Golloway's Goal "Play For Championships"

Auburn Coach Sunny Golloway discusses his team heading into the 2014 season opening tournament in Port Charlotte, Fla. this weekend.

Auburn, Ala.--When the Auburn Tigers take the field on Friday in the season opener against Indiana State in the Snowbird Classic in Port Charlotte, Fla. they'll do so without one of their top players in the lineup. Suspended for the first two games of the season following a violation of team rules last fall, center fielder Ryan Tella will be replaced by true freshman J.J. Shaffer in the lineup for Coach Sunny Golloway's first game with the program.

He's just one of four true freshmen expected to start the first game of the year for the Tigers along with first baseman Keegan Thompson, second baseman Damon Haecker and right fielder Anfernee Grier. Throw in several more newcomers expected to make an impact this season including utility player Daniel Robert and pitcher Kevin Davis and the potential for a new look is there for the Tigers.

On the other side you have a large group of returning senior starters beginning with catcher Blake Austin, shortstop Dan Glevenyak, third baseman Damek Tomscha and pitchers Michael O'Neal and Terrance Dedrick.

How those two groups blend together will be important early in the 2014 season as Auburn hits the road to open the schedule. That experienced group will be big for the Tigers as they hope to take their play to another level and get back to the NCAA Tournament after coming up just short a season ago. Golloway said the ultimate goal is Omaha and the College World Series and that's one of many championships available to a team each and every year.

"At the end of the day, the bottom line is, we want to play for championships," Golloway said. "OK, what does that mean? That means the West in the regular season, that means the SEC Tournament, that means the regional, the Super-Regional, and then the College World Series, national championship. You've got five opportunities to win a championship. Let's be about winning championships. You might win one of those, and then the national championship. You might not win any of those, and win the national championship, you could win two of those, and NOT the national championship. But let's be a championship-type club, let's find a way to earn a ring every year."

Keegan Thompson

Trying to get his team in that mindset is the ultimate goal for Golloway. Taking over a program with just one NCAA Tournament appearance in the last eight years, he said while he's got plenty of talent and experience to work with on his first Auburn team they don't have experience in winning and that has to change.

"We have some seniors that are talented that should have gotten drafted last year," Golloway said. "I didn't see them perform last year. In defense of those who make the decisions, they must have not been playing at the level they're playing at right now. Let's make sure where they get an opportunity to play next year. Will the experience pay off? It's the experience of losing. Experience of not getting into the NCAA Tournament. Experience of watching the NCAA Tournament or watching the College World Series. That's not good experience. We've got some of that, too. Let's utilize some of the experience we can benefit from and let's have some amnesia on the other side of things."

One of the players Golloway will depend on to carry the load for his team is O'Neal. Coming off a season when he finished 8-4 and was the most consistent performer on the mound, the senior will be the Saturday starter for the Tigers and much like former Auburn Coach Hal Baird, Golloway said the second game is the biggest for any team and he wants O'Neal in that spot.

He got a final opportunity to see how his rotation would work over the weekend as the Tigers scrimmaged to get a look at final game preparations. The starters dropped the first game before O'Neal got things even on Saturday. That meant it was time for Thompson to do his thing on the mound. Golloway said watching how his guys responded gave him a good feeling about his team heading into the season and it's going to take veterans and newcomers alike to get the Tigers back on top.

"He's really good and he's really special," Golloway said of O'Neal. "He's going to stay right there. We're going to throw him on Saturday, but he probably is our most important guy because Saturday to me is the most important day. If you lose you've got to come back and win on Saturday. If you win Friday you can win the series on Saturday. He's just consistent. I watched it again this past Saturday. Again, the number ones would have lost on the first day. O'Neal took the mound on day two and he just worked the ball and moved it around. He doesn't get too excited. He stays calm. He put us back in victory mode where it was an even series then we looked up and said ‘we've got big Keegan Thompson ready to go tomorrow'.

"That's a luxury. You saw what Keegan did. He walks out there and breezes the gate for five innings. He's really special. I tell our guys all the time that we ought to have a really good dogfight for freshman of the year in the SEC right here in our clubhouse. I'm not kidding. We're going to put a lot of them on the yard and they can flat play."

Auburn will face Indiana State at noon central time on Friday in the season opener before squaring off against Ohio State (11 a.m.) on Saturday and Connecticut (10 a.m.) on Sunday in the Snowbird Classic.

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