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ODU baseball looks to bounce back with returning experience, ‘more connected team’

Last year, Old Dominion followed up back-to-back 40-win baseball seasons with a 32-23 campaign that saw the Monarchs go 15-15 in Sun Belt Conference play.

After ODU lost to rival James Madison on the first day of the 2023 Sun Belt Tournament, coach Chris Finwood was blunt in his assessment.

“I don’t think we played well at all in the second half of the season,” Finwood said in May. “… We didn’t have good leadership on this team. It wasn’t a team that I was super happy with really, from a makeup standpoint. Starting at the beginning of the year, we had a lot of issues we had to deal with, personalities I wasn’t in favor of. So we’ll get to dealing with that when we get back.”

This week, Finwood pointed out that ODU lost 10 games last season in the final frame or extra innings, saying that wasn’t a talent issue, but rather a “connective” issue.

Finwood and the Monarchs begin a new season Friday with a three-game series against George Washington at home. This season, Finwood said he’s already pleased with the changes the team has made.

“It’s a much more connected team and it appears that way now,” Finwood said. “So we intentionally went to work on that from the first day they got back. Good group of leaders so far. I think this team’s equipped to handle all the ups and downs of a college baseball season. They like each other, they root for each other, they’re good kids. So far, so good.”

Senior infielder Jake Ticer said the team has worked hard to implement a good culture, saying it’s the “most important thing” the Monarchs can do.

“We can have the best players in the world here on our team, the most talented individuals,” Ticer said. “But if we don’t connect and come together to be able to play for one of each other, it’s not going to work out.”

Old Dominion hit 100 home runs last year and became the first Division I team to hit the century mark in three straight seasons since the start of the BBCOR — baseball bat performance standard — era in 2011. This year, Finwood isn’t quite sure the Monarchs will replicate that power.

“(The team) doesn’t have as much raw power on paper, I don’t think,” Finwood said. “Maybe a little bit more athletic, a little bit more able to put balls in play, which we’ve worked hard on that aspect of it, which allows you to handle the better pitch and hopefully a little bit better.”

The Monarchs may have lost one of their best hitters in Hunter Fitz-Gerald to the Seattle Mariners via the draft, but five players who were in the top eight on the team in batting average all return this year, including infielder Kenny Levari, who had a career-high .312 average.

“I think what was working last year was just taking what I was getting,” Levari said. “Offensively not trying to do too much, take my singles when they were there and then try to do damage in damage counts. But going into this year, I’m not worried about me. I just want to have a good year, get back to a regional.”

Old Dominion returns similar levels of production on the mound, which is a bonus after weekend starter Sam Armstrong was drafted by the Chicago Cubs. The Monarchs are bringing back six of the top eight pitchers in innings pitched.

Sophomore Dylan Brown, who pitched 41 innings in 18 appearances last year, took a big jump in the offseason, Finwood said.

“I’m really excited for our pitching staff this year,” Brown said. “A lot of improvement out of the returning guys and a lot of new guys coming in that have really shown what they’re able to do throughout the fall and offseason.”

Junior Blake Morgan will also be returning to the rotation this season. Morgan’s sophomore campaign ended early after an ACL tear. Finwood said he expects the former Conference USA Freshman of the Year to be back in three weeks.

Old Dominion was picked to finish sixth in the Sun Belt’s preseason coaches poll. The Monarchs didn’t receive any all-conference nods, but three players — Ticer, infielder Kyle Edwards and pitcher Ben Moore — were named to the Perfect Game preseason All-Sun Belt team.

Levari joked that the preseason rankings “aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on” and is just excited to finally play a real game after a long offseason.

“It’s fun going against each other for a while, but I think Coach Finwood used the analogy of we’re like siblings locked in a house for too long right now,” Levari said. “So we’re ready to get up against someone else. We’re excited.”

Michael Sauls, (757) 803-5774, michael.sauls@virginiamedia.com