No matter how apparent the lineup seems in the fall -- or in the middle of the season, for that matter -- USC Beaufort baseball coach Rick Sofield never allows himself to believe for a moment that the picture won't look wildly different the next day.
An injury here, a personal issue there, and all of a sudden, things are falling apart.
"In my mind, nothing's ever settled," Sofield said. "I'm always expecting the worst and I'm always looking for trouble, because that's what usually happens."
With that in mind, the Sand Sharks will set out to foster the kind of healthy intrasquad competition that leads to quality depth when they begin final preparations for their third season today at Hardeeville's Richard Gray Baseball Complex.
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Despite bringing back starters at six of eight positions, as well as their top starting pitcher and most of the bullpen, the 18th-ranked Sand Sharks have plenty to settle before they open the season Feb. 5 at No. 16 Union University in Jackson, Tenn.
An influx of newcomers has created a logjam in the outfield and heated competition for the three spots in the weekend rotation, and the loss of cleanup hitter Brandon Collins and No. 2 starter Spencer Cromer to academic ineligibility creates two large voids.
Collins hit .413 and led the team with seven home runs and 57 RBIs, and he developed into an outstanding defensive first baseman as the season went on. As much as USCB will miss his left-handed bat in the middle of the order, Sofield said the competition to replace him opens a door for someone who might have been squeezed out of the lineup otherwise.
"I'm not sure at this point you can leave a name out of that mix," Sofield said, noting Spencer Jackson, who hit .410 with 25 extra-base hits and 37 RBIs as an outfielder last season will be given a chance to win the job.
Sofield named several candidates he expects to compete for the job, but few have much experience playing first base, so their progress from a defensive standpoint will go a long way toward determining who starts the season there.
"It's me getting out early and staying late with some guys and really banging the drum on some defensive fundamentals and situational baseball," Sofield said.
The Sand Sharks also need to replace shortstop Blake Sanders and sort out the crowded outfield, where incumbent center fielder R.J. Neal and returners Larry Perry and Keifer Youmans are joined by NCAA Division I transfers Ty Main (George Mason) and Conald Mansfield (Centenary).
Cromer, a right-hander, went 6-4 with a 4.15 ERA last season, mostly as a starter, and he was expected to compete for a spot in the weekend rotation along with returning ace Adam Miller, and a pair of NCAA Division I transfers in Dexter Price (Auburn) and Michael Heesch (Illinois-Chicago). Kyle McCullough, used mostly in relief last season, also could figure into the equation, as could fellow junior Jorge Olmo.
Price, a 6-foot-6 right-hander, went 7-3 in 16 starts over two seasons at Auburn, and Heesch, a 6-foot-6 left-hander, was 11-6 in 41 games (17 starts) over two seasons with the Flames.
Regardless of who winds up in the rotation, there will be plenty of innings to go around thanks to the Sun Conference's move to playing nine innings in all conference games. Until this season, the conference played one nine-inning game and one seven-inning game for Saturday doubleheaders.
Sofield, who was opposed to the change, said he thinks the move could benefit the Sand Sharks, who have had enough pitching depth in their first two seasons to refrain from using position players on the mound, something he isn't sure other Sun Conference teams will be able to do with 27 innings in two days.
The change also will prompt Sofield to experiment with different lineups, something he already had considered after seeing some players wear down by the end of last year's 39-15 campaign.
"What I think we've done well here is we've kept the rotation going where we keep the energy flowing," Sofield said. "You don't want to run the same nine out there every day, sometimes, because it's a hard game."
BY THE NUMBERS
18 -- USC Beaufort's preseason ranking in the NAIA Baseball Coaches Top 25, marking the Sand Sharks' highest ranking in the program's three-year history. USCB reached as high as No. 19 last season and finished the season ranked 20th.
33 -- Days until the Sand Sharks open the 2011 season against No. 16 Union University in Jackson, Tenn.
72 -- Victories the Sand Sharks have compiled in their first two seasons. After going 33-21 in their inaugural campaign, they finished last season with a 39-15 record and reached the NAIA World Series Opening Round.