FLORENCE, S.C. – Francis Marion University has been tabbed to finish second in the race for the Peach Belt Conference 2006 baseball title, finishing a short distance behind preseason favorite USC Aiken, according to the annual preseason poll by the conference’s coaches.
The second-place selection is the highest ever for the Patriots since the PBC was formed.
USCA grabbed six first-place votes to finish with 77 points, four ahead of Francis Marion (73), which received three first-place votes. Armstrong Atlantic State University (64) was third, followed by Georgia College & State University (60), Columbus State University (46), USC Upstate (37), North Georgia College & State University (35), Augusta State University (28), Lander University (16), and UNC Pembroke (14).
Sixth-year FMU head coach Art Inabinet welcomes back 15 of 27 lettermen from last year's 34-16-1 squad that finished third during the PBC regular season and earned the program’s second NCAA Division II national tournament invitation in three years. The Patriots ended 2005 ranked 14th nationally, and were one win shy of the school record for victories in a season. This year’s squad is ranked 11th in the preseason 2006 Collegiate Baseball Magazine NCAA Division II Top 40 poll.
Returning pitchers include junior left-hander Lee Tabor (9-4 record, 2.47 ERA), an All-Region and All-PBC selection in 2005, and sophomore righty Dylan Owen (6-4, 3.01). In 2005, FMU posted a 3.11 earned run average, the lowest mark for a Patriot staff since 1980, and a figure that led the PBC and ranked eighth nationally. Senior second baseman Omar Quiles, who had a .351 average last season and hit safely in 40 of 51 contests, and senior shortstop Jason Weaver (.339, 49 runs, 23 RBIs) lead four returning position starters.
Needing only two victories to reach the 800-win plateau (798-540-3 mark), Francis Marion opens its season Feb. 4 at Wingate University.
USCA returns seven starters from last season’s 40-19 team that finished fourth in the PBC and went to the NCAA Regionals. Eight of the Pacers’ top nine hitters return as do two of four starting pitchers.
The Peach Belt welcomes newcomer North Georgia to the league. The Saints were 57-15 last season, won the Southern States Conference tournament, and advanced to the NAIA Regionals.
Also new for 2006 is the return of the PBC Baseball Tournament, which was last played in 1998. The tournament will be played May 11-14 at Roberto Hernandez Stadium on the campus of USC Aiken. The top six teams in the conference will advance to the four-day, double-elimination tournament. The winner gets an automatic bid to the 2006 NCAA Tournament.
Coaches were not allowed to rank their own teams in the preseason poll.