SEC Baseball Coaches Brace For Battle

FAYETTEVILLE -- Southeastern Conference baseball coaches are united in the belief their league is the best.

And who could argue? National polls sure don't.

The staff of Baseball America, widely recognized as the most credible college baseball forecasters, has seven SEC teams ranked in the top 25, more than any other conference.

Four of the eight teams in last June's College World Series were from the SEC and some predict the conference to be even stronger this spring.

"This league is so tough this year, it wouldn't surprise me that a team that goes 17-13 wins this league," said Arkansas baseball coach Dave Van Horn, whose No. 15 Razorbacks are 16-1 and open SEC play today at No. 4 South Carolina. "That might be a little bit low, but just from looking at the scores and knowing who everybody has, you can't take anybody for granted.

"You're going to have to battle to win every game."

It doesn't matter how well a team has played in its pre-SEC schedule. No. 14 Ole Miss has won eight straight, but coach Mike Bianco isn't supremely confident heading into the opener against No. 6 Florida.

"We've really swung the bats well which is something we're excited about," Bianco said. "But we know that we're playing in the No. 1 conference in America as far as baseball is concerned and we need to continue to play well."

Most coaches also agree the team which can stay a few games above .500 during the 30-game league slate could take home the crown. Arkansas and Georgia shared the SEC title with identical 19-11 records last season.

"I'd be surprised if 20 wins wins it this year," said LSU coach Smoke Laval. "Eighteen or 17 can win it now. This league is that tough. The teams that we've played, they say what a rugged weekend day in, day out it must be. Well, you're going to have some great (weekends) and you're going to have some bad ones."

South Carolina coach Ray Tanner credited the college presidents, athletic directors and the Southeastern Conference itself with helping take the league to the top of college baseball.

"Those people played a vital role in making our league what it is today," Tanner said. "It's going to be a battle every weekend. It doesn't matter if somebody is ranked 24th or somebody is in the top 10 or maybe fell out of the rankings.

"The quality of the programs in this league is really incredible."

Not Blowing Smoke
Something the SEC is known for is its fans and those who follow baseball are as faithful as any. But the pressure of thousands pushing for the home team isn't always positive when that team isn't producing as expected.

Laval inherited one of the winningest baseball programs in the SEC and all the expectations that come with it when he took over for the legendary Skip Bertman in 2002.

"It's a pressure barrier that you can't see, you can't feel it," said Laval, whose No. 5 Tigers are 14-4 and open league play today at No. 21 Georgia. "I think that's why the student athletes do come to LSU. That's the games they want to be in. It was a great atmosphere when we matched up with Tulane and set the first attendance record (when 21,343 showed up) in the (New Orleans) Superdome I think that's why kids come here.

"Of course there's going to be failures. There's failures in life. It just gets magnified here. And yes, when things don't go well and in the papers and radio, yeah it hurts for a day.

"But you have to learn how to come back and go get it."

Seven SEC schools were among the top 12 nationally in attendance last season led by LSU with 7,862. Mississippi State was second with 6,214 and Arkansas was fifth with 4,784 per game.

The Old Days
Even though Bertman is still around the program as athletic director at LSU and Norm DeBriyn is vice president of the Razorback Foundation, Mississippi State's Ron Polk is considered the Dean of SEC Baseball coaches. His tenure of 26 years is the longest among active SEC skippers.

Polk said he's the only one who remembers "the old days", before baseball was popular in the league. Of course, he also recalls how fast it took off.

"It just steam rolled and got bigger and bigger," Polk said. "New coaches started coming into the league and finally, it started making a little money at some schools. Stadiums started coming out of the ground and media attention with radio and TV and fans started coming to a lot of the venues.

"It just got to the point where it got awful big."

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