With a record of 43-21 last season and 22-8 in conference play, the Catamounts were easily the team to beat in the Southern Conference. Included in their season wins were games against Georgia Southern, Oklahoma State and Virginia Commonwealth. Winning both the regular season and tournament, WCU went on to a regional for the 10th time in program history. Despite losing to N.C. State in the finals of the regional in Wilson, N.C., WCU brings back a team loaded with experience and hungry to get back to postseason play.
Six position starters return for Western Carolina in 2004 led by shortstop Wayne Kilmer. The second team Southern Conference performer, Kilmer hit .329 with three home runs, 33 runs batted in and 26 stolen bases in 2003. Catcher Brian Sigmon is also back and looking to build on last season's totals. The 6-3, 220-pounder hit .290 with three home runs and 23 runs batted in with only 145 at-bats.
Power is something the Catamounts will be searching for with the top three home run hitters from last season's team gone. First baseman Todd Buchanan (13th round draft pick) and Alan Beck (16th round) combined for 30 home runs last season while right fielder Rod Goldston added six. Trying to replace those will be a team that combined for just 22 home runs without the trio in 2003.
On the mound to try to keep Western Carolina at bay will be a couple of strange sightings for the Auburn Tigers. On Friday true freshman left-hander Mike Felix will get the nod. He becomes the first true freshman to start on opening day since Mark Chapman in 1984.
Saturday junior left-hander Arnold Hughey gets the start and combines with Felix to be the first duo of lefties to start for the Tigers in back-to-back games in a series since 1989 when Scott Renner and Tommy Carter threw against Alabama that season.
Facing the Tigers will be junior left-hander Brad Josey on Friday and ace Derrick Hawk on Saturday. Last season Josey was 3-1 with a 3.64 ERA in 54 1/3 innings. A powerful right-hander, Hawk was 8-1 with a 2.25 earned run average in 2003 in strictly a relief role. He didn't have a start in 2003 and only threw 28 innings in 11 appearances.
Veteran Colby Paxton will be the Sunday starter for the Tigers. The senior was 7-3 last season with a 3.57 ERA in 85 2/3 innings. For his career Paxton has a record of 20-13 with an ERA of 4.36. He will face WCU's Brandon McDowell in the final game of the series. McDowell was 2-1 last season with a 5.70 ERA in just six appearances.
Auburn leads the all-time series against Western Carolina 16-6 and the Tigers have won five consecutive games in the series. Auburn is 40-15 all-time in season openers and has won nine of the last 10 dating back to 1994. Auburn opens the season with a 15-game homestand, tying last season for the longest in school history. Since 1996 the Tigers are 74-9 at Plainsman Park in the month of February.
Game times for the weekend series are 3 p.m. on Friday, 2 p.m. on Saturday and 1:30 p.m. on Sunday.