Mark down the evening of Feb. 22 as the moment that William and Mary baseball coach Frank Leoni thought that this team might be different, or more specifically, the two hours when he thought that.
The Tribe squandered late leads twice to Virginia in Charlottesville, falling 6-5 in 11 innings. Though the Cavaliers are a notch below last year's College World Series team, they are still a major presence and a target for programs such as William and Mary.
As such, the ride back to Williamsburg was quiet as a tomb.
"It was the first time in my time here at William and Mary that that bus was silent on the way home," said Leoni, in his seventh season with the Tribe. "And it wasn't because everyone was being told that this is how you have to act. People were legitimately upset with themselves that we let it slip away. That was a great sign for me.
"I remember thinking on the ride home from the stadium: this really matters to them; they really took this hard. That's a good sign that they're not going to let this go very easily."
The Tribe players' reaction, followed by a tooth-and-nail three-game sweep at the hands of No. 1-ranked Florida in Gainesville, signaled that desire and confidence wouldn't be issues this season.
"They believed they were going to win every one of those games," Leoni said. "That's a testament to them. The coaches try to instill that in players every year, but they really feel like they're going to win every game. I think it proved to them that the feeling they have is legitimate, and they can bring that forward every game."
The Tribe (15-7) won 13 of its past 15 games since the Florida sweep, before Wednesday's game against Norfolk State. Stout pitching and timely hitting offset periodic defensive adventures during the present run, which includes the Tribe's first ever three-game sweep of James Madison in Harrisonburg last weekend.
Seniors Matt Davenport and Jay McCarthy (York) lead a deep pitching staff with a CAA-best 2.12 earned run average — miles ahead of UNC Wilmington's second-best 3.85 ERA.
Davenport (4-0) has been practically untouchable, with a 1.03 ERA, 32 strikeouts and four walks. Opponents are batting just .148 against McCarthy, 3-1 with a 1.44 ERA. Lefty Matt Wainman (2-2, 2.40 ERA) has been effective, and junior closer John Farrell (1.88 ERA) has five saves in 10 appearances, including a pair of dominant outings against JMU.
The Tribe leads the CAA in fewest runs allowed (62), fewest earned runs (45) and fewest walks (40). Seven different pitchers have started games, and 13 different hurlers have made at least two appearances.
"It speaks to the depth on our staff and the by-product is creating this internal competition," Leoni said, "where guys are trying to out-perform one another in a friendly competition-type setting, which is really helping out a lot."
Leoni credited new pitching coach Jamie Pinzino with providing a fresh perspective to the pitchers, as well as prompting a dialogue for game strategy and player moves. Pinzino came to W&M after a year at Northeastern, where three pitchers were selected in the 2011 Major League draft, and he previously was a head coach at Bryant.
"He really challenges me to think through things before I've made decisions," Leoni said, "which I haven't always had in the past."
W&M has done all of this largely without preseason All-CAA pitcher Brett Koehler and John Sheehan. Koehler just returned after fracturing the tip of the index finger on his pitching hand in his first outing, while Sheehan is coming back after Tommy John surgery. As those two get stronger, they should make a good staff even better.
"We certainly thought coming into the season, as we have the last few years," Leoni said, "that if we were going to be competitive, we'd have to pitch and pitch well. I'd be lying to you if I said I expected us to have this kind of performance."
Offensively, the Tribe has delivered quality over quantity thus far. W&M is ninth in the CAA in team batting (.261), but leads in runs (131).
"We're doing a good job of taking advantage of freebies," Leoni said. "Walks, hit batsmen, we're stealing some bases, we're hitting behind runners."
Sophomore Ryan Lindemuth leads with a .341 batting average, 11 steals and 19 RBI. Tadd Bower (.328) and Ryan Brown (.303, 27 runs) also are batting above .300. The Tribe leads the CAA in walks, hit batters and sacrifice flies.
Though it's still early, Leoni is encouraged by his pitching staff thus far and by what he believes the team can do offensively as the weather warms.
"We haven't outslugged anybody yet," he said. "We haven't had to. But it's college baseball. It's coming. We feel like we're going to continue to grow as an offensive team."
Friday: at George Mason, 3
Saturday: at George Mason, 2
Sunday: at George Mason, 1
Tuesday: at Richmond, 3Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun