FLORENCE, S.C. – The Francis Marion University baseball team will open its 2004 season with a trio of games this weekend. The 15th-ranked Patriots will play host to Limestone College on Saturday (Jan. 31) at 2 p.m. and will entertain St. Andrews Presbyterian College for a doubleheader on Sunday (Feb. 1) at 1 p.m.
Admission is $3 for adults and $2 for students. Swamp Fox Club members will be admitted free with their season passes. FMU provost Richard Chapman will throw out the ceremonial first pitch on Saturday.
In the season opener, FMU will face a Limestone squad coached by Francis Marion graduate and former player Anthony “Chico” Lombardo. Lombardo owns a career coaching record of 315-277 in 12 seasons at the collegiate level.
Third-year Francis Marion head coach Art Inabinet welcomes back 14 lettermen from last season’s 30-20 squad that ended the year ranked 18th and placed third at the NCAA Division II South Atlantic Regional, the program’s first post-season appearance in 10 years. Among the returnees are four position starters and five members of last year’s pitching staff.
This year’s Patriot squad is ranked 15th in the preseason 2004 Collegiate Baseball Magazine NCAA Division II Top 40 poll, and has been picked to finish sixth in the Peach Belt Conference, according to the annual PBC coaches’ preseason poll. “That pick is fine with me,” said Inabinet. “We return a core of talented players, but we still have some question marks. We will have to wait until the season begins to see how some of newcomers perform,” Inabinet added. “That being said, our goal is to win the PBC title and make a return trip to the NCAA tournament. We were picked eighth last season and came within one-half game of winning the PBC regular-season crown, and the returnees tasted the national tournament. They are still hungry.”
According to Inabinet, senior right-hander Erin Jones (Dillon, SC) will start Saturday’s opener. Last season, Jones was 9-5 with a 3.09 earned run average. The All-Region and All-PBC selection broke his own school record for strikeouts in a season with 119 in 116.1 innings, while walking only 17 batters. He completed 11 of 14 starts, reached double figure strikeouts in six of his starts against PBC opponents, and opponents hit only .254 against him.
Lefty Phil Padgett (Surfside Beach, SC) is the other starting pitcher who returns. In 2003, he was 7-5 with a team-low 3.00 ERA, and he completed nine of 12 starts. He allowed opponents a .198 batting average and fanned 71 batters in 84 innings.
Three other hurlers also return from last year’s staff that ranked fourth in the Peach Belt with a 4.16 ERA, while surrendering a conference-low 114 walks.
The returning position starters include All-Region and All-Conference shortstop Jason Weaver, who hit .397 during the 2003 season, including a .419 average in Peach Belt Conference games. The Lake City native just missed being the first FMU batter in six seasons, and the first middle infielder in 22 years, to reach the .400 plateau. He recorded two home runs and 27 runs batted in and led the team in runs scored (43), hits (77), doubles (13), slugging percentage (.505), and on-base percentage (.473). He hit safely in 41 of 50 games, and only once during the year did he go more than one game without a hit. He ended the year with an eight-game hitting streak.
Also returning are junior center fielder Quentin Davis (Darlington, SC), and junior second baseman Bert Rollins (Lexington, SC), and senior catcher Kenneth Yaeger (Bowling Green, KY). Davis led the team in stolen bases with 15, while hitting .321. Batting in the leadoff spot, Rollins hit .309 with 39 runs scored and a .397 on-base percentage. Yaeger batted .270, and seven times left the plate to pitch from the mound, compiling a 1-1 mark with two saves and a 4.91 ERA.
Among the newcomers are junior first baseman Luke Ogletree (Villa Rica, GA), freshman first baseman and right fielder Nick Stewart (Greenville, SC), freshman third baseman Mason Mitchell (Bluffton, SC), and redshirt freshman catcher and designated hitter Michael Ward (Florence, SC).
“With Weaver, Davis, Rollins, and Yaeger, we will be strong up the middle, but then we will be young and inexperienced at the corners (first and third base),” Inabinet said. “We have two workhorses returning to the mound, in Jones and Padgett, and we will rely on them as the other hurlers develop.”
During the 2004 campaign, FMU will face seven teams ranked in the preseason Collegiate Baseball Top 40 poll, including PBC preseason favorite Kennesaw State University (Feb. 21-22). Playing an extremely tough schedule in 2003, FMU was 10-10 against Top-30 opponents, while 13 of the squad’s defeats were by one or two runs.
Twenty of the 28 Patriot roster members for 2004 are from South Carolina.
Limestone was 26-23 in 2003, including a 12-12 mark in the Carolinas-Virginia Athletic Conference, and the Saints’ returnees include All-CVAC outfielders Markell Williams and Darius Pullen.