Scribbled in red marker in the middle of the diamond on the whiteboard in baseball head coach Gregg Ritchie’s office are the words, “Omaha,” and “Why not us?!”
The board is more than as a place to map out starting lineups and pitching rotations.
The real reference point is the handful of motivational phrases in the center of the diamond and what would be deep, deep center field. Attitude and effort are in home-run territory.
One of the youngest teams in the country got younger, but the team also got better, Ritchie said. GW’s opening game against NJIT on Saturday marks the beginning of a season with less to instill and more to mold, teach and do. Here’s a look at the pieces and how they’re coming together:
The pitching staff
The Colonials lack a true ace but have two gritty players at the top of their rotation: junior Bobby LeWarne and freshman Kevin Hodgson.
LeWarne finished with a 3.38 ERA last year, best on the team among starters and 12th in the Atlantic 10. He finished with a 2-5 record in 12 starts and totaled 57 strikeouts. This year, with the graduation of Aaron Weisberg, LeWarne is the go-to guy. He will get the ball on opening day.
Hodgson, the second starter, is a southpaw with stuff. He throws in the upper 80s and has a deceptive motion with what Ritchie calls a cross-fire action.
“He’s got that innate ability that says, ‘I don’t care. I’m going to find a way to do something good,'” Ritchie said.
The third starter is junior Jacob Williams. Last year, he had a team-high four wins in his 12 starts and finished with a 3.72 ERA. He’ll be followed by GW’s mid-week starter, freshman Robbie Metz, whose secondary role will be to come in and pitch on weekday games. His primary role will be starting at second base, though he is a natural shortstop, and batting second in the lineup.
Metz describes himself as a fastball, curveball guy with a change up that he’s working on. Metz doesn’t try to overpower hitters, but tries to get outs with ground balls or pop ups. Metz also dressed up as Bamm-Bamm from the Flintstones for the Colonials’ Halloween scrimmage.
As for the bullpen, GW has redshirt senior Craig LeJeune back at closer. LeJeune is ready to resume his role after going down with an elbow injury, which led to Tommy John surgery. Last year, he was named to the NCBWA Stopper of the Year Watch List.
Eleven months out of surgery and he’s back to throwing in the upper 80s, and Ritchie thinks he could get up to 90 on a consistent basis.
“You can expect the same Craig. Just go out there in the last inning and try to dominate and shut the guys down and get the win,” LeJeune said.
After last year’s offensive numbers came in at the bottom of the conference across the board, mental toughness at the plate will be key for the team, Ritchie said.
He’s starting off decisively. The lineup, Ritchie said, is “about as locked down as it’s ever been this early.”
Leading off and playing left field will be sophomore Joey Bartosic, one of GW’s two A-10 All-Rookie team selections, alongside sophomore Bobby Campbell.
Bartosic led off most of last year and can disrupt a pitcher with his ability to flick his wrists and put the ball in play. His speed can disrupt a defense, putting pressure on the players to make a good throw on a ball in play. Plus, he tallied 20 steals, tied for fifth best in the conference and did so at an 80 percent clip.
“He’s going to be that guy who’s that gnat. No matter what kind of spray you put on, no matter what kind of candle you hang up on the porch, no matter what kind of fly swatter you got going on, he’s somehow going to find your neck and he’s going to bite on it,” Ritchie said. “That’s who he is. And that’s how he plays.”
Metz will bat second and play second base. When he’s on the mound, the infield will swing around a bit but stay athletic.
Campbell will bat third and play first base this year. After playing at third most of last year, Ritchie is swinging him over to first for a more dynamic infield with three natural shortstops.
Batting fourth will be sophomore shortstop Kevin Mahala. With Mahala’s 6-foot-3, 190 pounds of long, lanky talent, Ritchie is ready to give perhaps his biggest project a big-time challenge – hitting clean up.
“Sometimes when you look at a guy with the skill level he has, you go, ‘Well, I don’t know if he’s ready for it.’ You almost have to go, ‘There. Go,'” Ritchie said. “And then you see what happens. His desire to be that guy ultimately helps. He wants to be that guy.”
Xepoleas will provide the protection for Mahala and patrol center field. Last season, one of Xepoleas’ goals was to hit .400. He finished at .337, tied with his teammate Beightol and good for 10th best in the conference. This year, the goal is .425.
The only spot not locked down is the designated hitter. Any number of players could fill that role, from senior Brookes Townsend to sophomores Colin Gibbons-Fly or Jon Steele, or even freshmen Matt Cosentino or Brandon Chapman.
Rounding out the bottom of the order are freshman Mark Osis, a 6-foot-1, 195-pound right fielder, the catcher, junior Matthieu Robert, and sophomore Eli Kashi.
Omaha is the goal, but before the College World Series, GW will have to play a regular season as still one of the youngest teams in the nation.
In an A-10 preseason poll, GW was ranked eighth, a point ahead of Fordham. The Colonials finished eighth last year, with a 12-15 record in conference play. This year, conference newcomer Davidson is expected to hold its ground and finish sixth.
No one is bringing up this poll, though. The Colonials expect to defend home turf when GW hosts the A-10 tournament this year.
“There’s definitely some pressure coming into it, knowing that last year we didn’t make the A-10 tournament, but this year we kind of have to. You can’t have the A-10 tournament at your place and not be in it,” Bartosic said. “But we’re confident that we’re going to do a good job this year.”
It’s been a shift in the team’s culture that has helped the players feel confident. Yes, there is the beard shtick. But Ritchie has seen more than just his team’s facial hair grow. The team matured quickly last year when six or seven freshmen started every game. Ritchie has been able to start implementing strategies and policies that he’s wanted to use since coming over from the Pittsburgh Pirates.
“The culture’s permeating. It’s soaking in,” Ritchie said. “You’re building your team off of culture. Never forget that. You’re always building off of culture, attitude and effort, joy, free spirit, go out there and play to the best of your ability and play the game the right way. No one can ever tell us because we’re relentlessly desiring to go to win and that’s it. No one can stop our process. And that’s how you got to go.”
It helps after last year’s freshmen had to grind through the tough times, finishing one conference win short of qualifying for the A-10 championship. It helps after the juniors and seniors on the team went through the rough patch in Ritchie’s first year when they started 0-9 before finding their rhythm and going on to the conference championship.
The talent level for the young players is high. Several of them are bound to get playing time, with a select few who will start in their first year. This year’s freshmen have bought in faster than any other group, Ritchie said, and freshmen like Osis said so, too.
“[Sophomore] Eddie Muhl, he told me if coach Ritchie told him to pitch with his left hand, he would agree because he knows coach Ritchie has the best ideas in mind for him,” Osis said. “Ever since I’ve heard Eddie say that, I’ve pretty much just bought into the system.”