Baseball set to open practice in Top 10

ATHENS – The unprecedented national rankings and the bull's-eye on the back are the least of concerns for Georgia's baseball team, which opened practice on Tuesday.

The real challenge for the Bulldogs, who are coming off the program's fourth appearance in the College World Series, is completely internal, Coach David Perno said.

Georgia has played past the SEC tournament in back-to-back seasons just once, in 2001 and 2002. They followed up the 2002 season by going 29-26 in 2003 and failing even to qualify for the conference tournament. After winning the 1990 national championship, the Bulldogs couldn't even finish with a winning record. The 1987 CWS team went the next two seasons without so much as making an NCAA Tournament appearance.

In short, it's a program badly in need of a little momentum.

"To say this year is big is an understatement," Perno said. "It needs to happen. I'm not saying we have to go back to the World Series, but we need to play good baseball."

Senior Josh Smith, who is moving from third base to shortstop this season, said the goal is to be like perennial SEC powers like South Carolina.

"They put things back-to-back-to-back," he said. "That's the situation we want to put this program in, and that's the direction we're headed."

The Bulldogs are expected to follow through this season. They are ranked No. 8 by ESPN, No. 9 by Collegiate Baseball and No. 10 by Baseball America in the preseason. All those rankings are the highest in school history.

"They deserve it," said Perno, who has yet to sign the new deal the school agreed to give him at the end of last year due to equipment contract issues involving Easton and Nike. "They earned those preseason rankings."

Perno doesn't think his team will be negatively affected by the expectations, he said.

"I don't think any outside media or publication could put more expectations on the guys that they have on themselves," he said. Still, "It'll be fun to see how they respond to this."

Georgia, which returns all but three of the major contributors to last year's team, opens its season on Feb. 18 against Elon.

"It's a big season," pitcher Michael Hyle said. "All the guys on our team know that."

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