By Chris Whitaker, The Americus Times-Recorder
Georgia Southwestern ended 2008 with the biggest win its short tenure in the Peach Belt Conference.
An 8-7, 14-inning victory over PBC champion Columbus State began what coach Bryan McLain said would be a testing off-season. Being able to build off that and turn around the program - which has won 15 conference games in two seasons - and reach the 8-team conference tournament would be the ultimate goal.
The Hurricanes (1-2 overall) open the the home portion of their 2009 season Friday at 5 p.m. against No. 25-ranked West Alabama.
"This is the time we felt like we've been talking about since back in the fall," said McLain. "It's here (the start of the season). Everybody's energy level has jumped up a little more."
GSW finished last season 17-34 overall and 7-20 in conference play. The Hurricanes were ninth in batting and last in pitching and fielding percentage. High expectations went awry when they dropped 10 of their first 12 games and all but one conference series.
McLain could only use the word disappointing to describe the circumstances.
"We just didn't come out to play to those expectations," he said. "For whatever reason, we just didn't do it. We had to put some guys in some awkward situations and that made it tougher. We battled throughout the season, and it's the fact that not once have I seen them give the impression of giving up or throwing in the towel or coasting to see the end of the season. They came out and put it on the line, put it out there, but unfortunately most of the time it wasn't enough."
GSW was one of the youngest teams in the conference last year, featuring at least 13 freshmen and sophomores. McLain said there's no substitute for the experience gained, but it could have also hurt the players' mindset coming up short most of the time.
"It's tough to go out day after day and game after game and not come up on the wining end of things more times than you don't," he said. "You worry a mindset develops that their not starting to find a way to lose, but don't look for a way to win. It's a maturing process they go through. They're understanding the challenges that lie ahead of us."
McLain's main focus in the offseason was getting more experience, and he brought in nine players, either from junior colleges or other NCAA universities. Headlining the group are Kevin Carroll, Chris Lingham and Zach Whitman who comes from Gloucester County College (N.J.), which played in the NJCAA Division III championship. Whitman was a First Team All-American, and Lingham was Second Team.
"We've gone out and gotten a lot of guys from very successful programs," said McLain. "These are nine new players who haven't experienced 17-34 the previous year. They bring in a fresh outlook on things. A combination of all those things is going to allow us to have the opportunities to accomplish our goals.
"The guys from New Jersey, they were playing on a championship level. It doesn't matter if you're playing in the PONY league, in high school, college or professional. There's a certain thing that a championship can do, and certainly the way they play. They have a certain confidence about themselves, and I've seen that spread among other guys on the team as we've one along."
GSW brings back five starters who started in at least 30 games, including senior Daniel Lynn and Francisco Gomez who started in 50 and 49 games, respectively. Lynn is the returning leader in batting average (.321), runs scored (46), hits (59), doubles (12) and triples (3). He also had a 17-game hitting streak.
McLain said after the two of them, along with Daniel Stokes, opponents didn't have a hard time figuring out what to do to stymie the offense.
"After them our consistency of hitters dwindled off; they toted the team," he said. "They ended up pitching Daniel and D.L. (Lynn) so hard, it showed at the end of the season. They were not getting to see pitches early on."
The Hurricanes do have three players back who had at least 10 multiple-hit games last year as well as three who had seven or more multiple-RBI games.
GSW, however, was last in the conference in sacrifices and stolen bases, but McLain sees those numbers changing. He said with having one of the bigger parks in the southeast (400 feet to straight away center) and the addition to several speed guys, he expects to see a lot of extra-base hits, and not necessarily home runs. He said it will be the first time in his five years as the head coach that he's going to give several players the green light to steal bases. Southwestern had 10 steals in the season-opening series at Montevallo.
"When you look at the potential lineups, we have six legitimate base-stealing threats at one time," said McLain. "Hopefully that will give us opportunities to keep from going into big slumps. When we struggle a bit, we can go with small-ball stuff with bunts and steal some bases. We want to be aggressive on balls in the dirt, and we want to take advantage of the big gaps out there, using our speed as we move along.
"We've developed a little more patience, but at the same time we don't want to be passive. We want to focus on being aggressive at the plate and take what the pitchers give us to keep pressure on people."
Three starting pitchers are back - Andrew Whiggum, R.M. Cozza and Austin Smith - as well as six other pitchers that include top relievers Bud Fuller and Brandon Reeder.
McLain sees Whitman, a lefty, entering the rotation as a starter with the fifth starter may be by committee. He said the bullpen last year was unpredictable, never knowing what would happen. The Hurricanes were, however, 13-3 when they led after six innings.
McLain believes Jody Sellars, another lefty, and Tyler Daniel can give them some valuable innings, but overall feels there's more depth on the mound.
"We're going to stay on pitch counts early on because we don't want to burn anybody out the first couple of weeks of the season," said McLain. "We've got some guys who can maneuver through and get the ball to at the end of the game - I don't think we'll be hesitant in making a move this year. Hopefully we'll have the opportunity to walk out and hand it to Bud and let him close the door for us."
As a freshman, Fuller put up astounding numbers. In 20 appearances and 31 innings of work - including five in the team's win against Columbus State - Fuller struck out 55 batters compared with eight walks.
"It's really an unbelievable thing to get into a groove like that at the end of the season," said McLain. "He did a tremendous job. The thing I've talked with Bud a lot this past fall was not getting caught up in the statistical things. I told him he could have an All-American career the next three years and never reach those kind of stats.
"He's a tireless worker. He's in the weight room all the time. He's on the field throwing - he's the epitome of what we're talking about, that kind of work ethic. He's worked hard on his breaking ball, it was kind of non-existent last year. He's done a lot of work to improve that to give a third pitch to showcase hitters so they don't get locked in. His bread-and-butter is his change-up. He's more of a fast ball, change-up kind of guy. His arm speed is so deceptive, that's what makes him so effective."
McLain has stressed overall to the pitching staff about getting contact and letting the defense perform.
Defensively, GSW was 1-14 when it committed three or more errors. But like pitching, McLain said they will have some depth at all positions, especially at catcher. Noble Coley is healthy after only playing 14 games before suffering a season-ending injury. And with the addition of Valdosta State transfer Drew Camp, McLain said that's going to be a benefit of having three players who can lead the team at that position.
Most importantly, McLain said the team has become smarter.
"A lot of it is fundamental things we've done," he said. "So much of it is just understanding when the moment in a game comes where you can't make a mistake. Everybody's going to make mistakes no matter how good you are. It's understanding when the moment comes where either you make a play and go on and win, or you don't make a play, hit or pitch and wind up losing."
Three PBC teams were ranked in the preseason top 25, and four in the first 33. GSW was picked last in the PBC preseason coaches poll to no surprise of McLain. He said that's extra motivation for his team to prove the skeptics wrong.
"Why not us," said McLain. "They've understood that where we've been playing at over the last couple of years is not acceptable to this program. We're not going to use our situation as an excuse. They understand teams in this league are not going to give us anything, and we will have to earn everything we get.
"I'm excited to see how we've prepared and where we're at. I think we're closing the gap a little bit. We'll have to pitch well and play error-free. I told the guys that when you're at the bottom looking up, to get over you have to work twice as hard, run twice as fast, field twice as good and hit and pitch. There's no days off to make up ground, and we want to show how much a mistake they've made by underestimating us."