For Josh Eldridge and many of his teammates, Old Dominion's baseball season felt a little different from the start, and not just due to the unusual competitive situation.
Because of the athletic program's impending move to Conference USA, the Monarchs were ineligible to compete in next week's Colonial Athletic Association tournament. With the chance for an automatic NCAA berth removed, ODU instead focused on earning an at-large berth.
Once it became apparent that the Monarchs' record wouldn't merit NCAA consideration, the motivation became micro rather than macro.
"It was definitely very weird," said Eldridge, the sophomore outfielder. "Not having the chance to play for postseason took some getting used to, but we made our own goals. Like, we still have a chance to reach 30 wins. … So we set our own small goals, since we can't achieve the huge goal at this point. We're looking to build some momentum for next year, so if we reach those small goals, it'll set a good foundation for next year."
Perhaps more important, however, was the vibe within the team. Better camaraderie contributed to the Monarchs' turnaround, from 19 wins and a last-place conference finish to 28 wins and a potential upper-half finish in an improved CAA.
"Even though we have people from all over — Hawaii, Arizona, California — we've come together so easily and I think that's helped us succeed on the field and off the field," Eldridge said. "We're always hanging out with each other. I think that's a big key to our success is how close we are."
Last season, he said, "We just weren't together. We didn't hang out with each other as much last year and that didn't help team chemistry, which is real important in baseball."
ODU (28-24) completed its conference schedule and has a pair of road games at Wofford on Friday and Saturday to conclude the season. The Monarchs finished 15-12 in the CAA and, depending on results this week, could land anywhere between third and fifth place in the league. They finished with more home wins (20) this season than overall wins a year ago.
"I think we've improved in everything, but we needed to," head coach Chris Finwood said.
Indeed, the Monarchs slogged through a 19-34 season in 2012, Finwood's first as head coach. ODU was last in the conference in hitting (.252) and outscored by 89 runs. The Monarchs' team ERA was ninth (5.72), and opponents hit .294 against them.
Finwood and his staff brought in a slew of players that made immediate impacts: junior college position standouts such as Jordan Negrini, Ben Slaton and Tyler Urps, as well as pitchers Brad Gero, Ryan Yarbrough and Andy Roberts; versatile freshmen such as P.J. Higgins and Connor Myers.
This season, ODU is hitting 26 points better (.278) and the team ERA improved by a whopping 1.67 to 4.05. The Monarchs are plus-31 in runs scored, and they've given up 92 fewer earned runs (207) than last season.
"It's been a marked improvement," Finwood said, "and probably the most exciting thing about it is that everybody who's been contributing and playing, there aren't any seniors."
Though junior outfielder Ben Verlander has received much of the publicity, due to his famous older brother and his own quantum leap in productivity — from a .250 hitter as a part-time player to a .367 average as an everyday performer — all of ODU's holdovers from last season were forced to step up their games.
"They're bringing in guys who will make each one of us better at each position," said Joey Burney, a junior from Gloucester. "You can't help but want to be better and want to buy into what the coaches are saying because it's right there on paper, it's right there in black and white. We are better this year because we listen to them and we're surrounded by guys who want to listen and want to buy into the program."
The Monarchs will continue to acquire talent as Finwood assembles a program built on pitching, defense and speed.
"Learning how to win is a process," he said and pointed out a 10-9, extra-inning loss at seventh-ranked Virginia last month. The Monarchs led 7-2 after five innings and 8-4 in the sixth.
"We had them beat, but we just couldn't finish it," Finwood said. "You have to learn how to do that. You can't learn how to do that unless you're in them first, and we wouldn't even have been in it against a team like that last year."
Finwood, a Hampton native and VMI grad, worked for ODU athletic director Wood Selig at Western Kentucky, where he routinely fielded competitive and NCAA-caliber teams. Selig was able to lure him to ODU with the promise of improved facilities and the chance to build a regional power.
Bud Metheny Field is in the midst of a makeover, and the administration is moving forward with plans for an indoor batting cage. Finwood and the players anticipate the move to Conference USA will provide competitive and recruiting benefits.
"We have such a young squad," Eldridge said. "We return a lot of guys. The biggest key is making sure the new guys gel and make sure everybody has the same vision and the same goal. We want to succeed in our new conference the same way we did leaving this conference, so the biggest goal is to have the new guys gel and the returning guys have good seasons and build on what we did this year. Pick up where we left off."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun