GSW baseball off to red-hot start

Photo by Danny Aller

Photo by Danny Aller

AMERICUS -- The script could've already been written for the Georgia Southwestern baseball team to fail in 2011.

After all, what team could continue their forward push after the departure of 10 seniors -- particularly a program still trying to acclimate itself to a life of playing in NCAA's Division II?

Toss aside that players were finally beginning to feel good and gain confidence about the system in place. Never mind that the Hurricanes were coming off their best season in school history and advanced to the 2010 Peach Belt Conference Championship, where they were edged out by one run to Columbus State.

When the 2010 season wrapped up, the Hurricanes had one question on their minds: How do we move forward after a history-making year and not miss a beat, despite losing key players -- including the first six batters in the lineup?

That question -- and more -- has since been answered. GSW (12-7, 3-0) is one of the hottest teams in D-II, having won nine of their last 10, as they sit at perfect 3-0 in the PBC.

With the stakes higher than ever, the Georgia Southwestern coaching staff quickly hit the market in search of new talent. When the process was over, the Hurricanes welcomed 10 junior college and 10 freshmen recruits -- several of which were former Southwest Georgia prep stars.

"We just said we were going to keep hunting quality players," Georgia Southwestern head coach Bryan McLain said. "(We wanted) players who could deal with adversity and handle tough times."

So far, so good.

"We're just a step away from where we need to be," said Americus native and former Southland star Jody Sellars, who was one of the seven seniors tasked with stepping up this year. "We're putting it all together but we have to find ways to put teams away, whether it's two-strike hits or getting the leadoff guy on in an inning, just doing the small things."

The reference to not finishing teams off came days after the Hurricanes blew a late 3-1 lead to Auburn-Montgomery University. The loss, which snapped a nine-game win streak, left a sour taste in the Hurricanes' mouths.

"We were upset that we loss because we were on a winning streak," said freshman pitcher and former Lee County star Matthew Suggs, who is second on the team with two wins this year.

But with the Hurricanes come a certain degree of mental toughness. According to McLain, the team was built to deal with rough stretches, like the one they faced early in the season when they started 1-4.

His determination to bring in a particular brand of players was a direct link to the tough times he foresaw when the school transitioned into the NCAA as a Division II school in 2006.

"We were just behind as far as budgets and scholarships," McLain said concerning the changeover. "We told (the players) that it was going to be tough and that most of the teams in the league are established. The Peach Belt is typically thought of as one of the top two or three conferences in the nation. We (knew) we were going to take it on the chin for a while but we're going to keep our nose to the grindstone and keep plugging away."

And after three years of marginal progression, the Hurricanes managed to turn the corner last year and have not looked back.

"Now we're at a point where we can bring in quality baseball players; (guys) who can get the job done on the field," McLain said. "Our talent gap with the other teams in the league is not as wide as it once was."

Players buying into what the coaches teach has also made a difference. Albany native and former Westover star Andrew Anderson is a junior who came over from South Georgia College. Anderson, who is second on the team with a .333 batting average behind Michael Coffey (.372), attributed his relatively smooth transition from shortstop to third baseman to the coaches being able to make them all better.

"All the coaches have worked with me to get better fielding (at third)," said Anderson, who has the longest hitting streak on the team (9 games) and is tied for the most multi-hit games (7). "The coaching staff has been really good for me and I like everything about it here so far."

But even with all the early success of Georgia Southwestern, there is one glaring statistic that jumps out: The team has managed only one home run this season -- which came from junior catcher Paschal Poston -- yet no one seems too concerned with not being a power-hitting team.

"A team that can put hits together and win ballgames -- you can't knock on that," Sellars said. "It's nice to have a guy who can hit it out the ballpark every now and then, but it's putting back-to-back hits together that demoralizes teams. A team that consistently puts the ball in play is the one that can hurt you."

And the proof is in pudding. Last weekend during conference play, the Hurricanes totaled 33 hits, enabling them to finish the series 3-0 and jump to the top of the PBC standings in the early going.

While McLain acknowledged the lack of power may be a concern when the games matter most, for him the team's strength lies in their pitching and defense.

"We get good starting pitching," he said. "This is probably the best defensive team I've had since we made the transition to the NCAA. We field the ball; we make the routine play and don't give teams extra chances (by committing errors).

"We want to make teams have to beat us and put pressure on people by running the bases and getting hits with guys in scoring position."

With its last defeat behind them, GSW looks to get back to its winning ways today when its hosts North Georgia at 1 p.m.