With a season-opening road trip to Tennessee looming this weekend, the USC Beaufort baseball team couldn't help but reflect on its most recent trip to the Volunteer State.
It was in Cleveland, Tenn., that the Sand Sharks last played a game, and it was there that their dreams of reaching the NAIA World Series fell short.
So, yeah, it seemed like a perfect place to begin that quest anew.
"We haven't really done well in the playoffs," second baseman Gabe Torres said. "Going back to where it ended (last year) would definitely be nice to kick it off with a bang."
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That's what the 18th-ranked Sand Sharks hope to do when they open their third season against Freed-Hardeman on Sunday in Henderson, Tenn. -- assuming the weather cooperates. USCB was supposed to open with a doubleheader today at Union University in Jackson, Tenn., but those games were canceled because of bad weather that would have affected USCB's travel plans.
A delay was the last thing coach Rick Sofield wanted -- his team has been itching to get starts for quite some time, buoyed by the optimism that comes with starting the season in the NAIA Top 25 and being picked to finish second in the Sun Conference.
"Every season has its new flavor, and we're very excited about the possibilities," Sofield said. "We did not finish the way we would've liked to have, but we were very blessed to be in the position we were, as a second-year program sitting in a regional. That's all good news. To focus on the negative would be silly."
And there are plenty of positives to accentuate.
Only two starting position players are gone from last year's lineup, and they've been replaced by transfers who swing big bats in shortstop Daniel Wass and outfielder Ty Main.
"It's going to be awesome," said Torres, who hit a team-best .458 last year. "One through nine, it's going to be a tough out, no matter what. It's going to be a hard task for that pitcher across the field."
The starting rotation has been bolstered by transfers, as well, with right-hander Dexter Price (Auburn) and left-hander Mike Heesch (Illinois-Chicago) joining ace Adam Miller in a formidable weekend trio.
If there's a concern, it's in the bullpen, where some offseason attrition dinged what looked to be a strong relief corps. Left-hander Ryan Philpott left the team for personal reasons, right-hander Spencer Cromer was deemed academically ineligible, and right-hander Kyle McCullough is slated for Tommy John surgery.
That means Andres Castro will slide into the closer's role, and several other relievers will take on bigger roles.
"You're only as good as your bullpen, most of the time," Sofield said. "Our bullpen will dictate whether we have a good year or a great year."
That distinction is an important one for a program that has set the bar high in its first two years of existence. After going 33-21 in their inaugural campaign, the Sand Sharks improved to 39-15 last season, finishing second in the Sun Conference and reaching the NAIA National Championship Opening Round, where they lost two of three.
One of those two losses was a 3-2 defeat in extra innings against eventual national runner-up Lee, the sting of which will still be felt when the Sand Sharks make another trek to Tennessee this weekend.
"We've been so close the last two years," third baseman David O'Neil said. "Making it to the playoffs is good, but it's time to make the next step now. I think we've got the depth to do it this year."
FIVE NEW NAMES TO KNOW
Even with most of last year's key contributors back, the USC Beaufort baseball team will count on several newcomers to take on big roles. Here's a look at five new Sand Sharks who quickly will become household names for fans: