Shortstop Justin Rodriguez (left), outfielder Joe Hall and pitcher Austin Marzullo were named to the College Division all-state team by Virginia’s sports information directors late last week. Players on non-Division I teams were eligible. (Photos by James De Boer)

Making Royals baseball history: trio named to All-State team

Three’s company, and when it comes to Eastern Mennonite University’s all-state baseball selections, it’s also historic.

A scrappy sophomore with a reliable bat was a key piece of that puzzle.

Outfielder Joe Hall – a 5-foot-9, 170-pound Rustburg High School graduate – led the Old Dominion Athletic Conference in hitting at .423 (47-for-111) and was one of three Royals named to the College Division all-state team by Virginia’s sports information directors late last week.

Senior shortstop Justin Rodriguez joined Hall on the first team, and senior relief pitcher Austin Marzullo made the second team. Players on non-Division I teams were eligible.

EMU had never had three VaSID all-state selections in the same season before.

“I’m not surprised all three of these guys were named all-state after the years they had for us,” third-year EMU coach Ben Spotts said. “I think each of them had different paths to this point.”

But in terms of Hall’s path…

‘A role guy’ to much more

“To go from the start of his year this year as sort of a role guy, to a guy you couldn’t get out of the lineup to all-state first-team, it’s a big surprise,” Spotts said.

Hall was a part of Spotts’ first recruiting class and impressed people with how quickly he was able to contribute. After being brought in as a raw athlete, Hall hit .318 in 19 games (10 starts) as a freshman. Then, he surprised himself on March 3 in his first start in right field, throwing out two Mount Union runners – one at second base and one at home plate – during the RussMatt Central Florida Invitational in Winter Haven, Fla.

“I felt like I knew I had the arm for it, but at that time I didn’t know where it would go,” Hall recalled. “I honestly didn’t know where it would go.”

Spotts envisioned Hall as a backup shortstop entering this year and expected him to become a key player as a junior and senior. However, one look at Hall’s speed during an impromptu relay race last winter was all Spotts needed to speed up the process of getting Hall onto the field.

“He always had the tools. It was just a matter if it could translate over,” Spotts said. “He never played outfield. We made him an outfielder. … It just became a matter where we couldn’t wait another year.”

Getting Hall into the lineup paid immediate dividends as the All-ODAC first-team outfielder averaged 1.52 hits per game and finished with a .492 on-base percentage this spring. Spotts credited Hall’s competitiveness and simplified approach at the plate for his strong batting average.

“His bat certainly gets him recognition, but if you watch him, [he’s got a big arm in the outfield],” Spotts said. “Heck, we put him on the mound because he competes so much.”

As a closer, Hall didn’t allow a run in seven innings of work with eight strikeouts, giving up just two hits (both singles) and four walks. But clearly it was his speed that initially separated Hall, who Spotts lauded for his ability to drag bunt, push bunt and hit the ball the other way.

“Even when he was a freshman, I was facing him in the fall and he got an infield single off me,” Marzullo said of Hall, who batted second behind fellow sophomore Griffin Stanley. “The way he hustles around the bases and just how hard he plays in the field, it was obvious he was going to make an impact on the program. … He plays harder than anyone I’ve ever seen.”

Spotts said it’s still uncertain whether Hall will inherit Rodriguez’s role at shortstop – a place where Rodriguez “gave us calmness” for three years – or continue to man the outfield. Hall, for one, wasn’t too concerned where he’d play next season, whether it is outfield, shortstop or third base.

“I don’t feel like where I play in the field will affect my hitting any,” he said.

Marzullo tough to replace

As for Marzullo, a durable right-hander who led the Royals with 15 appearances? Finding a replacement to match his role might not be as easy.

“We’ll be searching for someone,” Spotts said. “It was good to know if our starter gave us five or six innings, we could turn it over to Austin. We’re certainly going to miss him because I’ve always said your pitching sets the tone.”

The 6-foot-5 Marzullo (2-2, 2.76 ERA) was a first-team All-ODAC selection who had four saves in 32 2/3 innings for EMU after being initially disappointed that he wouldn’t be in the starting rotation. After struggling with command issues as a spot starter and reliever in past seasons, Marzullo said he changed his mentality on the mound.

“The first thing, I just had more confidence in my pitches, to be able to throw them across the plate at any time and trust that they will work,” Marzullo said. “It was also a focus pitch-by-pitch rather than results.”

Marzullo went 1-0 with two saves over EMU’s final six conference games.

Program on the rise

Rodriguez and Marzullo are two of nine graduating seniors for the Royals, including former Riverheads High School standout Kyle Armstrong [see editor’s note] and former Stonewall Jackson star Ryan Henschel.

“I’m excited to see how it ended for those guys, guys that finished on a high note and got our program to where it hasn’t been in a long time,” Spotts said.

The Royals (16-18 overall, 10-10 in the ODAC) tied a program record for conference wins and snapped a 12-year playoff drought by securing a spot in the six-team ODAC tournament this spring.

Courtesy of the Daily News Record, June 23, 2015

Editor’s Note: Kyle Armstrong, listed in the original article as a graduating senior, has one more season of eligibility.