Augusta University is tasked with another challenging year of Peach Belt Conference opposition.
To counter the challenge of one of the best baseball conferences in Division II, the Jaguars are throwing experience and athleticism at the competition in an effort to improve upon last season and return to contention.
After going 17-13 in the Peach Belt and making the conference tournament in 2016, Augusta took a step back at 10-14 and missed pool play last season. The effect of losing several upperclass standouts and leaders was felt in coach Chris Howell’s first year.
Howell is quickly making his own mark on the program by dotting the roster with new names. A trend has developed from the new faces.
“It’s a tough league, so we’re trying to bring in some guys that, when conference turns around and a great team like West Georgia gets here, the speed of the game doesn’t speed up,” Howell said. “They can continue to play the game like they’re supposed to, and that’s what bringing in some experience hopefully does. It creates a good locker room. It creates a locker room with a bunch of different roads traveled in.”
Many of the players are new to the program but veterans of the college game between Division II and junior college transfers. Despite the lack of playing time on the same field, senior infielder Jim Wagner said the group is coming together quickly.
“We’ve got a lot of new faces this year from JuCos, freshmen, and really getting the team bonding going,” Wagner said. “We have a lot of high energy out here and that’s how we’re going to have to play, with high energy. Guys are coming in from JuCo with a lot of games under their belt, so that always helps, especially coming into the Peach Belt.”
Wagner is expected to take the role of shortstop this season with freshman Mason Robertson beside him at second base. The outfield is full of athleticism between Carrington Evans, Devin Bilardello and Harrison Moore. Bakari Gayle is a notable name added to the roster from junior college after being ranked as one of the top high school outfielders in Georgia.
Right-hander Cody Pugh will take the role of opening day starter today against West Georgia after logging 34 2/3 innings with a 4.67 ERA last season as a junior transfer from Georgia. Fellow senior right-hander Matt Meeks will join the weekend rotation after succeeding as Armstrong State’s Friday starter last season, totaling a 3.16 ERA in 11 starts.
Howell isn’t ready to declare a weekend rotation yet, but he sees an increased number of arms this year as a positive by giving him options and depth. Left-handed Armstrong State transfer Sam Goberdhan is expected to log quality innings, while former Georgia Tech left-hander Ben Parr is a notable name that should give the Jaguars major Division I experience as he builds up arm strength.
Howell doesn’t dodge the fact that the Peach Belt is again strong, with UNC Pembroke and Georgia College tied atop the preseason poll and Augusta around the middle. The Jaguars are built for tough situations, though, with experience from every level and the knowledge to navigate their way through a tough schedule.
“There’s been some accountability, and there’s been some guys bouncing around trying to step up and be boisterous and be a leader,” Howell said. “We got to pitch better than we did last year. We played pretty good defense last year, about middle of the pack. We have to hit. It’s going to be a great league.”
Reach David Lee at (706) 823-3216 or firstname.lastname@example.org.