Even in 2010 coach John Pawlowski's club won 43 games and the SEC Western Division title despite pitching backwards with their top guy Grant Dayton usually pitching on Sunday. With veterans such as Cory Luckie, Jon Luke Jacobs and Slade Smith all returning with experience the search is still on for the three starting rotation pitchers this season.
One of the newcomers that has put himself in a position to earn a spot on the mound in either a starting role or long relief is powerful Derek Varnadore from Chattahoochee Valley Community College. A 6-4, 230-pounder originally from Athens, Ga., Varnadore came in for fall practice and has quickly put himself in a position to help his new team.
"I'm just excited to be here and ready to get this thing going," Varnadore said. "Coming from junior college it's totally different than what I'm used to. I grew up watching Georgia so I'm used to be around the SEC environment. Now I'm just ready to play in it.
"I'm just really excited to get going," Varnadore added. "I have been waiting on this for a long time. I'm just happy to be here."
A standout in high school earning All-Northeast Georgia honors, Varnadore had a strong senior season with a 9-4 record, an ERA of just 2.26, and 93 strikeouts in 71 innings. That followed up a solid junior year as well when he won five games with an ERA of 1.52. Despite those numbers Varnadore said he only had some small school offers on the table before he decided to attend Chattahoochee Valley.
Playing for one of the top programs in Georgia Varnadore quickly realized he needed to improve in several areas on the mound to have a chance to play in the SEC. Getting his feet wet as a freshman he was 6-5 with a 3.91 ERA and 94 strikeouts. Becoming more physical he came into his own as a sophomore as he was a perfect 7-0 with a 3.64 earned run average.
Those two years put Varnadore on the right track to being a better pitcher, something he said only improved in his first fall at Auburn. Working to get even bigger and stronger, he added that becoming a student of the game is a big part of his improvement as well.
"It helped me out a lot," Varnadore said. "I have gotten a lot stronger and I have gained a good bit of weight. I have gained 10 pounds since I have been here. I guess the biggest thing is I've gotten bigger and stronger and I have learned how to pitch instead of just throw. That's what I'm working on now."
With so many questions about Auburn's pitching staff Varnadore said he's excited about his possibilities in the 2011 season but just like his head coach he's still unsure of what his role will be this coming year.
"I have no clue yet," Varnadore said. "I'm just here to do what coach P (Pawlowski) says. I have thrown a two-inning outing and I have thrown a four-inning outing. I don't really know yet where I'm going to fit in."
With the chance to break into the rotation and pitch in the Southeastern Conference this preseason has been one of absolute importance for Varnadore and his fellow newcomers on the mound. Even with that carrot dangling in front of him every day the big junior said that it hasn't changed his focus nor his goals for the season.
"I was going to do that anyway," Varnadore said. "I'm just here to contribute. Whatever coach wants me to do that's what I'm going to do. I'm just going to give it everything I've got."
Auburn opens the season this Friday night at 6 p.m. against Arkansas State at Plainsman Park in the second game of the opening day of the Auburn Tournament. In the opener #13 Virginia faces off against UAB at 2 p.m. The Tigers will face Virginia at 1 p.m. on Saturday and the Blazers at 3 p.m. on Sunday.