Finishing in the Gulf South Conference cellar is without question something that the University of West Georgia baseball team doesn't want a repeat of this spring.
Starting at 3 p.m. on Friday, the Wolves' bid for a bounce-back season officially begins when they kick off the 2018 campaign with a three-game weekend series at Augusta.
Through colder than usual weather conditions that's included two winter storms over the past few months, ninth-year UWG head coach Skip Fite and his ballclub have tirelessly been putting in work at Cole Field, building for what they're hoping will be a rebound year.
"It's been a long journey to get to this point, so we're really excited about that first day," Fite said before practice on Wednesday. "These guys have been putting in a lot of work in the weight room and on the field through some pretty cold days. We were even out here when it was snowing. We've done everything on the coaching and preparation ends and we're ready to go."
Coming off a 42-win season that included a trip to the NCAA South Regional in 2016, things turned south fast for the 2017 UWG squad as injuries to key players piled up throughout the season. The final result was a 17-30 record overall where the team finished at the bottom of the GSC standings.
"It's all about personnel and your players. We went into 2017 with a nice club and we started the season out well, but injuries took its toll on us," Fite said. "This game is won historically on the mound and behind the plate. We wound up having four pitchers, along with other key guys, go down and that put us behind."
But what's in the past is in the past and Fite is looking forward to what he has taking the field for this go-around. Players returning to the West Georgia lineup include top hitter and senior infielder Ben Utley, junior left fielder Cade Marlowe and catcher Price Peters, who suffered a season-ending injury last spring.
"This year we're a lot deeper, especially behind the plate. We have three quality guys, especially with Price back healthy," Fite said. "The staff is revamped position player wise. There's a lot of new faces, but we're going to be OK. I'd say we're a pretty solid club right now."
The head coach also believes that UWG will have more depth on the mound to carry it through the new season. In the mix to start will be Dalton Reagin and Ryan Parker, while guys like JUCO transfer Andres Fernandez will be coming out of the bullpen.
Serving as the Wolves' opening day starter will be junior Greyson McLeod, who UWG gets back on the bump after losing him early in the 2017 campaign.
"Greyson pulled a muscle in his back that turned out to be a strain off his spinal cord and he couldn't get back from it. His first three starts were incredible, but his back started bothering him and we had to shut him down," Fite said. "He's matured, he's older, his stuff is really good and his confidence is good. We're expecting him to give us a really solid five or six innings that first day and then go from there."
Following this weekend's series at Augusta, the Wolves will take to Cole Field next Tuesday at 3 p.m. for the home opener versus Georgia College before immediately diving into conference play with a three-game weekend series against visiting West Alabama.
Picked to finish 11th in the GSC Preseason Coaches Poll, UWG once again stares down yet another difficult conference slate that includes the top-ranked ballclub in the nation. Fite has been around long enough to know that the margin for error is thin in the GSC and that mastering the little things will be the difference between success and failure.
"The GSC is by far the toughest conference in the nation. Delta State right now is ranked the No. 1 team in the country, while West Alabama, who we play early, went to the NCAA regionals last year. There's no easy day in our conference and anybody can beat anybody on any given weekend," Fite said.
"Everybody runs out there with good pitching, so it all comes down to execution. If you execute and do the little things right, you have a shot to win every game. Last year we lost 14 out of 16 one-run ballgames. The year before that, we won about 14 out of 16 of those games. So that just tells you how close everything is. It comes to how good your relief guys are and how mentally tough your position guys are."