FLORENCE, SC- The Francis Marion University Patriots baseball team will open up its 2012 campaign Saturday at 2 p.m. (Feb. 4) as it welcomes the Limestone College Saints to town for the opener of a weekend series. The teams will meet again Sunday (Feb. 5) at 1 p.m. for the second of the two game set. Daily admission is $8 for adults and $5 for students.
Throwing out the ceremonial first pitch of the 2012 season on Saturday will be former Patriot infielder and long-time program supporter Tim Ward. Ward is a native of Marion, S.C., a 1988 FMU graduate, and a two-time team most valuable player, who recorded a career .312 batting average with 112 RBIs in 128 games.
The weekend series will match the Patriots against a familiar foe. Limestone is coached by former Patriot outfielder Chico Lombardo – who in 2009 was inducted into the FMU Athletic Hall of Fame. FMU leads the all-time series with the Saints 32-15.
FMU enters the 2012 season ranked first in both the College Baseball Lineup and NCBWA preseason polls and second in the Collegiate Baseball Newspaper poll, with the top spot being the highest the Patriots have ever been ranked. These rankings are largely due in part to head coach Art Inabinet welcoming back 15 letterwinners from the 2011 squad that went 41-16 and won the program’s first-ever Peach Belt Conference regular-season championship. The win total equaled the program’s record for victories in a season, and FMU received its third consecutive NCAA Tournament bid, reaching the regional title game for the second year in a row.
“We haven’t talked a lot about the rankings; we like to let that stay in a locked chest somewhere. We’ve gone about it business as usual, with the old guys are helping the new guys become more and more acclimated. Our biggest obstacle is getting over the lack of repetition,” said Inabinet, the 2011 Peach Belt Conference Coach of the Year.
Helping the newest Patriots get accustomed to the team is a core of returnees who boast accolades of their own. FMU returns the PBC Pitcher of the Year in junior right-hander Don Sandifer (11-3, 2.33 ERA), co-Player of the Year in senior outfielder Buddy Sosnoskie (.396 avg, 45 RBIs) and Freshman of the Year in sophomore infielder Michael Wilson (.374 avg, 71 runs scored).
“Older guys know the way we want to play, and know what type of chemistry we expect out of our team,” Inabinet added. “They’ve been a cornerstone for our program the past couple years, and will be called upon to lead this new group of guys.”
Other returnees to the FMU group include four seniors: designated hitter John Jones (.347 avg, 3 HRs), second basemen Brock McCallister (.339 avg), outfielder Tyler Boyd (.274 avg) and catcher Brian Paulhus (.229 avg). On the pitching mound, the Patriots also welcome back senior right-handers Jarrott Hooks (6-1, 2.45 ERA) and Sebie Kirkland (1.29 ERA) and senior southpaws Matt Broderick (3.83 ERA) and Jeremy Knab (2.57 ERA). Sophomore righty Jeffery Stoner also returns for the FMU staff, coming off an All-Conference 2011 season in which he went 9-0 with a 2.40 earned run average.
Returning a strong pitching staff is something that Inabinet really emphasizes as being the key to having the type of year Francis Marion hopes to have. “It all starts with pitching and that 13-inch circle in the middle of the field. It revolves around pitching, throwing strikes, and playing good defense behind the mound.”
FMU welcomes in a group of players that will help fill in where the Patriots graduated talent. Right-handed junior Gary Ashcraft (Owens Cross Roads, Ala.) transferred in from Southern Union State Community College and is coming off a year in which he was 9-1. Other new juniors donning the red, white and blue are infielder and right-handed pitcher Tyler Hibbs (Odenton, Md.) from CCBC-Cantonsville, catcher Jacob Golliday (Kill Devil Hills, N.C.) out of Pitt Community College, and infielder Stephen Tarkenton (Newnan, Ga.), also from Southern Union State Community College and a relative of former NFL quarterback Fran Tarkenton.
The Patriots enter the season as the near unanimous choice in the preseason coaches’ poll to take the Peach Belt Conference regular-season crown. Again, another preseason honor the Patriots are determined to go out and prove they are deserving of.
“The guys are pretty fired up to get going, the main thing is putting on the uniform for real, and start putting games in the right or left column to see where we stand,” Inabinet added.
Francis Marion opens their season with seven-game homestand, and plans to make the move into Sparrow Stadium at the new Griffin Sports Athletic Complex sometime mid-season. FMU will also entertain the back-to-back defending NCAA Division I national champions University of South Carolina Gamecocks on April 11.
The Patriots’ probable starters for the weekend series with Limestone are junior right-hander and Florence native Spencer Jordan on Saturday and Sandifer on Sunday.
Francis Marion’s 50-game 2012 schedule includes 29 home contests. FMU was 22-6 at home last season and is 196-62-1 in its last 259 home games at “The Cliff” (Clifford S. Cormell Field). Twenty-one of the 40 Patriot roster members (including redshirts) are South Carolina natives.