WINCHESTER – Shenandoah University senior second baseman Tristan Baker says the Hornets simply keep finding ways to get it done, whether it’s getting the timely hit or the “lights out” pitching needed in high-pressure situations.
For the second season in a row, the Hornets entered the Old Dominion Athletic Conference tournament needing to win the title – and grab the automatic NCAA Division III playoff bid that comes with it – to earn a spot in the NCAA regional round. Twice in a row, SU has achieved that feat, the latest setting up a trip to Kean University in Union, New Jersey, for a four-team regional this weekend.
Shenandoah will make its sixth straight NCAA playoff appearance when it opens with Kean at 4:30 p.m. Friday at Jim Hynes Field.
“We try to have the same approach, really,” Baker said on Tuesday afternoon of shifting gears to NCAA playoff mode, something he and the rest of SU seniors have done four times now in their college careers. “We break the game down into thirds. We want to get the lead, get up by a certain amount of runs. That’s always our goal, but when you get to regionals it is a little bit different. You advance and the teams just keep getting better. It’s something that we’ve seen before. The senior group has been there before, it’s always good to have experience against that kind of competition. I think we’re ready for it. I think there are probably teams there that are worried about playing us, so we’ll see what we can do.”
Shenandoah (31-12) has played like a team to be feared for the last month and a half. The Hornets are 21-5 since the start of April and have won 12 of their last 13 games, including a 5-1 record in the ODAC tournament that ended with SU’s 5-4 win over No. 1 Randolph-Macon in a winner-takes-all contest Saturday evening.
The Hornets are averaging 7.1 runs per game and are batting .308 as a team since April 2, and over the last 10 games are allowing just 3.2 runs per contest.
“They always say get hot at the right time,” said senior first baseman Luke Nussman, one of six Hornets batting .304 or better this spring. “I think we’re doing that. I don’t think it’s luck by any means. Just making adjustments throughout the year kind of put us in the position to get this hot streak to end the season.”
In the Kean Regional, which also features top seed Ithaca (31-7) and No. 4 Westfield State (22-14), the third-seeded Hornets first draw the host school to start the double-elimination tournament.
Kean (29-14), a member of the New Jersey Athletic Conference (NJAC), tied Rowan with a 14-4 conference record in the regular season and was the second seed in the NJAC tournament. The Cougars were ousted from their conference tournament after three games.
Kean enters the regional round batting .303 as a team and averaging 6.8 runs per game. The Cougars also rank second in the NJAC in stolen bases (83) and have a team ERA of 3.54.
Kean, which won the NCAA Division III World Series in 2007 and is making its first postseason appearance in three years, made the playoffs 11 straight seasons from 2006 to 2016 and appeared in five World Series in that span.
“I expect a lot of energy out of them,” Hornets junior outfielder Grant Thompson said. “Just like us, they know how big this game is to win and I know Kean is a program that’s been there before, so getting ahead early will be crucial.”
Junior outfielder/pitcher Frank LoGiudice is a two-way standout for the Cougars and leads the team with a .361 batting average (to go along with 34 RBIs and 11 steals) and a 7-2 record with a 2.63 ERA on the mound. LoGiudice, a lefty, is one of two Cougars to make 11 starts on the mound this spring, joining right-hander Tyler Hopman, who sports a 2.80 ERA.
Pitcher/first baseman Zachary Marzano is batting .354 and leads Kean in home runs (four) and RBIs (37), and four Cougars are batting .344 or better this season.
“They’re built around pitching, defense and speed, speed, speed,” Hornets head coach Kevin Anderson said. “They apply pressure via the drag bunt, push bunt, hit-and-run. A couple guys in the middle of the order that can really hurt you. They have seven guys, for example, in the lineup that are right at 10 stolen bases or above, five guys that have more walks than strikeouts. They play all nine innings and play hard.”
Shenandoah will turn to senior left-hander Robert Klinchock on the mound on Friday afternoon. Klinchock has dazzled in his last three starts, going the distance in all three and posting back-to-back complete-game shutouts in the ODAC tournament, which was spread out over two weekends.
The lefty has not allowed a run in the last 20 ⅔ innings.
“He’s really the story of our team right now,” said Baker, who has had quite a run himself at the plate and carries a 21-game hitting streak into Friday, during which he’s batting .477. “It’s been crazy to watch him. He struggled at the beginning of the season but I’m very confident he can go out there and he can shut down any team in the country right now. He’s just on that level and it’s been great to watch. I have all the confidence in the world that he’ll go out there on Friday and he’ll be able to get us a win.”
Baker added that the Hornets are hoping for another shot at Ithaca, which knocked Shenandoah out of the regional round last season. Ithaca, the Empire 8 champ, is averaging 7.5 runs per game while boasting a team ERA of 3.19.
Ithaca takes on Westfield State, the champ of the Massachusetts State Collegiate Athletic Conference (MASCAC), in the opening game of the Kean Regional on Friday.
Shenandoah has not advanced out of the regional round since making back-to-back World Series appearances in 2009 and 2010. The playoff format this season is different, with super regionals being added to the Division III postseason for the first time.
The winner of the Kean Regional, which concludes Sunday, will take on the winner of the Johns Hopkins Regional – which includes The College of New Jersey (TCNJ), Susquehanna and Farmingdale State – in a best-of-three super regional series next weekend.
“Definitely lock in pitch to pitch,” Nussman said of the key to advancing out of the regional round. “The situation changes in regionals pitch to pitch. I remember my freshmen year when we were starting regionals, one of the seniors told me, he just looked me dead in the eyes like ‘lock-in.’ It’s a completely different world. The game speeds up a little bit, even more than the conference tournament. The competition’s a little higher. So just making sure every guy is locked in pitch to pitch, understanding a goal, whether you’re playing or not. Just making sure everyone’s locked in.”