Friday, December 29, 2017

Countdown to baseball season

Furman baseball coach Brett Harker
"People ask me what I do in winter when there's no baseball. I'll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring." - Rogers Hornsby

Don't fret Rogers. As we get closer to flipping the calendar to 2018, we're that much closer to baseball season. A Furman baseball team that was one win away from a Southern Conference Tournament championship is just as anxious as any of us to get back to the ballpark.

The Paladins get that chance seven weeks from today. Furman opens the 2018 season by hosting Marist at Latham Stadium on Feb. 16. After that opening weekend series against the Red Foxes, who are the reigning Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference champions, the Paladins dive right in the "deep end" of the schedule. Furman has road trips to Clemson and South Carolina sandwiched around a weekend series at N.C. State.

"It may be tough to rack up wins (early), but this will be a team that will definitely be battle-tested," said Brett Harker, who guided Furman to a school-record tying 33 wins in his first season as a head coach last spring.

The Paladins will hope for home field advantage being a factor in March, as 17 of their 21 games that month are scheduled for Greenville. This includes four at Flour Field - Michigan St. (March 9), Illinois (March 10), Presbyterian (March 11) and Clemson (March 27). The month begins with a weekend series against reigning Northeast Conference champion Central Connecticut State March 2-4.

With one of those four road games being at Winthrop (March 13), Furman only leaves the state once in March for its longest road trip. The Paladins play a weekend series at Wichita State beginning March 23. Harker's happy to be playing a Shockers' program that has the fourth-highest winning percentage in Division I baseball history, even though they ended up on the schedule in an odd way.

Furman already had American Athletic Conference member Cincinnati on the schedule for quite some time. When Wichita State left the Missouri Valley Conference for the AAC, it reshuffled that conference schedule, bumping the Paladins off Cincinnati's slate. Ironically, the Shockers had an opening that same weekend clearing the way for the Furman series.

While the Paladins are in the Sunflower State that weekend, conference play will begin for the rest of the SoCon. That means no "off" weekend within SoCon play for Furman the rest of the way.

"It's a unique opportunity. We typically don't go that far west, but we were able to have a contract deal where it financially made sense for us to play out there," Harker said. "That will be a tremendous experience for our boys and will be fun.
"I personally like to schedule at least one big-name trip that our recruits and players can be excited about. Next year, we'll play a three-game series at Georgia. The year after that, we go to Alabama and the year after that, Ole Miss. We usually try to lock in those big ones in advance and then kind of build (the schedule) around there."

Furman opens SoCon action the following weekend by hosting Samford the last three days of March before Easter on April 1. After an April 4 home game against Georgia State, Furman has just four games at Latham Stadium - and a game at Fluor against South Carolina on April 24 - the rest of the month.

The Paladins wrap up the regular season against UNC Greensboro at home May 17-19. Furman and UNCG tied for third place in the SoCon last season, then met in the finals of the SoCon Tournament.

"They'll come back in January for individuals (workouts) and then practice will start Jan. 26," Harker said. "Then you've got to hit the ground running because we've got an NCAA regional team rolling into town Feb. 16.
"Ten of our first 11 games are against (2017) NCAA regional teams, and the only one that isn't is South Carolina. It's going to be tough, but I welcome the challenge."

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