FLORENCE, S.C. – After earning NCAA Division II national tournament invitations two of the past three seasons, the Francis Marion University baseball team is looking to take the next step up in becoming a national contender. That step, according to sixth-year head coach Art Inabinet, begins on the road.
“Our goal for 2006 is to win on the road,” Inabinet said. “If we want to return to the NCAAs, and then make some noise once there, it all starts with winning away from home. Six of our first eight games are on the road, so we will get an early indication of where we stand.” The Patriots were 24-3-1 at home last season, and have won 70 of their last 85 home contests, but it has been 10 seasons since FMU last posted a winning mark away from Cormell Field.
To accomplish this feat, Inabinet welcomes back 15 of 27 lettermen from last year's 34-16-1 squad that finished third during the Peach Belt Conference regular season and earned the Division II tournament invitation. The Patriots ended 2005 ranked 14th nationally, and were one win shy of the school record for victories in a season. The third-place PBC finish equaled the highest ever for the Patriots.
This year’s squad is ranked 11th in the preseason Collegiate Baseball Magazine NCAA Division II Top 40 poll, and was recently tabbed to finish second in the race for the PBC 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.
Francis Marion returns four position starters and five pitchers. 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), a PBC “Co-Freshman of the Year” in 2005. Other returning hurlers include junior right-hander Brooks Sinquefield (4-5, 2 saves, 4.02 ERA), sophomore lefty Michael Williams (1-0, 2.19 ERA), and sophomore righty Dusty Floyd (4-0, 5.68 ERA).
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.
Among the newcomers to the staff are southpaw transfers Brandon White (University of South Carolina) and Ryan Ariail (Presbyterian College) and right-handed transfers Kori Wade (Baltimore City Community College) and Ed Paul (Claflin University).
“This is probably the deepest staff I have had at Francis Marion, and without a doubt the most competitive from top to bottom,” Inabinet said. “Dylan and Lee will be our top two starters, but the third starting position is still undecided. There are a handful of guys who will see innings both during mid-week games and on the conference weekends. With five righties and five lefties, we also have the option of creating favorable match-ups, something we have not had in the past. Our biggest challenge will be maintaining a strike percentage of 55 to 60 percent. If we can accomplish that, we have the chance to be very successful.”
In the field, 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. Catcher/designated hitter Michael Ward (.306, 2 HRs, 38 RBIs) and junior right fielder Nick Stewart (.258, 17 RBIs) are also back. The Patriots regain the services of left fielder Brandon McClure, who hit .250 in 2004, but did not play last year.
Inabinet named his probable infield as junior transfer Andy Howes at first base, Quiles at second, Weaver at shortstop, and freshman Taylor Norfleet at third base. Ward and freshman Jared Barkdoll will battle for the catching position, with the loser likely to fill the DH spot. Barkdoll is a second generation Patriot as his father Tod played one season for Francis Marion, batting .327 in 34 games during the 1980 season.
Inabinet said, “Our outfield consists of the three most-contested positions on the team. McClure, senior Brent Johnson, and sophomore Justin Greene are battling for the left field position, while junior Derek Kennamer and Greene will share time in center. Stewart and senior Stan Markle (.238) are battling for the right field starting spot.”
“Jason (Weaver) is the most consistent player I have ever coached,” Inabinet added. “He comes to play every day. His mental make-up is the same, regardless of it being a practice day or game day. He should get some credit for our program’s success over the past three years. He will bat lead-off for us this year, and in many regards, the type of season Jason has will dictate the amount of success the squad experiences.” Weaver owns a career average of .351 in 146 games with six home runs, 80 RBIs, and a .425 on-base percentage.
Needing only two victories to reach the 800-win plateau (798-540-3 mark), Francis Marion opens its season Feb. 4 at Wingate University. Owen is the Patriots’ probable opening day starter. The 2005 FMU slate lists 51 games, highlighted by 30 home games, including the inaugural Peach Belt Conference/CVAC Challenge, Feb. 17-19.
The Peach Belt welcomes newcomer North Georgia to the league, and the conference has also reinstated its post-season 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.