NORFOLK, Va. – As the 2022 Old Dominion baseball team gathered for its last team meeting at Bud Metheny Ballpark Tuesday morning, the players all walked past a poster hanging on the 43rd Street side of the stadium that, whether they know it or not, will in part define the great legacy they leave behind.
Pictured on the poster is a rendering of how a proposed, $20 million makeover of The Bud will transform the facility into a first-class, comfortable place for ODU to play baseball and for fans to watch.
And had it not been for the success ODU experienced last season, there would be no stadium proposal.
CLICK HERE for story and video about $20 million baseball stadium renovation
To refresh your memory, last spring the Monarchs were tabbed a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in the program’s 90-year history. Problem was, the Bud doesn’t have the modern facilities necessary to host an NCAA Regional.
Although state of the art when it was constructed in 1983, it has had few upgrades since.
So, ODU was forced to play in Columbia, South Carolina, where the Monarchs beat South Carolina on its own field before eventually losing to Virginia, 4-3, in the final.
Even before the Monarchs arrived in Columbia, a movement had already begun among ODU donors and alumni to fix the Bud. Publicity surrounding a No. 1 team not being able to host the NCAA Tournament galvanized the community in a big way.
The University quickly authorized athletics to hire a consultant, which has come up with a smart plan to add comfortable seats, suites, a club area, coaches offices and a first-class locker room.
“That stadium proposal would not exist had it not been for the season we had last year,” coach Chris Finwood said. “I told our seniors that none of that happens without them.
“I also told them that what they did this season added momentum to our fundraising. We’ve made a lot of progress and hope to be able to announce some really nice gifts in the near future.
“I’ve told them all that when it happens, it’s going on everyone’s shoulders. You put the program on your shoulders and got this done.”
They did so much more, of course. In 2018, when ODU’s fifth-year seniors were freshmen, ODU had numerous injuries and finished 15-37, Finwood’s worst record ever.
ODU then finished 35-21 in 2019 and high hopes of going to the NCAA Tournament in 2020. ODU was off to a 12-4 start, including a three-game sweep of Rutgers, when the pandemic forced the NCAA to shut down all tournaments.
Since the Monarchs returned last spring, they have won 85 games and lost 43. They won 40 or more games in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 1986.
Finwood gathered his players for the meeting Tuesday morning, the day after the Monarchs were snubbed by the NCAA Tournament committee. He allowed all of the seniors to speak.
In spite of a 41-17 record, an RPI of 40, a sweep of two games against 8th-seeded East Carolina and a road record of 16-4 – one of the best in the country – ODU did not make the tournament.
ODU’s record is almost identical to the one the Monarchs had when they were a No. 1 seed.
ODU was 22-13 in the nation’s fifth-best conference while teams from other leagues, including Ole Miss, had losing records in their conferences.
Yet Finwood said his message to his players was that, despite not making the tournament, they will long be remembered.
“I couldn’t be prouder of them,” Finwood said. “What a legacy that group of seniors left here.
“They’ve got their picture up on the wall from last year. But they’re going to be remembered by ODU baseball people for a long, long time. I mean, 85 wins the last two years, my gosh, that’s fantastic.
“I love them and I’m proud of them. I told them, ‘thank you again for bringing me along for this ride.’
“I always think if you have your eyes and ears open, you can learn a lot more from your kids than you teach them.”
Afterwards, the players gathered for one last meal together at Hank’s Filling Station, a very cool eatery on Colley Avenue. The meal was sponsored by a donor who asked to remain anonymous.
Talk about cool moments – designated hitter Robbie Petracci approached Finwood before the food arrived, saying the Peninsula Pilots baseball team needed him to be at War Memorial Stadium by 2 p.m. It was 12:30. He wanted to play that evening.
“Can I leave now?” he said.
“Of course,” Finwood said, adding. “That’s the life of a baseball player, passing up a meal to go play a game.”
Second baseman Chris Dengler along with outfielders Lincoln Ransom and Thomas Wheeler will all play for the Pilots.
The Pilots have a great organization and have good promotions and affordable prices, so if you’ve got a free evening, go check out the four Monarchs.
Senior Leadership Was a Key
Like E.F. Hutton, assistant coach Logan Robbins doesn’t often speak to ODU’s players, but when he does, they listen.
ODU was coming off a disappointing weekend – the Monarchs lost two of three games at home against UTSA – and was preparing for a huge game at the University of Virginia when Robbins decided he needed to have a few words with the team’s seniors.
He recalled the conversation he had with them two months ago while eating barbecue and cole slaw at Hank’s.
“I told them, ‘I don’t usually talk to you guys a lot. Finny does a great job of that,'” he said.
But then he went on to tell the seniors that he was upset at how the underclassmen played, and essentially went through the motions, against UTSA.
“I told them, ‘I don’t think they were valuing the lessons they were getting from the older guys. And that’s not going to work in this program. But this is on you. You guys need to bring those younger guys with you. And right now, you’re not doing that.'”
ODU won that night, 9-2, and went on to win 19 of its last 28 games.
Prior to ODU’s Senior Day game against Marshall, he spoke again to the seniors.
“When I think about that senior group, it’s the gold standard,” he said. “You guys are the ones who set the standard for what we’re trying to accomplish every year. Thank you. You helped us win a lot of games and you’re going to help us build a stadium. You helped put our name on the map where it belongs now.
“More than anything, you’ve made my job recruiting a lot easier. Because of your performance in the field, because of your performance in the classroom, because of your performance in the community, and the name you’ve made for our program. This senior class is the one everyone is going to try to live up to.”
ODU Made A Good Impression in Mississippi
I was walking to the Venture Tours bus Sunday morning in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, preparing for the nearly 15-hour ride back to Norfolk, when I was approached by Tina Crigger, the mother of Louisiana Tech ace reliever Kyle Crigger.
I was wearing an ODU shirt and I guess she figured I was a coach.
“I just want you to know that you have the nicest bunch of guys,” she said. “The Louisiana Tech players say they love playing against ODU because the players compete hard but always display good sportsmanship.
“I can’t say that about every team we’ve played. The guys, they just love ODU.”
Their sportsmanship was evident the night before, when the Monarchs took a 7-6 lead in the top of the ninth before LA Tech won on a game-winning single in the bottom of the ninth. The guys had given so much, they’d played so hard and with so much character.
LA Tech celebrated as if the Bulldogs had won the World Series, dog-piling on first base, right in front of the ODU bench. My eyes were on the Monarchs, many of whom were crying.
Yet minutes later, they lined up to exchange high fives, handshakes and hugs with the LA Tech players. I was feet away and teared up as I watched the spectacle. Under the circumstances, the last thing I’d want to do is shake my opponents’ hands, but it’s something they always do, win or lose.
Many onlookers at Southern Miss praised the Monarchs for how they comported themselves. And I found a Tweet that best summed up the impression ODU made.
Jared Pierce, a Southern Miss police officer, Tweeted a video of a player on the ODU bullpen playing catch with a young boy in the stands.
“Hey @ODUBaseball Thank you for visiting Hattiesburg this week! I saw this tonight while you were playing @LATechBSB I was the officer in the stands. This is what baseball is about.”
Indeed it is.
Click here to view Tweet
Schedule Will Be Tougher in 2023
Finwood didn’t buy it when NCAA committee members said difficult out of conference schedules helped some teams from low-ranked leagues, such as Grand Canyon, make the field.
“We played in the fifth-best league in the country,” he said. “Your conference games should matter.
“I think they often say things like that to justify taking one team and leaving another out.”
Nonetheless, ODU’s schedule next season will be more difficult.
For beginners, ODU will play in the Sun Belt, and while that league was rated the nation’s sixth-best, it surely will move past Conference USA next season into fifth.
The league got four teams in the tournament. Coastal Carolina, Texas State and Georgia Southern, a No. 1 seed, all received at-large bids. Louisiana also won the Sun Belt tournament, tying the game in the ninth with a steal of home and winning on an RBI single.
The league gets better next season because Southern Miss, an NCAA tournament host, and ODU, a team that should be playing this week, join the Sun Belt. Essentially, that gives the Sun Belt five teams in the tournament and, as I said, one that should be playing.
Texas State, Coastal Carolina and Georgia Southern are all on ODU’s schedule next season.
Finwood has also beefed up the non-conference schedule. ODU will play Charlotte three times in the Queen City (the 49ers play three in Norfolk in 2024) and has added a home-and-home with Liberty, which is 31st in the RPI and earned an at-large bid. Both will help bolster ODU’s RPI.
ODU also continues to play VCU, East Carolina and Virginia home and home next season. ECU is an NCAA host and U.Va. is No. 22 in the NCAA RPI. VCU won the Atlantic 10 title.
Finwood said he admires Virginia’s program and the fact that Cavaliers’ coach Brian O’Connor continues to play the Monarchs home-and-home at a time when a lot of Power 5 schools are cutting back games against mid-major leagues.
“I have so much respect for coach O’Connor and the way he runs his program,” Finwood said. “I think it’s awesome that he respects the rivalry as much as he does. He does things the right way.”
He would also like to play Norfolk State, but as long as the RPI remains an issue, he simply can’t. The Spartans were ranked 289th out of 300 teams this season.
“Playing them is good for our fans and good for their fans and good for the city,” Finwood said. “Its frustrating that you can’t play somebody you would really like to play.”
As for the Sun Belt, Finwood said: “It’s already a pretty good league. Adding Southern Miss and ODU certainly makes it better.
“It cracks me up that the AAC and Conference USA look down on the Sun Belt. The proof is in the pudding. They got four teams in the tournament.”
Tommy Bell Gutted Things Out With Help From Krysia Witkowski
Shortstop Tommy Bell set a school record he never wanted to – he was hit by pitchers 51 times in his career.
Most of the time he was left with just bruises but a couple of times he got plunked in his knee, and as Finwood said, “essentially he played on one leg most of the season.”
After every game in Hattiesburg, Bell would limp off the field. I’d see him limping in the lobby of the Holiday Inn hotel where we were staying.
But every game, he toughed things out.
It helped that Finwood is dating Krysia Witkowski, a physical therapist who founded and runs Integrative Manual Therapy and Wellness in Norfolk.
Krysia flew to some games in which the Monarchs played, including at FIU and Western Kentucky. And while there, she worked on players pro bono.
“She did a lot of free labor,” Finwood said.
At WKU, she helped Coutney deal with wrist issues and Bell with persistent knee and back troubles.
After ODU defeated Charlotte to advance to the semifinals, she went to the Norfolk International Airport, bought a plane ticket and arrived at 1:30 in the morning on Saturday.
She worked on Bell’s back before both games against Louisiana Tech and without her care, Bell said he certainly would have been in more pain.
Bell was a long-term patient of Krysia’s.
“She was so great,” Bell said. “She started out working on my back. I have back issues that are generational, and she helped me get through the fall.
“Throughout the season, I would go back and she would readjust me and get me feeling good for that week.
“I wouldn’t be walking the way I am without her help. Her corrections, all the things she did to help me, helped me to play in more games that I would have without her.”
Performances of Note in C-USA Tournament
Had ODU won the C-USA Tournament, several ODU players could have been named the tournament MVP.
* Brock Gagliardi, the senior from Tacoma, Washington, had a career day on Saturday, when ODU defeated Louisiana Tech, 9-6, in 13 innings and then lost a heartbreaker, 8-7, in the bottom of the ninth.
Gagliardi caught all 22 innings, and in the nightcap, hit two home runs, including a two-run blast in the top of the ninth that gave ODU an 8-7 lead. He was 8-for-19 in the five games with three home runs and nine RBIs.
* Matt Coutney was 11-for-23 with two home runs and five RBIs and eight runs scored.
* Jason Hartline had an amazing performance, throwing seven innings of relief in three appearances in four days. He allowed just one run, struck out seven and won the 13-inning game. He pitched both Saturday morning and night.
* Andy Garriola was 6-for-25 but hit three home runs and had eight RBIs.
A couple of others stood out. Both Nick Pantos and Tommy Gertner started games, but then pitched in relief. Gertner started ODU’s victory on Saturday morning, then threw three innings in relief that night.
Ryan Teschko, who rarely played, got a two-run single for the Monarchs as a pinch-hitter.
Joey DeChiaro, Brad Dobzanski, Brett Smith and Vincent Bashara all made three pitching appearances out of the bullpen while Connor Muly, a relief pitcher, made his first career start.
Final Thoughts on NCAA Tournament Snub
I have to wonder what might have happened had ODU’s home game with Virginia in late April not been rained out and had the Monarchs won the game.
I also wonder what might have been had Rutgers not canceled a long-standing series with ODU last season. Three games against ODU might have lifted their RPI high enough to warrant an NCAA Tournament bid. And three games with Rutgers would also have lifted ODU’s.
Curiously, UTSA was not among the last four teams out. ODU joined N.C. State, Rutgers and Wofford on that list.
“As disappointed as we are, as upset as we are, I really feel bad for UTSA,” Finwood said.
“They beat Southern Miss twice on their own field. They made the finals of the tournament and lost in the bottom of the ninth.
“And they don’t even get mentioned among the first four out? That’s a travesty to me.”
Asked if the tournament selection process needs to be revamped, Finwood said “that’s simply not going to happen.
“When the NCAA allowed some of the bigger leagues to expand their tournaments and when conferences decided to let teams with losing records come in, I saw it coming. You know right away why they did that, to take away the stigma of not making the conference tournament.
“When I was at Auburn, if you didn’t make the top eight you couldn’t go to the conference tournament and it used to be if you had a losing record, you couldn’t go to the NCAA tournament. They took all of that away. It just shrinks the at-large possibilities for mid majors. It’s not going to get easier. It’s going to get harder.”
One decision that made no sense whatsoever was picking Grand Canyon over N.C. State and ODU.
The head of the committee said it was because Grand Canyon played with a strong non-conference schedule.
But Grand Canyon’s RPI was 50th (ODU’s was 40th) and there was a reason for that — Grand Canyon played in the Western Athletic Conference, the nation’s 19th-best league.
Tough league schedule or not, this should have been a no brainer. Grand Canyon’s metrics don’t measure up to ODU’s.
Grand Canyon was 11-11 against teams in the top 100. ODU was 19-15 against top 100 teams. Grand Canyon was 24-7 against teams in the bottom 150. ODU was 19-2.
ODU was 22-13 in the nation’s fifth-best league. Grand Canyon was 25-5 a league with eight of 13 teams ranked among the nation’s bottom 150. Only Grand Canyon was in the top 100.
New Mexico State wasn’t supposed to make the WAC Tournament but did so only because two teams in the standings above them were transitioning to Division I and weren’t eligible. New Mexico State won the tournament and heads into this week’s NCAA Tournament with a 23-32 record and a 229 RPI.
Monarchs Also Scored in the Classroom
The baseball team is traditionally among the best on campus academically and that was again the case in 2021-22. The Monarchs have a combined 3.15 GPA in the fall and a 3.18 in the spring.
The senior class, especially, had a great spring semester, including Brett Smith, a seventh-year senior and the first baseball player at ODU to be working on a Ph.D., who had a 3.9.
Garriola took five classes, a huge load for the spring season, and had a 3.5 GPA. Gagliardi, Bell, Hartline and catcher Jared Hancock, who graduated as a junior, all had a 4.0. Andrea Dalatri had a 3.9, as did Trey Fisher, Connor Muly, and Joey Rodriguez.
Kenny Levari had a 3.7 GPA.
“That’s a really, really bright group,” said Amy Lynch, the academic adviser for baseball. “Those guys all worked really, really hard.”
Both on the field and off.