AIKEN — Paying a visit to his alma mater, former Major League Baseball pitching star Roberto Hernandez decided to address this year’s USC Aiken baseball team.
He didn’t downplay the possibilities.
“He watched us play, and then he told us this is one of the better teams he’s ever seen at USC Aiken,” senior shortstop Stephon Carmon said. “Then he gave us the phrase: ‘World Series or Bust.’ ”
The rallying cry offered by the two-time All-Star was immediately adopted by the team. They’ll try to put their hopes and dreams to action starting this weekend when the 2012 season opens with a three-game home series against Lincoln Memorial.
Coach Kenny Thomas, in his 13th season leading the Pacers, said he sees the potential. He’s also started hearing the hype.
“Some of my buddies keep telling me that if this team isn’t successful, then it must be the coach’s fault,” he said. “It’s an exciting time around here, for sure. We thought we could keep it a secret and surprise some people, but word’s already spread.”
The Pacers return eight starting position players from last year and two starting pitchers.
Carmon, an all-conference and all-region pick a year ago, will once again lead the middle infield, while Nick Aranas, a 2010 All-American and 2012 preseason All-American, returns after missing last season because of injury.
Of the seven players who hit .300 or better on last year’s squad, six will be back. Thomas said the level of talent made for some competitive action during the fall season, and more than fans will want to see this year’s team.
“We probably have six or seven guys scouts are going to be coming to see,” he said. “We’ve never had scouts in practices before. We have them at practice now.”
But hype alone won’t get the Pacers to the NCAA Division II College World Series. The team must first navigate the Peach Belt Conference schedule and a long postseason gauntlet that has seen little success from USC Aiken since the program’s stretch of five consecutive regional appearances was broken two seasons ago.
“I’m not sure that we’re going to get that national recognition at first,” Thomas said. “But that’s OK. We know we’ve got to prove ourselves. And I’ve had more talented teams disappoint and other teams not as talented get hot at the right time and make a run. You never know.”
Derek Beasley (5-3, 3.40 and Thomas McLeod (9-5, 3.83) will enter the year as experienced starters McLeod led the 2011 squad with 72 strikeouts in 80 innings.