Dustin Averett and Jimmy Obermark are two of the Columbus State baseball team's more grizzled veterans. This is their second year with the Cougars.
Of the 17 or so players who see the most action -- 11 position players, three starting pitchers and the top three relievers -- only four played for the Cougars last season. Two of those, Blake Edwards and Jackson Oliver, are still just sophomores.
That leaves Averett, a junior catcher from Shaw by way of CVCC, and Obermark, a senior second baseman, as the only upper classmen who know how tough it can be to win on the road in the Peach Belt Conference.
"You worry that they don't have any experience going on the road in the Peach Belt," CSU coach Greg Appleton said. "On the flip side, maybe they're not worried about anything."
So far, the Cougars have put themselves in position to make this season something special. They're 24-9, and that's after a 3-5 start. They're 12-3 in the PBC and tied with Georgia College for second behind Lander, which is 15-3.
All of that's nice. But now comes the hard part. The Cougars play four of their next five conference series on the road. It starts Sunday with a doubleheader at Flagler, followed by Georgia College and Georgia Southwestern. They play South Carolina-Aiken at home April 18-19 then finish their conference schedule at North Georgia.
This stretch could very well determine whether the Cougars receive a postseason bid or get left out. The Southeast Region comprises three conferences, each with an automatic bid to the postseason. So that leaves only three at-large bids after the conference tournaments.
Here's how tough the PBC is. Based on the current rankings, one Peach Belt team could finish the season in the top 25 nationally but get left at home. North Carolina-Pembroke is ranked 22nd in Division II but only fifth in the conference. CSU is ranked 19th nationally, behind Lander (second), Georgia College (ninth) and Aiken (14th).
So the Cougars have little margin for error. And therein lies the importance of the next five weeks. They need to win the series against Flagler, Georgia Southwestern and North Georgia and at least split the six games against Georgia College and Aiken.
Granted, it's not as if they are having to prepare to play LSU in Death Valley on a Saturday night, or go into Rupp Arena and face a maniacal Kentucky crowd in basketball. But there's something different about getting out of their routine and playing in unfamiliar places.
"It's not comfortable. That's the best way to describe it," Averett said.
Given the modest preseason predictions of the Cougars and their slow start, it would appear that they have come out of nowhere. But that's not quite the case. The only blemish on their fall record was a tie. This is almost an entirely new team, but they quickly bonded.
"You have to have good chemistry to play well as a team," Obermark said.
"We like to play for the guy next to us," said pitcher Mike McGinnity. "It's a team sport. That's how you win games."
Appleton has taken three teams to the Division II World Series, winning it all in 2002 and finishing second in 2004. He described this team as "resourceful." It's not the most talented he's had. But they find ways to win. They've already had three walk-off wins.
"That's a goal in everybody's minds," Obermark said. "But before we can do that, we have to win the conference. Everybody wants to go to the World Series. It's always good to set those goals and have something to work for."
-- Guerry Clegg is an independent correspondent. You may write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.