It's been one of those years for Skip Fite.
Injuries and academic casualties have wrecked the Augusta State pitching staff, but the Jaguars coach is his ever-optimistic self heading into the Peach Belt Athletic Conference Tournament.
"The mentality of the team is still excellent, despite all the stuff that's happened," said Fite, whose eighth-seeded Jaguars (22-25) open their best-of-three series with defending national champ Kennesaw State (37-10) today at 3 p.m. "The kids believe in themselves. The chemistry is still there. Anything can happen."
Still, it'll take a something akin to a miracle for the Jaguars to win at Kennesaw State this weekend. The Owls, ranked third in Division II, outscored the Jaguars 31-5 to sweep a three-game series last month and boast one of the best pitching staffs in the country. Their staff ERA is 2.43, almost 1« runs better than second-place Francis Marion.
The task ahead of USC-Aiken is not any more appealing. The Pacers (21-33) play at second-seeded Georgia College & State University (35-19), ranked seventh in Division II, today at 2 p.m.
In comparison to Kennesaw State, an unrelenting stretch of circumstances cost Fite seven of his top nine pitchers. Scotty Smith (shoulder), Ryan Guy (elbow) and Rob Appleman (broken jaw) are injured, Matt Sowell and Jamie Stewart were lost to academics and Tim Fuhrman transferred to Georgia.
The losses left Fite with only one starter - Steven Padgett - and closer Casey Jackson, who has been pressed into the rotation. Padgett has excelled, compiling an 8-3 mark with 87 strikeouts, good for second in the league.
Padgett (Butler High) will start today and Jeremy Eubanks (3-3, 7.84), who was recruited as an outfielder, will start Sunday's second game (1 p.m.).
"If we can score five runs in the first game, I think we can win it," Fite said. "Steven Padgett is the best we have and gives it all he's got every time he steps on the field. I like our chances out there with him."
Kennesaw State's ace is Donnie Thomas, who played at both Hephzibah High and Augusta Christian. The junior left-hander is 8-1, leads the conference with a 1.76 ERA and no-hit UNC Pembroke on April 12.
While the Owls boast pitchers with the top three ERAs in the conference, Fite has filled in his staff with position players such as Dale Beasley, Jamie Epps and Matt Mixon.
"Boy, it's tough going out there knowing you've got to score eight or 10 runs to win," Fite said. "Still, the guys haven't quit all year, and I don't expect them to now."