WINCHESTER – The stakes are familiar for Shenandoah University’s baseball team this weekend.
For the second straight season, the Hornets enter the opening weekend of the Old Dominion Athletic Conference tournament feeling like their NCAA Division III playoff lives depend on their performance over the next two weekends.
SU (26-11 overall) enters this weekend’s best-of-three series at home against No. 6 Hampden-Sydney as the third seed in the eight-team conference tournament after going 13-9 in ODAC play this spring. A series victory means a trip to Salem for next weekend’s four-team, double elimination round that will crown the 2019 ODAC tournament champ.
The Hornets, winners of seven straight, have made the NCAA regional round in each of the past five seasons, and extending that streak very well could require SU to defend its ODAC tournament crown and earn the automatic playoff bid that comes with the feat.
“Our region is packed with Top 20 teams,” Hornets head coach Kevin Anderson said on Wednesday, “so our mindset is that we’ve gotta win the tournament to get to regionals.”
The Hornets had that same mentality last season when they entered the conference tournament as the fourth seed and went unbeaten in five games to claim their second ODAC title. That run, like a similar run this season would need to, began with a home series win over Hampden-Sydney on the first weekend.
“The confidence factor, definitely,” Hornets junior outfielder Keegan Woolford said of the benefits of having run the table to earn a playoff spot just last season. “We’ve done it before, so you know you can do it again. A little different situation; we were the four seed last year, we’re a little higher this year, and I think that since we know that we can do it, and other teams know that we can do it, I think we’re on the watch list for a lot of people to come out on top again.”
Shenandoah and Hampden-Sydney (17-17-1, 11-10-1 ODAC) split a doubleheader in Winchester on April 20, a meeting that ended with 57 combined runs and 66 hits in two games. The Tigers won Game 1 of that double dip, 20-6, with SU bouncing back for a 17-14 win in the nightcap, the first victory in the Hornets’ current win streak.
Hampden-Sydney, the ODAC’s leader in team RBIs, roughed up SU pitching for 37 hits and seven home runs in those two contests. Tigers second baseman Chase Counts (.383, 7 home runs, 29 RBIs) and third baseman Ryan Clawson (team-high 33 RBIs), hit four and two homers, respectively, against the Hornets, and combined for 15 RBIs.
Shenandoah senior left-hander Robert Klinchock – who will start Game 1 on Saturday, likely against Tigers right-hander Chase Mayberry, who is seventh in the ODAC with a 3.49 ERA – allowed six earned runs on 12 hits in six innings pitched in the Hornets’ regular-season loss to Hampden-Sydney. SU’s No. 2 starter, junior right-hander Reeves Lowry, allowed four earned runs on five hits over six innings in the second game on April 20.
“For the staff, it’s just about competing every pitch, just giving each pitch your all,” Klinchock, who is 5-4 with a 5.04 ERA this season, said, “because for me, this is my last season. I can’t afford to leave anything behind. I know what it’s gonna take this weekend to get it done. I know what it’s gonna take next weekend to get it done. I’m gonna use my experience for the young guys that really haven’t had that experience before. It’s all about finding a way to get it done at the end of the day.”
Anderson said it will take a complete effort to get past Hampden-Sydney and ultimately win a second straight ODAC tournament title. That means Shenandoah’s offense will need to continue the hot spell that lasted for most of the last month.
In 20 April games, the Hornets averaged 8.5 runs per contest and hit 21 home runs after tallying six homers through the first 17 games of the season.
Woolford, the conference leader in home runs (11) and RBIs (46), has wielded one of the hottest bats in the ODAC of late, blasting nine homers and driving in 26 runs over the last 14 games. Senior second baseman Tristan Baker (3 homers, 32 RBIs this season) also batted .415 in April.
“It’s been really nice to see some hard-hit balls throughout the lineup, one through nine,” Woolford said. “The coaches put in a lot of hard work with us, getting on top, going the other way, just doing what we do at the plate.”
Shenandoah’s offensive outburst has meant plenty of run support for a pitching staff that carries a team ERA of 5.63 into the ODAC tournament.
Hornet starters have gone deep into ballgames of late. Klinchock and Lowry each tossed complete games in two wins over Guilford last weekend, a sweep that SU needed in order to lock up a home series in the first weekend of the ODAC tournament. Freshman right-hander Carson Kulina (5-0, 3.79 ERA) followed that by throwing 8 ⅔ innings in a non-conference win over Susquehanna on Monday.
Gerard DePhillips, SU’s junior closer, also has 10 saves this season.
“We’ve been put in games where we have to win, we have to perform, and I feel like our guys have done that,” Klinchock said. “Gerard’s been huge. Reeves has been huge. We’ve had guys that have, when their name’s called, they’ve come in and got it done. I’m not really worried about our guys being unprepared, because I know they’re gonna be ready to go.”
In the other ODAC tournament matchups during the first weekend, No. 1 Randolph-Macon hosts No. 8 Eastern Mennonite, No. 2 Roanoke hosts No. 7 Lynchburg and No. 4 Virginia Wesleyan hosts No. 5 Ferrum.
“When you get like this everybody’s batting average is .000; win-loss percentage is .000. It’s very short and as a coach, you can’t get too pumped up,” Anderson said. “That’s gotta come from within each player. I’m anxious to see how our guys respond. A lot of them have been there before. But we’re gonna need some big-time performances, gotta execute. I know our guys are gonna give a tremendous effort, and we’re gonna need all three of those (phases) because the ODAC, any one of the eight teams that are in this can win it.”