His baseball team doesn't start the 2004 season until Thursday, and that's good news for Lakeside High School coach Jimmy Smith.
Inclement weather washed out the Panthers' practice last Thursday, and players had more time to kill Friday, when a planned workout at the Lakeside gym was canceled to make room for a science fair.
"Every time we try to get in the gym it seems like there's something going on," Smith said.
The good news for Smith is that his team didn't have to hit the diamond Monday, when most other Georgia prep squads started their slates. That meant the Panthers had a few extra days to get ready for Thursday's season opener at Screven County.
"That's just the way the schedule fell," Smith said Saturday as the Panthers made up for lost time with a weekend practice. "The only problem is we're getting such a late start, with the bad weather and some field work."
The Panthers began 2003 under a dark cloud, literally and figuratively.
Lakeside had lost every position player from the previous season, and then the team was kept off its own diamond after extended rain last March turned Panther Stadium into a quagmire.
Lakeside weathered the storm by posting 20 wins and qualifying for the Class AAAA state playoffs, where the Panthers advanced to the second round.
"We had a pretty good group last year, and we've got a good group coming back," Smith said. "We ought to be able to build on what we had last year."
This season, Smith says the Panthers have good speed and decent power, although he's looking for a better team batting average than the .270 clip of a year ago.
"Last year we stunk at the plate," he said. "This season that's one thing we're spending a lot of time on - swinging the bats. They're getting all the cuts they need out here right now."
Though Lakeside lost pitchers Craig Arrington and Patrick Bagwell to graduation, Jonathan Crawford and southpaw Dustin Tyra are poised to fill the void on the mound. The Panthers also will get pitching help from Carl Burrow and Chris Banker.
Smith should benefit from a mix of experienced leaders and young talent on the team. Seniors Crawford, Tyra, Corey Baxter, Ryan Davis, Patrick Frazier and Richard Flake all will be counted on heavily, and Smith expects sophomore Paul Bordon and freshman Jeff Rowland to make an impact in the outfield and at the plate.
Following the season opener at Screven County, Lakeside makes its home-field debut Friday against North Augusta. The Panthers also play several Atlanta-area opponents in nonregion action, but things get serious when Region 3-AAAA play begins March 30.
Though Lakeside has missed the state playoffs just once in the past decade, at least a half-dozen Region 3-AAAA teams capable of placing in the top four to earn playoff berths this year, so Smith knows there is no margin for error.
"This region is tough," Smith said. "It's going to be real competitive, and we'll have to scrap in every game we play. The playoff race will come down to the last week, without a doubt. We'll struggle to get in there (the top four) and not be left out."
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