Peach Belt title is Pacers' only path to Division II tournament

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Just having a winning season doesn't cut it anymore at USC Aiken.

The Pacers entered this year picked to win the Peach Belt Conference in a preseason conference coaches poll. Instead, USC Aiken finished the regular season in fourth place in the East Division with a 31-18 overall record.

"It's been a weird year," Pacers coach Kenny Thomas said. "I'm not going to say it's not been a successful year. It's just not been up to our standards."

USC Aiken has been to the Division II Tournament the past five seasons. That streak will end unless the Pacers win three games in this weekend's conference tournament at their home field, Roberto Hernandez Stadium. Eight teams are participating in the single-elimination event, with the champion grabbing the league's automatic bid into the Southeast Regional.

USC Aiken plays host to No. 8 Georgia College & State at 6 p.m. Saturday. The winner advances to the semifinals at 2:30 p.m. Sunday. The championship game will follow at 6 p.m.

"We realize our backs are against the wall," Thomas said. "I feel like we're going to lay it all on the line this weekend."

The Pacers got off to a slow start to the season, losing five of their first six games. It appeared USC Aiken had returned to its old form when it won 21 of its next 25 contests. Then, the Pacers closed with a 9-10 stretch.

USC Aiken's season can be summed up by one inning. The Pacers appeared to have wrapped up the East Division when they led by two and had two outs and two strikes on Armstrong Atlantic State in the bottom of the ninth. The Pirates rallied for three runs, scoring the game-winner on an infield error. Instead of winning the division, USC Aiken fell all the way to fourth.

"It's been a very unique season," Thomas said.

Led by all-conference performers third baseman Nick Aranas and outfielder Bill Rice, USC Aiken is second in the league in hitting with a .332 average.

Aranas leads the team with a .426 average with 53 RBI, while Rice is hitting .374 with 15 homers and 66 RBI.

The Pacers are fifth in the league in pitching with a 4.61 ERA. USC Aiken's main weakness has been defense -- the team ranks 11th of 12 teams in fielding with 93 errors. Of the 294 runs USC Aiken has allowed, 71 have been unearned.

"We're not a bad defensive team," Thomas said. "We've just played bad defense at certain times of the season. You can look at it in many ways. Baseball is a funny game."

Peach Belt tournament

When: Saturday and Sunday

WHERE: Roberto Hernandez Stadium and Lake Olmstead Stadium (one game)

DAILY TICKETS: $7 for adults; $5 for children ages 6-12; free for children 5 and under

QUARTERFINALS: North Georgia vs. Flagler, 11 a.m. Saturday, Lake Olmstead Stadium; Francis Marion vs. Georgia Southwestern, 11 a.m.; UNC Pembroke vs. Columbus State, 2:30 p.m.; USC Aiken vs. Georgia College & State, 6 p.m.

NOTE: Semifinal games at 11 a.m. and 2:30 p.m., Sunday, followed by championship game at 6. Tournament champions grabs automatic bid into Division II Tournament.


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