WINCHESTER – The outfield fence lining Bridgeforth Field highlights the success Shenandoah University’s baseball team has enjoyed in the Old Dominion Athletic Conference, with banners commemorating the four straight ODAC regular-season titles the Hornets won between 2014 and 2017 and their two conference tournament championships in 2015 and 2018.
Those banners are a regular reminder of the lofty expectations that are placed on SU’s program each season. This spring, the Hornets feel they aren’t living up to them.
Shenandoah is 20 games into the 2019 season – just over halfway through its 37-game regular season slate – and the Hornets are 13-7 overall and 6-5 in the ODAC, a mark that has them tied with Lynchburg for fifth place in the conference race with 11 league games remaining. It’s unfamiliar territory for SU, which has earned a spot in the NCAA Division III playoffs in nine of the past 10 seasons.
“It’s been a pretty frustrating season,” longtime Hornets head coach Kevin Anderson said after his team’s 4-0 non-conference win over Mount Aloysius on Thursday. “We came in with very high expectations and we’ve played good baseball, we’ve played great baseball and we’ve played bad baseball. … We’ve got some guys pressing, and I probably don’t help matters but I wanna see them do well, and a lot of them are upperclassmen. And again, this game is so mental. Sometimes the harder you try, the harder this game is. And our guys spend countless hours with (assistant coach Bruce) Cameron analyzing their swings, making adjustments. We really need to back off the technical strategies, including myself, and be more concerned about tactical strategies. Hopefully, we getting into a good optimal flow of performance by playing a lot of baseball now.”
The Hornets are hoping their recent string of success is a sign of better things to come over the season’s second half.
After getting swept in a doubleheader against ODAC co-leader Randolph-Macon on the road last weekend, Shenandoah has won three straight. Those victories include a conference road win over Washington and Lee (by a score of 8-6 on Wednesday) sandwiched between a pair of non-league wins at home over York College (Pennsylvania) and Mount Aloysius on Tuesday and Thursday.
Thursday’s win over the Mounties (19-5) was particularly encouraging for SU, as it represented one of the few times the Hornets have come close to putting together all three phases of the game together in one contest.
Freshman right-hander Mike Verzaleno was effective on the mound for the Hornets, tossing 6 ⅓ shutout innings while limiting Mount Aloysius to four hits and three walks. Sophomore lefty Cade Templeton was also sharp, tossing 2 ⅔ hitless innings to pick up the save.
Shenandoah backed that pitching effort with a handful of outstanding defensive plays, and the offense, though it got some assistance from a pair of costly Mountie errors, got some timely run-scoring at-bats from senior first baseman Luke Nussman and junior outfielder Keegan Woolford to add a pair of insurance runs in the sixth and seventh innings.
“I think we’re starting to click a little bit,” said Hornets second baseman Tristan Baker, a four-year starter. “Especially today, our pitching definitely kind of helped the offense out and I feel like that’s something we’ve kind of been able to do (this week), like when our offense is struggling our defense will help us out, when our pitching is struggling our offense will help them out. I feel like we’re kind of picking each other up more than we had been earlier in the season.”
If the Hornets are going to get hot, now would be the time to do it. Shenandoah hosts Lynchburg in a doubleheader on Saturday afternoon in what figures to be a pivotal meeting between the two squads as they look to try to hunt down ODAC frontrunners Randolph-Macon (9-2 in ODAC), Roanoke (9-2), Virginia Wesleyan (8-3) and Ferrum (9-4).
Nussman said the Hornets vs. Hornets matchup this weekend is “unbelievably” important for Shenandoah.
“Every game is big from where we’re at from now on, for the rest of the season,” said Nussman, adding that the Hornets are “not pleased” with their performance in conference play to this point.
“We know we have work to do but we know the rest of the schedule and who we have ahead of us, and we’ll take it a game at a time and try to collect some wins here in the last part of the season.”
If there’s any consolation to be had, Shenandoah has already played the top three teams that top the ODAC standings. Four of the Hornets five conference losses came to those teams, as they split doubleheaders against Virginia Wesleyan and Roanoke earlier this year before getting swept by Randolph-Macon.
SU has four conference games left against teams with winning records in the ODAC, two each against Lynchburg and Ferrum (on April 13). The other seven remaining games include single contests against Bridgewater (3-8 in ODAC), Eastern Mennonite – which is 5-7 in the conference but beat SU, 8-4, on March 16 – and Washington and Lee (5-9) and doubleheaders against Hampden-Sydney (5-6) and Guilford (4-7).
Baker and senior shortstop Robbie Marcelle both said there is some pressure that comes with trying to uphold the winning tradition SU has enjoyed in the ODAC – the Hornets haven’t lost more than seven conference games in a season since joining the ODAC in 2013 – but Shenandoah has some experience in must-win situations.
Shenandoah entered the conference tournament as the fourth seed last season and likely needed to win the championship to earn a spot in the NCAA regional field. The Hornets responded by going 5-0 in the tournament to win its second ODAC crown.
“We’re in a tough spot,” Baker said. “It’s not where we wanted to be but we’ve also faced really good competition in the ODAC. but I think if we get hot, like we’re playing pretty well right now, I think we’ll be able to turn it around. We could run the table and who knows, we could be on top when it all comes to an end.”