Lakeside senior John Arena won't hide the fact that he wasn't happy about how he started the 2007 baseball season.
"At the beginning of the year I was doing horrible," he said. "I think it was a mental thing."
The starting center fielder and leadoff hitter was hovering around the .200 mark in batting average. That won't cut it on a Panthers baseball team annually expected to make the state playoffs.
"After a while, we were actually debating on moving him down the lineup," Lakeside baseball coach Jay Matthews said. "We knew we didn't have to worry about him on defense. With him it's always been a question of offense."
That question was answered during the second half of the season. Facing tougher competition in Region 3B-AAAA play, Arena has almost doubled his batting average to around .380 at the plate and has become one of the most consistent hitters on Lakeside's team.
"I started telling myself before every at-bat to hit the top side of the ball," Arena said. "A lot of people think hitting the top side would send the ball into the dirt, but because of the spin it'll send the ball straight. That gives me a better chance. I just hate hitting fly balls."
The mental adjustment paid off in the form of a highly successful run through the subregion schedule for Lakeside. They swept subregion rival Evans and took one of two games from Statesboro to earn the North's No. 2 seed.
Matthews said Arena's better bat at the top of the lineup and Lakeside's newfound success was no coincidence.
"He's been one of the keys to our turnaround this year," Matthews said. "John's been a leader on and off the field."
Lakeside will mark the beginning of the baseball postseason when the Panthers open the first round of the Region 3-AAAA Tournament on Thursday. Lakeside, the North subregion's No. 2 seed, will face third-seeded Effingham County at home. On paper, the Panthers are the favorite, but Arena said the pressure is still on.
"It always seems like our backs are against the wall," he said. "We came into the season believing we had a really good chance to win the region, but we don't always get the respect we deserve."
Last season, the Panthers played the role of heavy underdog in the first round of the region tournament and upset top-seeded Statesboro in two games. This year, a first-round win wouldn't come as such a huge surprise.
"I think our expectations are higher," Arena said. "It feels good to come in as a second seed and have the home-field advantage."
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