NORFOLK – (ODU Sports, by Harry Minium)
Old Dominion University baseball coach Chris Finwood begins every day by reading his players a quotation from a famous writer or historic figure. The Monarchs often draw a life lesson, and hopefully, inspiration, from his daily reading.
However, on Sunday, when ODU hosted Charlotte in the last game of the biggest home series of the season, it was the players who gave Finwood a lesson in just how much they care about him.
Finwood’s wife, Annette, passed away last month, and her memorial ceremony was Sunday, at the Norfolk Botanical Garden.
“She liked to go to the botanical garden and walk the dogs,” Finwood said. “It was a pretty morning. A lot of family members flew back in for that. It was really a beautiful memorial.
“Unfortunately, I had to leave it a little bit early just to get here.”
He missed a heart-felt presentation by ODU student Alexis Conrad, daughter of head ODU groundskeeper Mike Conrad, at the memorial service that left many in tears. Although he was also close with the Finwoods, Mike Conrad missed the entire services because it’s his job to make sure ODU’s baseball field is immaculate.
Even though he left early, Finwood’s Monarchs took pre-game batting practice without him for the first time in his 10 years at ODU. He did not arrive until shortly before game time.
Many of his players were on their cell phones before and during BP, texting their head coach.
“The kids picked me up today,” he said. “They were sending me texts last night and all morning.
“They were saying, ‘don’t worry about it coach’ and ‘we’ve got you today.’ “
“That meant a lot to me,” he added, his voice cracking with emotion. “They mean a lot to me.”
They not only took care of their coach, but they also took care of business. The Monarchs shellacked then No. 15-ranked Charlotte, 10-0, in a game shortened to seven innings because of the 10-run rule.
ODU won three of four games against the 49ers over a weekend that came pretty close to solidifying the Monarchs’ place in the NCAA tournament.
ODU jumped from 18th to 14th in the NCAA RPI, which the NCAA tournament committee will rely on for awarding postseason bids. ODU jumped from 25th to 22nd in the NCAA Top 25.
At 31-11, ODU has the 11th-best record among the nation’s 293 Division I teams.
Moreover, the Monarchs got some national attention. Two of the nation’s premiere baseball publications sent writers to Norfolk for the Charlotte series – Joe Healy of Baseball America and Aaron Fitt of D1 Baseball. Both wrote glowingly of both the Monarchs and 49ers and that will get the attention of the NCAA tournament committee, Finwood said.
“It’s been a while since the baseball magazines have been here,” Finwood said.
“They got to watch our team play and they’ve been writing nice things about us. No matter what you say, the people on the committee read that stuff. It always helps.”
You would think that the impressive way ODU finished off the series will also help. The Monarchs outscored Charlotte, 24-2, in the final two games.
Yes, ODU’s hot bats were cranking, but you don’t win without good pitching, and Monarch pitchers were outstanding.
Hunter Gregory (6-1) pitched all seven innings in a 14-2 win on Saturday in the second of a doubleheader and did not give up an earned run. Ryne Moore (5-1) tossed a complete game Sunday, scattering four hits and striking out seven.
Senior outfielder Kyle Battle is playing his best baseball since he came to ODU. He was 7-for-11 from the plate against Charlotte and had three home runs and a triple.
The Monarchs got three home runs in the final game against Charlotte, from Brock Gagliardi, Tommy Bell and freshman Carter Trice, who drove a long home run to end the game in the bottom of the seventh.
ODU had dropped three of four games at Charlotte a weekend earlier.
“That’s a real good ballclub over there,” Finwood said, motioning toward the Charlotte bench. “They put it on us pretty good last weekend.
“I couldn’t be prouder of our guys, because we said we’re going to stick our chins in there and own it. We were going to play better. We got them at home. Let’s accept that challenge. And we did.
“The last two games, I’m not sure I’ve seen an ODU team play much better than that. All the way, from pitching to defense to big hits. To beat them 24-2 over the last two games is pretty special. I couldn’t be prouder of the guys. They came out here to play. They were a bunch of ballplayers this weekend.”
ODU has ten regular-season games to go – four at Texas-San Antonio this weekend, four home games against Western Kentucky May 14-16 and then two games at Louisiana Tech May 20-21. The Monarchs will remain in Ruston, La., after that series to prepare for the Conference USA tournament, being hosted by La Tech beginning May 26.
Finwood said the Conference USA tournament will be the most competitive he’s competed in since ODU joined the league in 2013. Four C-USA teams – No. 20 Southern Miss, No. 22 ODU, No. 23 Charlotte and No. 24 La Tech – are ranked in the NCAA’s Top 25 by D1Baseball.com.
Those four teams are ranked among the top 19 in the NCAA RPI ratings, with Charlotte highest at No. 11. Conference USA has more teams in the RPI Top 25 than the ACC, Pac-12 and Big Ten and is tied with the Big 12 with four teams. The SEC leads with seven.
Charlotte had won 17 of 19 games heading into the eight-game series with ODU, including a 4-1 victory at North Carolina last week. The 49ers also have an impressive, 9-0, victory over Tennessee, now ranked 7th nationally.
This is Robert Woodard’s first full season as Charlotte’s coach and he’s been impressive on the bench as he was on the mound when he played at UNC. Woodard was 34-5 in Chapel Hill, and finished with the most victories in Tar Heel history.
He also showed this weekend that he has a big heart. He agreed to move the game time back to 3 p.m. even, though it meant a later arrival time back in Charlotte Sunday night, so that Finwood could attend his wife’s memorial ceremony.
“I really appreciate that,” Finwood said. “Charlotte’s coaching staff and their whole team, they’re a class act.”
As he was leaving the field, Woodard looked at me – I was wearing a “Hudson Blue” ODU shirt – and said “you’all have a great team.”
All I could think to say was, “thanks coach.”
ODU is planning to honor Annette during the home series with Western Kentucky, where Finwood coached before coming to ODU.
I don’t want to give too much away about the memorial service, but I can say that Rick French, ODU’s associate athletic director for operations, and his staff are planning to dedicate a purple bench in the Rally Alley portion of the Bud Metheny Baseball Complex in Annette’s honor.
Purple is the color chosen to honor pancreatic cancer victims.
“It’s going to be a nice memorial bench in Rally Alley, which I thought was perfect, because that’s where she loved to be,” Finwood said.
“It will be something very nice for people to see and remember her by. There is a great picture of her standing on a picnic table with her arms crossed. I know she was yelling at the umpire and I know that look.
“That’s the way people need to remember her.”