Senior guard Jamie Quarles remembers his first season well. It wasn't like the scene Wednesday night.
"When I first got here," Quarles said, "no one was getting our autographs."
Augusta State, ranked No. 6 in Division II, held an autograph session at Raising Cane's restaurant on Washington Road. For an hour, players signed posters and chatted with fans who trickled in to see the basketball players.
Much has changed at Augusta State since Quarles and coach Dip Metress arrived in 2004. The Jaguars have been on a steady rise and now are national contenders after winning the Peach Belt Conference regular season championship, earning a No. 1 seed in the South Atlantic Regional and finishing with a 24-7 record last season.
It's those accomplishments that helped Metress on Wednesday night persuade a basketball fan from New Orleans in the military to come watch a home game.
"It's a chance to pick up some new fans, some people who've never seen us before," said Metress, whose team opens Nov. 16 at Montevallo.
"If you build walls or moats around your program, people won't support you."
Expectations are sky high for an Augusta State squad that returns five starters. In the past week, the Jaguars have split a pair of exhibition games with Division I opponents, the College of Charleston and Clemson. But the team was without All-American Tyrekus Bowman, the reigning Peach Belt Player of the Year.
Bowman, a senior forward, has been out with an undisclosed heart condition since practice began, Oct. 15, though he's been involved in light practices.
The school will hold a news conference today where it's believed Bowman will officially be cleared by doctors to play for the Jaguars this season.
Bowman autographed posters, which features the team's seniors, and chatted with fans at the outing.
His team could have used him in Tuesday's loss at Clemson.
Augusta State received an off day Wednesday after losing to the Tigers, 79-66. Junior center Garret Siler said it was a long ride home.
"We had a lot of mistakes, a lot of turnovers," he said. "I know practice is going to be interesting (today)."
Practices are tougher these days because expectations are greater. Winning does that.
Of course, winning also helps Augusta State earn more talk throughout the town. Quarles said he walks into gas stations and people recognize him.
It's a new-found appreciation for the Jaguars.
"It is special," Quarles said.
Reach Chris Gay at (706) 823-364 or firstname.lastname@example.org.