilhowie for the VHSL Group A-Division I state title during his freshman season in 2012.

The power arrived his sophomore year of high school, Woolford said, and with it came the penchant to “pull everything.” He added that he’s still trying to shake some of those power-hungry habits.

“I’ve refined it, yes, but I don’t know that I’ve mastered it to where I was in high school,” Woolford said of using the whole field, “which I would really love to get back to that because that’s when I’m at my best. I’m really locked in when I’m hitting the ball to left-center. If I can do that, we’ll be fine.”