Michael Heesch began this past fall preparing himself mentally for the season ahead, imagining he and his USC Beaufort baseball teammates destroying opponents in 2012.
But the left-hander had to shelve the animosity last week, when he and four teammates competed with the Sun Conference's best during its preseason all-star game in Florida. This week, Heesch and the Sand Sharks returned to business, preparing for today's opener at Brewton-Parker and re-igniting thoughts of winning the Sun Conference.
The Sand Sharks have qualified for their conference tournament each of the program's first three seasons. But after finishing 2011 with their first losing record in conference play, USCB players feel they have something to prove.
A loaded roster featuring some key newcomers has spurred expectations.
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"These new guys are in a good spot right now," said Heesch, a senior who set school records for strikeouts in a season (78) and game (12) in his first year with the Sand Sharks. "Their confidence is high, and our confidence in them is high. And we're really excited just to go out there and prove to everybody we're just as good as everybody else out there."
The baseball program is under new leadership, but with a familiar face. Pitching coach Bryan Lewallyn was promoted to interim head coach when Rick Sofield left to join the Pittsburgh Pirates organization after last season.
Little has changed since the handoff, Lewallyn said. Heesch noted a more laid-back atmosphere during practice but said things were similar -- especially for the pitchers, who already saw Lewallyn as their primary contact.
The Sand Sharks' rotation returns Heesch and former first-team all-conference selection Adam Miller, the school's all-time leader for wins, complete games, strikeouts, shutouts and innings pitched. The rotation loses Dexter Price, the team's Friday starter, who was drafted by the Arizona Diamondbacks this past summer.
But the Sand Sharks believe they have added plenty of depth. Right-hander Miles Galvin, from Curry College, is expected to fill Price's spot in the rotation. Left-hander Matt Barger, a transfer from Southern Poly State, should play a significant role in relief. And redshirt junior Kyle McCoullough returns after missing last season following Tommy John surgery.
"I definitely think we went out and got a bunch of guys we needed," Miller said. "We've got more depth in the bullpen. We've got four or five quality starters -- can throw anybody out there at any given time and win a ball game."
USCB added depth at a number of other positions. Transfers Dylan Nasiatka and Mitchell Johnson will share catching duties. Shortstop Gabe Torres and second baseman Weldon Smith return in the middle infield, with capable replacements behind them.
"It's awesome to have backups for backups, that you can count on really anybody out here," said outfielder Ty Main.
Lewallyn cautions to wait until May to judge the rotation's depth and strength across the board. But confidence is high, and the Sand Sharks are setting their target on region power Embry-Riddle, ranked No. 5 in the NAIA preseason coaches poll.
The Sand Sharks were picked third in the Sun Conference, behind Embry-Riddle and St. Thomas. The goal is a fourth consecutive trip to the Sun Conference tournament and a place in the NAIA tournament.
"We'd much rather go in that No. 1 spot, but the goal is to get in," Lewallyn said. "If we can go in with a little momentum, I think this team has got as good a chance as anybody else who would be there."
2012 USC BEAUFORT BASEBALL ROSTER
No. Name Position B/T Ht. Class Hometown/Previous school
1 Hunter Bartlett C R/R 5-10 Sr. Walterboro, S.C./Spring Valley HS
2 Keenan Ivey INF R/R 5-10 Sr. Chauncey, Ga./Southern Poly
3 Andrew Barrineau RHP R/R 5-9 Jr. Varnville, S.C./Wade Hampton HS
4 Denzel Campbell OF R/R 6-0 Soph. College Park, Ga./Centennial HS
5 R.J. Neal OF R/R 6-0 Sr. West Palm Beach, Fla./Park Vista Comm. HS
6 Weldon Smith INF R/R 5-11 Sr. Beaufort, S.C./Battery Creek HS
7 Gabe Torres INF S/R 5-11 Sr. Safety Harbor, Fla./Countryside HS
8 Ashly Morris INF R/R 6-2 Fr. Savannah, Ga./Calvary Day School
9 Ty Main OF S/L 6-0 Sr. Middletown, Md./George Mason
10 David Greene INF R/R 6-3 Jr. Columbia, S.C./The Citadel
11 Keifer Youmans OF R/R 6-2 Sr. Guyton, Ga./Andrew College
12 DeShontay Berry OF L/R 6-0 Sr. Lithonia, Ga./Lithonia HS
13 David O'Neil INF R/R 5-9 Sr. Ludlow, Vt./Black River HS
14 Caleb Daniels RHP R/R 6-1 Fr. Norton, Va./John Burton HS
15 Dom Hayes OF L/L 5-11 Sr. Freehold, N.J./West Virginia
17 Erik Armstrong INF R/R 6-3 Soph. Jupiter, Fla./Jupiter HS
19 Adam Miller LHP L/L 5-10 Sr. Savannah, Ga./SCAD Savannah
20 Luke Pritchett RHP R/R 6-5 Jr. Atlantic Beach, Fla./Campbell
21 Dylan Nasiatka C R/R 5-10 Sr. Bakersfield, Calif./Hofstra
22 Terry McClinton INF S/R 6-0 Jr. West Palm Beach, Fla./St. Andrews
23 Kyle McCullough RHP R/R 6-0 Jr. Deerfield Beach, Fla./Deerfield Beach HS
24 Conald Mansfield OF L/R 6-0 Sr. Pensacola, Fla./Centenary College (La.)
26 Miles Galvin RHP R/R 6-2 Jr. Deerfield Beach, Fla./Curry College
27 Michael Heesch LHP R/L 6-5 Sr. Crystal Lake, Ill./Illinois-Chicago
30 Mitchell Johnson C R/R 6-2 Jr. Pensacola, Fla./Danville (Va.) CC
31 Alex Graham LHP R/L 6-1 Soph. Gainesville, Fla./Buchholz HS
32 Junior Delatorre RHP R/R 6-0 Fr. Beaufort, S.C./Beaufort High
33 Blake Cilwick INF R/R 5-11 Jr. Hobe Sound, Fla./Indian River State
34 Ben Sauls RHP R/R 6-2 Jr. Beaufort, S.C./USC Sumter
35 Kyle Thompson OF R/R 5-10 Fr. Merritt Island, Fla./Merritt Island HS
37 Matthew Graney LHP L/L 6-1 Sr. Richmond Hill, Ga./Richmond Hill HS
39 Stephen Richards RHP R/R 6-0 So. Austintown, Ohio/Home Schooled
44 Brandon Collins INF L/R 6-4 Sr. Savannah, Ga./South Georgia
45 Colton Rudd LHP L/L 5-9 Sr. Fort Pierce, Fla./Port St. Lucie HS
48 Matt Barger LHP R/L 6-8 Sr. Atlanta, Ga./Southern Poly
99 JJ Crespo OF L/R 5-11 Fr. Jupiter, Fla./Jupiter HS
2012 USCB BASEBALL SCHEDULE
Home games in CAPS
(DH) -- doubleheader
Jan. 27 at Brewton-Parker 5 p.m.
Jan. 28 BREWTON-PARKER 1 p.m.
Feb. 1 MID-CONTINENT 2 p.m.
Feb. 2 vs. MID-CONTINENT 2 p.m.
Feb. 3 vs. MID-CONTINENT 2 p.m.
Feb. 4 vs. MID-CONTINENT 1 p.m.
Feb. 8 at Flagler College 4 p.m.
Feb. 11 MILLIGAN (DH) 1 p.m.
Feb. 12 MILLIGAN Noon
Feb. 18 FISHER (DH) Noon
Feb. 19 FISHER (DH) Noon
Feb. 24 SOUTHEASTERN
Feb. 25 SOUTHEASTERN
Feb. 28 SOUTHERN WESLEYAN 2 p.m.
Feb. 29 vs. SOUTHERN WESLEYAN 2 p.m.
March 2 at Ave Maria
March 3 at Ave Maria
March 6 TENNESSEE WESLEYAN 2 p.m.
March 7 TENNESSEE WESLEYAN 2 p.m.
March 9 FLORIDA MEMORIAL
March 10 FLORIDA MEMORIAL
March 13 at Brewton-Parker (DH) 2 p.m.
March 16 at SCAD Savannah
March 17 at SCAD Savannah
March 23 at St. Thomas
March 24 at St. Thomas
March 30 NORTHWOOD
March 31 NORTHWOOD
April 4 at Voorhees 3 p.m.
April 6 at Embry-Riddle
April 7 at Embry-Riddle
April 10 BRETWON-PARKER (DH) 2 p.m.
April 13 at Warner
April 14 at Warner
April 17 at Southern Wesleyan 4 p.m.
April 20 WEBBER INTERNATIONAL
April 21 WEBBER INTERNATIONAL
April 24 SCAD SAVANNAH 4 p.m.
May 1-5 Sun Conference Tournament
May 8-12 NAIA National Championship Opening Round
May 21-26 NAIA World Series