Roster sheets and lineup cards are as necessary as seat cushions and blankets for a trip to local college baseball diamonds this spring. Old Dominion, William and Mary, and Christopher Newport underwent extreme makeovers, including coaches and players, with the aim of becoming, or remaining, competitive.
ODU's second-year coach, Chris Finwood, has 21 new players after a last-place finish in the Colonial Athletic Association and a 19-34 overall record.
William and Mary replaced head coach Frank Leoni after missing the CAA tournament for the fourth consecutive year, replacing him with assistant and pitching coach Jamie Pinzino.
CNU lost seven of eight starting position players from a team that went to the Division III national championship tournament. But several transfers and a promising freshman class have the Captains again ranked in the top 10.
"They're a good, hard-working bunch," Finwood said. "Our overall athleticism is much improved, our overall energy, enthusiasm for the game, work ethic, all those things are much improved. We're to the point now where it's time to play some games and see where we are. We've gotten the proper amount of work in and guys are excited to get going."
ODU and the Tribe begin their seasons Friday — the Monarchs host future Conference USA rival Marshall to begin a three-game series, while W&M travels to Clemson for a three-game set. CNU opened last week, and the Captains (6-0) already have played USA South Conference games and host league foe Maryville in a Saturday doubleheader and single game Sunday.
Finwood, a Hampton native who came to ODU from Western Kentucky, was blunt about the Monarchs' needs. ODU finished last in hitting and in runs scored in the CAA, was ninth in pitching and eighth in fielding.
"Everything," Finwood said. "Our statistics were terrible last year, across the board. We had to address everything. Athleticism was the first part of that equation. That at least gives you a chance, and that's where getting some junior college kids right off the bat helps you."
Junior college teammates Jordan Negrini and Tyler Urps, from Yavapai in Arizona, are penciled in at third base and shortstop, respectively, and should be an upgrade from last season.
Ryan Yarbrough is a 6-6 lefthander from Florida, by way of Santa Fe JC. Andy Roberts is a 6-4 lefty from Arizona who started the junior college national championship game last season for Iowa Western. Righthander Brad Gero is a sidearm, submarine-style pitcher from Florida.
They'll join with opening day starter Dean Ali (8-1, 4.64 ERA) and projected closer Brandon Smith to help shore up the pitching staff.
Finwood also saw significant improvement from holdovers Joey Burney (Gloucester), outfielder Josh Eldredge, catcher Michael Perez and outfielder Ben Verlander, the younger brother of Cy Young winner and former ODU ace Justin Verlander.
Meshing personalities and building chemistry was just as important as acquiring talent, Finwood said, when assembling so many new players.
"It's been a great group," Finwood said. "I think that's where you make your money as a coach. That's our job is, one, to recruit the kinds of personalities that we think are going to fit what we want, and two, then really work hard.
"I'm really proud of the returning guys accepting all the new guys. The personalities of all the new guys we brought in, I think made it easier. We haven't had any issues. Part of that is the message you deliver as a coach, what's expected and what you won't stand for. Everybody's got the same goal in mind, so let's go get it."
Pinzino understands transition, coming to W&M last season to work with the pitchers. He was head coach for six years at Bryant University in Smithfield, R.I., where his teams won 162 games and he helped the program elevate from Division II to Division I.
"There's always going to be some transition with a new staff because there are some things you do differently," Pinzino said. "A big piece is having been here and knowing the guys a little bit better, so you can start to develop relationships with players. That piece of it has sped up a little bit.
"Knowing the pitchers and having spent every day with them last season makes for a little less uncertainty. A lot of those guys know me and know how I am and what I expect, and I understand them a little better, so we're closer to being on the same page."
Pinzino oversaw a pitching staff that comfortably led the CAA in earned run average (3.01) — UNCW was next at 3.61 — and was in the top 10 nationally in fewest walks. The Tribe lost front-line arms Matt Davenport, Jay McCarthy and Cole Shain and must re-tool behind a staff led by Brett Koehler, Matt Wainman and closer John Farrell, who logged eight saves last season.
"The numbers we put up last year will be tough to match," Pinzino said. "We might not have the numbers we had a year ago, but we could be more effective overall, if we're better mid-week and more consistent deeper in the rotation."
Pinzino aims to build a program that relies on pitching and defense. Toward that end, one priority is improving a defense that ranked ninth in the CAA last season. He juggled the infield, moving Ryan Lindemuth from third base to second, Kevin Nutter from second to first, and Michael Katz from first to third.
W&M was in the middle of the CAA in team batting (.284) and runs, but Pinzino said, "We made strides through the season, but we scored runs against average pitching and struggled against quality pitching."
He said that the Tribe is better equipped to be more effective on offense this year, with both returnees and newcomers. Lindemuth, an All-CAA preseason pick, led W&M in batting (.376), hits (80), total bases (120), slugging (.563) and on-base percentage (.458).
"He's our best player," Pinzino said. "He's not only a great player, he's the kind of kid you want in your program."
Nutter (.321), Katz (.316) and Ryan Brown (.302) hit over .300 last season. Pinzino expects a lift from Willie Shaw, a junior college transfer from California, as well as several returnees and other newcomers.
Despite its losses, CNU has designs on returning to the NCAA tournament because of several transfers. The Captains added former Menchville star Austin Chrismon, who played two years at East Carolina, ex-Woodside standout Brett Mays, who transferred from Marshall, Adam Emerson (Lafayette) from Shenandoah and junior Justin Weaver, who helped Mt. Olive to the Division II World Series.
"Our pitching will give us a chance to win every game," coach John Harvell said. "I felt real comfortable with the pitching we already had. But with Chrismon, Mays, Emerson and the freshman, Brandon Taylor, I feel that much more comfortable. All those guys have played big-time baseball and have the ability to hit the strike zone."
They enhance a staff that also has Bryan Bierlein, Nick Santalucia, Matt Verdillo, Ryan Fleischmann and Richard Lindsay.
With junior shortstop Billy Steel the only returning everyday position player, Harvell is using the early season to juggle lineups. He has started as many as five freshmen twice.
"I think we're still a long ways away," Harvell said, pointing out that the Captains nearly squandered a 10-strikeout performance by Bierlein by leaving 11 men on base in a 2-1 win against Ferrum.
"With us being so young, I'm more inclined to use different players," Harvell said. "Once I find out who's going to be consistent, I'll probably go with a more set lineup. I tell the guys, I'm waiting for somebody to take it."
The Captains don't possess the power of last year's team, either, dictating a "small ball" offensive approach.
"We're a situational type team," Harvell said. "Get 'em on, get 'em over, get 'em in. We have to hit-and-run, sacrifice. That's our strength right now."
Regardless of shortcomings or growing pains, the Captains' goal remains the same.
"We want to win the national championship," Harvell said. "Thirteen years ago, when I got the job, I couldn't have said that realistically. But after three trips to the World Series and six or seven to the (NCAA) regionals, that's our goal every year. We're not satisfied just competing in the conference or in the region. We want to win it all."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun