"Things are going well," Schade says. "We're getting better each day, which is the big thing. Obviously we haven't peaked yet but that's a good thing. We're kind of getting into the flow of things now after a messed up fall. There wasn't much we could do about it so we're just getting back on our feet now and trying to figure out who is going to be where. I think at this point we're where we should be."
In addition to facing a perennial NCAA Regional team in VCU, the Tigers also face powerhouses in Clemson, Georgia Tech, North Carolina and South Alabama. Add to that facing the always-tough SEC schedule filled with tough games and you have a tough road to follow for the 2003 Tigers. Schade says that's what this game and coming to Auburn to play baseball is all about.
"It's going to be fun," Schade notes. "That's what you want to play. Playing the best teams is how you are going to get better. Going into the atmosphere of playing in other parks and playing here is definitely going to pay off for us later in the season."
One of the most experienced players on the Auburn team with 60 career SEC starts in just two seasons, Schade has a .291 average in those games and hit .319 with four home runs and 21 runs batted in last season. Despite those numbers the Pennsylvania native has been disappointed in his play the last two seasons. Playing summer ball in the Coastal Plain League along with shortstop Chuck Jeroloman and second baseman Tug Hulett, Schade says he finally figured out his purpose and his style of hitting after being a basher in high school.
"It helped a lot," Schade says. "It took me a while for me to get used to what my purpose was this summer. I was going in there with wood bats, playing on a big field, trying to hit home runs. I think it might have taken me two and a half years to figure out that's not me. I'm not your Frank Thomas. I'm not 6-6, 250 who can put it out of the park at any time. I had a good second half of the summer. I was pretty productive then and I started to feel my swing and what I was supposed to do instead of turning and burning all the time."
Junior Colby Paxton will be Auburn's number one starter this season with Eric Brandon and Arnold Hughey rounding out the rotation.
At a disadvantage compared to other teams in the SEC and Georgia Tech, who have the benefit of signing more players to scholarships because of programs like the HOPE in Georgia, Auburn hasn't had the depth necessary to withstand injuries in the last few seasons. Coach Steve Renfroe hopes that is a thing of the past thanks to back-to-back stellar recruiting classes filled with both position players and pitchers capable of playing on this level.
"We're never going to have the depth of other people," Renfroe says. "I think, on this club, we will have a couple of guys off the bench we have not had. Derek Sain has swung it well from the left side as a freshman. I think he'll be able to be a good pinch-hitter for us and Doug Vines started forty-something games. There is experience there that we haven't had. Last year we had no moves to make."
A reason for added depth is more talented hitters up and down the Auburn lineup. With an order of Sean Gamble, Javon Moran, Hulett, Bobby Huddleston, Karl Ammonite, Josh Bell, Clete Thomas, Schade and Jeroloman expected to be the opening day order, Schade says this team is prepared to deliver offensively to help out what is expected to be a strong pitching staff.
"We have speed and we have some guys that can put it out of the park and contact hitters," Schade notes. "I think it's going to be exciting. My freshman year when Todd Faulkner was hurt Gabe (Gross) and Mailon (Kent) had to come out every day and they had to hit or else it was going to be a long game. This year we can have a guy have an off day because there is not going to be one person that has to carry us. I think that's going to help us out a lot."
Facing competition from both Ammonite at first base and Bell at third, Schade says this has been a fun spring to this point. Despite uncertainty of where he will play from day-to-day, he smiles and says it doesn't matter which side of the diamond he's on as long as he's in the game.
"I like both spots and the corners and last fall I even got to catch a little bit," he points out. "I thought I might have to do a little catching this year but Bobby is back and Josh Bell didn't sign (with the pros) and Kyle Baum is doing a good job back there. If I can be in the lineup I'll be happy. That's where you want to be, it doesn't really matter where."
With that kind of leadership, the Auburn Tigers could go a long way in 2003 as they try to get back to Omaha for the first time since 1997.