WINCHESTER — Frankie Ritter approached the 2019 college baseball season the same as many freshmen likely often do.
Ritter, a former standout on the diamond for Sherando High School, arrived at Shenandoah University last fall hoping to see some playing time come spring but primarily wanted to use the 2019 season as an opportunity to learn from veteran infielders like shortstop Robbie Marcelle and second baseman Tristan Baker.
Billed by Hornets head coach Kevin Anderson as SU’s shortstop of the future, Ritter has suddenly become Shenandoah’s third baseman of the present and a sparkplug at the top of the batting order.
After seeing sparse action in Shenandoah’s first 21 games — he appeared in eight contests during that span, primarily as a late-game substitute — Ritter was thrust into a starting role as part of a lineup shakeup on April 6. His performance has made him a lineup mainstay as SU heads into a weekend home series against Hampden-Sydney in the first round of the Old Dominion Athletic Conference tournament on Saturday.
“It’s just learning off the older guys. They helped me a lot coming in in the fall, and in the spring they really helped me. It’s just basically learning off of them and then I got my shot,” Ritter said on Wednesday.
“It was just like make the most of the time that you have playing, just use everything the older guys taught me to play.”
Ritter has thrived since getting the start at third base in the nightcap of a doubleheader against Lynchburg on April 6. He hit ninth in that contest, going 1-for-3 with an RBI in a 3-2 win.
Ritter hit atop the lineup the next day and notched three hits while scoring twice in a 13-4 win over Penn State-Harrisburg, the first in a three-game stretch during which the freshman went a combined 8-for-17 with nine runs scored.
“We needed a spark at the top of the order,” Anderson said of an SU lineup that was lacking its usual thump through the first half of the season. “Frankie was splitting time as a utility guy on varsity, getting a lot of playing time on developmental. We put him in the lineup a few weeks ago and he’s played an outstanding third base for us defensively. He’s been getting on base a lot. He’s been a key to a lot of our success.”
It’s not a coincidence that Ritter’s insertion into the lineup coincided with the Hornets’ resurgence at the plate.
The power stroke of Keegan Woolford — whose 11 home runs and 46 RBIs led the ODAC in the regular season — certainly helped create a more potent Shenandoah offense, but the one-two punch of Ritter and Baker ahead of Shenandoah’s sluggers has been setting the table.
Ritter is batting .348 (23-for-66) with five doubles, a triple, six RBIs and 24 runs scored this season, and he’s scored at least one run in 12 of his last 14 starts. He also sports a .449 on-base percentage this spring.
“Frankie’s been good for us,” said Woolford, who had 35 RBIs in April. “Coach put him in the leadoff spot and he gets on a lot. Either he hits the ball around the yard, or he walks or gets hit by pitches. Somehow he gets on, he does whatever he does, and then the guys behind him have just been driving him in.”
Ritter’s shot at regular playing time has meant getting acclimated to an unfamiliar position. Ritter, a three-year starting shortstop at Sherando, last played third base about two summers ago, he said, and he hadn’t taken many reps at the hot corner before taking over as the starting third baseman at the start of April, according to Anderson.
In 15 games played at third base, Ritter has committed four errors in 41 total chances.
“He’s a baseball player. We try not to give him a lot to think about and just let him go out there and play,” Anderson said. “He has good reactions, good feet, good arm. And again, I’ve seen him play since he was 9 years old and he is the epitome of a baseball player.”
Ritter, a three-time All-Northwestern District/Conference 21 West selection and a 2017 All-Region 4A West first-teamer in high school, said his confidence level was “50-50” as to whether he thought he’d be able to step in and produce the way he has in his first season of college ball.
“I mean it’s college, there’s a big diifference, so I didn’t know how it was gonna be,” Ritter said. “After playing a few games, it was just like it’s baseball, so just keep playing.”
Whether Ritter will get the chance to continue building on his strong freshman season depends on Shenandoah’s performance in the ODAC tournament.
The Hornets likely need to win the eight-team conference tournament — which continues in Salem next weekend with a double-elimination format featuring the four winners of this weekend’s best-of-three series — to make their sixth straight appearance in the NCAA Division III regional playoffs.
“We shuffled our lineup around a little bit trying to find the right combination and hopefully our guys are getting hot at the right time,” Anderson said. “That’s all you can ask for as a coach. There’s eight teams now that have an 0-0 record. The way our tournament and the regionals are set up, we’ve gotta play good for five weekends. If you play good on a weekend, you get to play the next weekend. And if you play good that weekend you get to play the next weekend, and then the next weekend, and then you go to the World Series. So it’s can we play outstanding baseball for five weekends?”