For Old Dominion's players, the signal that this was a different sort of team and season occurred in late March, when the Monarchs won two of three at CAA favorite James Madison and established themselves as a contender.
For Nate Goulet, who has deftly juggled injuries, lineups, personalities and his own battlefield promotion in his first season as head coach, the indication came earlier. Opening day, in fact.
Old Dominion came from behind to defeat Saint Joseph's 7-5, scoring five runs in the seventh and eighth innings and getting shutout relief before several hundred fans at Bud Metheny Stadium on an unseasonably warm mid-February afternoon.
In the happy aftermath, Monarchs' reliever Joe Haumacher said to Goulet: "Last year's team loses this game."
Goulet said he thought about it and recalled: "It was such an emotional day for me: opening day; my first college win; being nervous before the game. But he was probably right. In my mind, we kind of leapfrogged the way we would have reacted in the past."
The Monarchs (24-21, 16-8 CAA) have spent the past 10 weeks confounding outsiders. Picked to finish seventh in the CAA, they lead the league by one game over JMU and UNC Wilmington and two over Towson heading into this weekend's final home series against the Seahawks.
ODU is 10th of 11 teams in batting, sixth in pitching, eighth in fielding. Only one regular, Josh Wright, is hitting above .300.
Yet the Monarchs have won their last seven conference series. Notably, they won two of three at JMU and at Georgia State, picked to finish 1-2 in the conference, and swept Delaware in Newark last weekend.
"We've got a lot of confidence in each other," said Wright, a junior who leads the Monarchs in nearly every offensive category. "We know we can beat the top teams in the conference if we come out and play our brand of baseball."
The Monarchs' brand of baseball includes solid pitching and timely hitting. Absent a lot of big bats, they often play for one run at a time — bunting, sacrificing, moving baserunners ahead, playing hit-and-run. Plus, chemistry and confidence are powerful, if intangible, ingredients.
"It's definitely hard to prepare for us, because if you look at our statistics, we don't really stand out in any area," said outfielder Shawn Sizemore, a redshirt sophomore from Menchville. "This is the most tightly-knit team I've ever been on. We've been able to overcome a lot of adversity, and we're having a lot of fun."
Team chemistry and the fun factor begin with Goulet and his staff. The 37-year-old Boston native inherited the big desk last August when Jerry Meyers abruptly left to return to defending NCAA champ South Carolina as pitching coach.
ODU athletic director Wood Selig decided to promote Goulet and make him the interim head coach, rather than attempt a national search so close to the start of the school year.
"He welcomed the chance to be a head coach, regardless of the conditions," Selig said. "We indicated that this would be a good chance to audition and at least put himself in position for other opportunities at the conclusion of the year, no matter how it played out."
Goulet set aside personal ambitions and attempted to change the vibe within a program that had losing records the past three years.
"We're a lot more loose than we have been, and people enjoy coming to the park," said first baseman Chris Baker, a redshirt junior from Chesapeake. "We were a little more straight-edge under Coach Meyers. I didn't have a problem with that approach, but some of the other guys played tight and were afraid to make mistakes.
"Guys have started playing more relaxed and aren't worried about making mistakes, and usually when you play that way, you end up making fewer mistakes."
One of Goulet's most successful moves was hiring Tim Lavigne as pitching coach. A Virginia Beach native, he was a former standout at Virginia who played 11 seasons in the minors and had served as a volunteer assistant at several area high schools.
Lavigne has mentored a Monarchs' pitching staff that was riddled with injuries heading into the season. But weekend starters Kyle Hald, Ben Tomchick and Phil McCarthy have been effective. Freshman Dean Ali has provided quality middle relief, and senior Adam Wisniewski has recorded a dozen saves.
"He's been awesome," Goulet said of Lavigne. "That's one of the best decisions I've made as head coach."
The Monarchs also have benefited from facilities upgrades and improvements at Metheny Stadium that have enhanced their experience.
The school has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on things such as new lockers, an updated players' lounge area, bigger dugouts, a "batter's eye," oversized dark screen beyond center field, extra signage and netting that helps protect fans seated along both baselines. There's also a picnic area — Rally Alley — behind the first-base dugout that has helped draw fans.
"Dr. Selig has done a great job of putting money into the program," Sizemore said. "It makes the guys feel like the support's there from the university. And it's nice to see him at the games, so you know he's interested."
Regardless of how the season ends, players would like to see Goulet have the "interim" tag removed from his title and get the gig full-time. They feel that he deserves it and that the program is heading in the right direction.
Selig and Goulet said that they haven't even had a discussion about performance and criteria for the job. That's for a later date.
Goulet doesn't talk about his status with the players, nor do they mention it to him.
"At the end of the day, it's about the players," Goulet said. "I want them to do well on the field, to have fun, to do well in their classes, to prepare themselves for life beyond baseball. I'm just taking it day-to-day. I've stressed to our guys all season to control the things that you can control and don't worry about the things you can't, and we've done a pretty good job of that."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun