AIKEN — High expectations have become common for USC Aiken’s baseball program each year, and 2014 is no different for coach Kenny Thomas’ team.
The Pacers are picked to finish first in the Peach Belt Conference, and they rank as high as second in the nation in preseason polls. It’s the nature of the beast when a team consistently competes for a conference and regional title.
USC Aiken lost two starting pitchers and a couple power bats, but it makes up for it with what Thomas called a more balanced lineup and a deep pitching staff that could get them back to the NCAA Southeast Regional.
“We feel good about ourselves,” said Thomas, who enters his 15th season as head coach. “At the same time, we’ve got to play on the field. You can’t do it on paper. You can’t go out there and expect to win games on paper. But we feel good.”
Harlem product Derek Beasley returns to anchor the rotation in his senior season. The left-hander had a 3.48 ERA while throwing a team-high 85 innings in 2013, and he’s expected to lead a younger staff in his final year.
Danny Wissmann and Taylor Peed are expected to step up and provide more innings. Wissmann is a junior lefty with strikeout stuff who recorded a 3.80 ERA in 23 innings last season. Peed is a senior right-hander who is getting his first extended look as a starter for the Pacers.
Depth might be the biggest key for the Pacers pitching staff. They boast left-handed closer Caleb Smith, who had a 1.82 ERA and struck out 38 in 24 innings last season as a freshman. Ben Black, Jake Padgett and Sam Daniel also return to lead a strong bullpen.
“One of the challenging things as coaches is try to get each guy in his right role,” Thomas said. “That’s going to be very challenging for us, because we have a lot of really good arms down there. Hopefully, it’s going to be a very good pitching staff.”
Junior first baseman Ty Barkell returns to lead a lineup expected to make up the loss of two of the better hitters on the team in Bryce Baur and Bill Gerstenslager. Barkell hit .361 and led the Pacers with 10 home runs last season.
Ryan Metzler and Sean Miller are also back to make up the core of a strong and experienced infield. USC Aiken has to fill in the loss of senior catcher Josh Miller, but Thomas said he’s confident in the combination of four catchers who could see time.
“I really think our lineup is going to be more balanced than we’ve had in several years,” Thomas said. “We can run a little bit, we can hit with power a little bit. I think it has potential to be very balanced.”
The Peach Belt has taken notice of USC Aiken’s talent, naming Smith, Barkell and Metzler to the preseason all-conference team.
National polls are divided on where to slot the Pacers to begin the season, with CollegeBaseballLineup.com tabbing them second, and Collegiate Baseball Newspaper ranking them 14th.
Regardless of the preseason ranking, the Pacers remain strong in all aspects of the program and seek a return trip to regionals.
“Practice has been good,” Thomas said. “We’ve had some good days. We’re looking forward to getting going. But it’s a marathon. It’s a long season.”