Coming off a 31-25 season last year, Auburn is looking for a strong start to 2010. The Tigers will face a SEMO team that was 26-25 overall last season, but has been a solid program for much of the last decade. Pawlowski said at the moment the biggest thing for his team is just getting to the season and facing an opponent for the first time.
"Anytime you get to opening day obviously the kids are anxious to play somebody else," Pawlowski said. "You can only play each other and face each other so many times. You have to continue to get the kids motivated. That comes Friday when Southeast Missouri State is sitting in that other dugout. The guys will be ready to play and certainly anxious."
Opening day couldn't come soon enough for Pawlowski and the Tigers this season as already two projected opening day starters have gone down with injuries as junior center fielder Trent Mummey and sophomore shortstop Casey McElroy are both out to start the season. While Mummey's injured ankle could keep him out until at least the start of the SEC schedule, McElroy's injured finger could be well enough to get him back on the field in just a couple of weeks. In the meantime Pawlowski said his team will just have to step up and take up the slack.
"Unfortunately that's part of the game," Pawlowski said. "You look at guys like Trent Mummey, who means so much to the program and has done a tremendous job. Then you look at Casey McElroy. Those guys are a huge part of what we do. Unfortunately they're not going to be able to play for a little bit so somebody else has to step up. The character of our team will be tested. Somebody else will. I don't know who it's going to be, but for us to be successful somebody will have to step up."
In center field the job is filled as junior college transfer Justin Fradejas will get the call for the Tigers in Mummey's absence. Auburn's fastest player, he should be able to handle things defensively and if he can deliver a consistent stick it would be a huge bonus for the Tigers. At shortstop things are definitely a little more muddied as to what the Tigers will do.
"We feel very good about Justin Fradejas out in center field," Pawlowski said. "Justin has experience at a high level. He can really run. He's probably our fastest player, but there is an adjustment and learning curve to go through. At shortstop we've got three guys, Jordan Neese and Mitchell Self are two freshmen, and we might even try out Justin Bryant (junior college transfer). He's played some shortstop before. We've got a couple of options. I'm not sure how it's going to settle after the weekend, but hopefully we'll have some of the questions answered."
Hunter Morris is back nearly 30 pounds lighter and is one of the top returning players in the country for 2010.
The good news for the Tigers is the return of preseason All-American Hunter Morris at first base, leading hitter Justin Hargett at second base, and the combination of fifth-year senior Ryan Jenkins and junior Tony Caldwell behind the plate. Throw in prolific hitter Brian Fletcher in left field and the offense has a solid core of guys to build around. With sophomore Dan Gamache the likely candidate to start the season at third base you have another player that got some quality experience last season. That leaves junior college transfer Crede Simpson as Auburn's right fielder with junior Kevin Patterson also capable of playing the position.
On the mound the Tigers will start sophomore Jon-Luke Jacobs on Friday, junior Grant Dayton on Saturday and junior college transfer Cole Nelson on Sunday. In addition to the starters Auburn has a wealth of players available out of the bullpen to start the season, something Pawlowski thinks will help his team as it gets into the season.
"I really like Sean Ray and what he did last year down the stretch," Pawlowski said. "He's back along with Bradley Hendrix, Michael Hurst, Austin Hubbard. Then you have a guy out of the bullpen like Stephen Kohlscheen (junior college transfer) and even Justin Bryant. They are two guys I think are going to be important. I also look at Corey Luckie. He didn't pitch for us last year. He's going to see some time. He's going to be a big part of the big picture as we progress through the season."
Game times for the weekend series are 3 p.m. on Friday and Saturday with a 1 p.m. start on Sunday.